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Meet Me at the Second Line: The Black Men of Labor Talk Tradition

The 2012-2013 social aid and pleasure club parade season, which runs from the last Sunday in August to mid-June, has begun. The time seemed right to sit down with the founding members of the Black Men of Labor organization — Fred Johnson, Gregg Stafford and Benny Jones, Sr. — to talk about its parade and purpose as well as second line and brass band traditions in general.

The Black Men of Labor was established following the March 1994 death of legendary guitarist/banjoist/vocalist/author Danny Barker.

Black Men of Labor, photo Kim Welsh

The Black Men of Labor prepare to second line. Photo, Kim Welsh.

The musician, who began the noted Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band, told his wife (vocalist Blue Lu Barker) that he didn’t want a jazz funeral, expressing his displeasure with how disrespectful to the tradition they had become. Blue Lu declared she’d respect her husband’s wishes but did agree to meet with a group of pople eager to change her mind. Fred Johnson recalls the night: “Well, Gregg stood up and said, ‘Miss Lu, I’ll make certain that the band will come in black and white [attire].’ And I stood up on the other side of the room and said, ‘Miss Lu, I’ll make certain that we put 15 men in suits and ties to marshal the funeral.’

When we did that, the music was so powerful, and the procession was so powerful that when we came out of the cemetery the guys said, ‘We have to do this again.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but not with any body.’” On the Sunday before Labor Day in 1994, the Black Men of Labor rolled for the first time. It has continued the tradition of parading during the holiday weekend — with a few interruptions — for the last 18 years. We were surprised to learn that the BMOL moved the date of its 19th anniversary parade to October 20, 2012.

Fred: We were fortunate to get the date moved. After a series of [instances of] getting canceled by the weather, it had been getting a little unmanageable. So we thought that if we backed it up to October that would give the weather a chance to cool, and that lessens the threat of tropical storms and hurricanes. It’s very draining to get your adrenaline