50 Years of Jazz Fest: Second-Line Celebrations

Karen Celestan on April 18, 2019
50 Years of Jazz Fest: Second-Line Celebrations

photo by Eric Waters

Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs deliver African-retentive culture almost every weekend in New Orleans.

This article is part of our 50 Years of Jazz Fest celebration and appears in the special Collector’s Edition April/May 2019 issue of Relix. Subscribe here using code NOLA50 and get 20% off.

If you make regular treks to New Orleans, then you have probably crossed paths with a second-line parade. Black people in matching colorful outfits dancing in the street to the dense polyrhythms of a brass band might roll by like a cultural tsunami, capturing every nearby body in its pulsating surge. You might wonder if you can join in the joyful celebration. Yes, you can, but it’s important to understand what is unfolding and why it is happening.

Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (SAPCs) that deliver annual second-line parades are an African-American cultural tradition that take place only in the Crescent City. Each second line is an organized event that takes months of planning by 40-50 individual clubs, several of which have been in existence since the late 1800s. There is a second-line season that runs from late August through June of the following year, with most Saturdays and Sundays locked in for specific organizations to hold their afternoon parades. It should be noted that Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs should not be confused with Mardi Gras Indians and their spectacles, which are different cultural aspects of a city overflowing with distinctive Black traditions.

Barbara Lacen Keller, founder of the Lady Money Wasters SAPC and member of the Lady Jolly Bunch, says that a second line is “a strong network with a strong bond” that is “self-sufficient.”

“A second-line parade is a party that moves and, with every move, it picks up people along the way,” Keller says. “The rhythm, the movement, the flavor…it mesmerizes me.”

Here are some critical facts about this energetic and spirit-affirming Crescent City custom:

1. A public parade organized by a Social Aid and Pleasure Club or SAPC is a second line. It is a scheduled event that each club holds around the same time every year. (Example: The Divine Ladies SAPC hold their second line in May on Mother’s Day.)

2. The second line refers to those who are not SAPC members but surround the club’s parade and participate in cultural and music practices that are often specific to the event and the part of town where the parade occurs.

3. Individuals who comprise the second line are part of a unique body—family members, club supporters and the public—and are referred to as second-liners.

4. SAPC members and brass-band musicians make up the “first line,” but that is a formal term rarely used within the community.

5. When SAPC members and second-liners are engaged in a second line, it is a dedicated and specialized action referring to a dance and movement that is indigenous to New Orleans. (Example 1: If you go to a second line for the Uptown Swingers, then get ready to second-line your ass off! Example 2: He was exhausted after second-lining for nearly three miles.)

Second lines are simultaneously joyous commemorations of life, emotional releases and devotions to ancestors. Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are organizations with multiple purposes. The groups are an exclusive community to its members (social), assist members who are sick or who have died (aid), plus have scheduled gatherings and the pageantry of an annual parade (pleasure). Members pay dues, decide on a theme and parade route, organize their suits and accessories, book their favorite brass bands and make sure the required (and over-priced) city permits and police details are in order. A club prays that New Orleans’ tropical weather will cooperate and, when all goes well, will hit the street in euphoria. Clubs may shroud themselves in secrecy—membership is by invitation only—to avoid being co-opted or subject to cultural appropriation by people of other races, but are open enough to welcome one and all to an afternoon of performance art. The parades are precise, yet intuitive—an opportunity to see the African diaspora on display.

This rite is born out of searing generational pain, as New Orleans was one the largest slave ports in America, and the majority of its Black citizens are of African descent. Millions of men, women and children were captured and taken from the west coast of Africa and became cargo to fuel the transatlantic slave trade. They were brought directly to New Orleans, primarily from the Senegambia region, the Bight of Benin, Sierra Leone (the Kissy), the Windward Coast (the Canga), the Gold Coast and Mozambique, then sold on auction blocks on the riverfront where the famed French Quarter now stands. Tribes from which the enslaved were drawn include the Adó, Bambara, Caraba, Chamba, Fin, Fulbe, Ibo, Kongo Angola, Mandinga (also known as Mandinka), Mina, Moko, Nard, Wolof and Yoruba (Nago).

In 1724, Africans in New Orleans lived under Code Noir (French rule) and were only permitted one “free” day—Sunday afternoons—when they did not have to work on plantations or the riverfront. The enslaved gathered in various locations where they spoke and sang in their home languages, engaged in courtship and tribal dance rituals, and set up a marketplace to sell their wares. African descendants were restricted by city ordinance by 1780 to a space on the edge of the French Quarter known as “back of town.” This area was sacred, where African traditions were secured and passed down through generations. It became known as Congo Square, which exists today as part of Louis Armstrong Park on Rampart Street in the Tremé neighborhood. Tremé is the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States and is the place where jazz was born. Congo Square is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

It is from this blood- and tear-stained history that the second line emerged. Benevolent societies were created to support sick African-Americans and bury the dead. About 226 organizations were registered between 1870 and 1890 in New Orleans as an intra-racial form of social security and to continue a sense of identity. These clubs created what is now known as the “jazz funeral.” African-American tradition stands in the power of its ancestry and the spirit world. This belief was shaped by the experience that life is difficult—hell on earth during slavery and beyond—for those of African descent, and death is a release back to God and the ancestors.

“God controls all the paths,” says Oliver ‘Squirk’ Hunter, who second-lines at jazz funerals and SAPC parades with a series of acrobatic leaps and moves that have given him near-celebrity status in the Black community in New Orleans. “Take all that away for a moment—that [sad] hour or whatever it is, [the] music takes that away. Lift that spirit. Lift that soul.”

A second line is a culmination of all of those elements—birth, the harshness of living, the beauty of nature, an appreciation of the senses, the vibrations of color and music and the comfort of community. Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are dedicated to their cultural connection. Each organization elects officers, sets bylaws, pays membership dues to cover event and parade expenses and participates in at least one community service project every year. Many SAPCs are a family affair with men, women and children involved, and more than one generation is often represented in the second line.

The clubs then hit the street on their designated day. The Black Men of Labor started holding their parade on Labor Day weekend to pay homage to Africa and to slay the myth that African-American men didn’t support their families by making an honest living. BMOL members import fabric in various African motifs to create their suits each year. The Tremé Sidewalk Steppers deliver fancy footwork in distinct tribal rhythms. The Original Lady Buckjumpers are dedicated to mixing rhythm and blues sounds with the drumbeats of African tribes. The Sudan is known for elaborate accessories and vibrant colors that harken back to African tribal celebrations. If you are in New Orleans in April, then you can catch parades with the Single Ladies, Old & Nu Style Fellas, the Pigeon Town Steppers, the Original Big 7 and several other clubs. The spring festival season means that you will see a host of SAPC events and parades all over the city.

Second line at Jazz Fest 2018

Brass-band musicians are the heartbeat of a second-line parade. The music is a blend of West African beats anchored by the djembe (drum), jazz riffs and R&B/soul hits. Second-line parade music must be live and improvisational. New Orleans musicians who are members of popular brass bands, including the Hot 8, Rebirth, Tremé and the Pinettes (an all-female brass band) are proud of their involvement in SAPC second lines. Nearly all say that their participation in parades have contributed to their musical expertise. They are committed to creating a familiar but different vibe for every parade. Even if a band plays for the same SAPC from year to year, the repertoire is expected to fit the mood of the day and meet the needs of the assembled.

Gregory Davis, lead trumpeter for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, talks about melding sounds from Duke Ellington, James Brown, the Ohio Players and John Coltrane with Latin rumba, 1-4-5 blues changes, and traditional New Orleans music such as “Bourbon Street Parade” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

“We figured out harmonies and made it fit within the foundation [and] fundamentals of traditional New Orleans music because that, in itself, has a real meaning,” Davis says. “It’s not like you put on a record, then dance or whatever. We were playing music, and [SAPCs] were dancing to it live. That is an amazing sight to see.”

Dr. Michael White, a respected college educator and clarinet player in the traditional jazz idiom, describes playing for second-line parades in a “characteristic swinging medium up-tempo” that is perfect for the occasion. He says that brass bands perform what is “largely Black music played by and for Black people” that is completely removed from tourism and the French Quarter, and is in an “authentic traditional Jazz style that [is] accepted and danced to by countless thousands…from the oldest of the old to the hippest of the hip.

“The parades [are] the ultimate expression of living community folk culture and a model of democratic culture,” Dr. Whites says. “The exciting brass-band music was an expression of the lives and spirit of the people…accompanied by the loose, creative second-lining of Social Club members and the hundreds of anonymous people who followed alongside.”

The public is welcome to immerse themselves in a true African-American ceremony, but respect is paramount. Understand that the SAPC and the brass band are similar to the standing of a bride and groom at a wedding. No one jumps into the aisle during the marriage ceremony, and it is the same at a second line. Everyone who’s not in the club or band is secondary and should remain on the periphery or on the sidewalk during a parade. It is there that one can enjoy the music, pick up the motion and go with the crowd. It is there where one can experience the “sweet spot” of emotion—a full-out, no-holds-barred, connective network of humanity.

There are not any dedicated “steps” to follow when you are second-lining. It is pure, impromptu movement—dipping and swaying, heel-toe tapping, arms flailing, booty-shaking, hip-locking, shimmy-shaking-bop—that takes drum strikes and horn blares and delivers an on-the-spot motion that won’t be imitated or recreated. A second-liner may absorb a groove and take off on a dance riff that will part a crowd in order to give him or her space to express their feeling and creativity. When combined with the club’s motion, it creates unforgettable scenarios that will be talked about for weeks afterward. Participating involves some level of parade etiquette and spatial awareness to avoid breaking the flow of a more experienced second-liner, or worse, getting too close to the band where you may be struck by a trombone slide or the bell of a tuba. This is the beauty, energy and purity of organized chaos that is a second line.

Come to New Orleans. SAPC members and second-liners will welcome you because the parade is designed for everyone to enjoy. If it’s your first time, then just grab a beer, buy a sandwich or snack from a local merchant and watch it go by. If you decide to jump into the fray, then let yourself catch the vibe and dance until your body is depleted but your spirit is revitalized. Wipe the sweat from your brow, breathe deeply, sip from a cool bottle of water and smile, appreciative that you have just participated in an incomparable observance that can only be found in New Orleans.

Karen Celestan is the author of Freedom’s Dance: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs in New Orleans with noted photographer Eric Waters [LSU Press, February 2018]. She is an executive writer and editor in University Advancement and an adjunct professor of English at Texas Southern University in Houston.

This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.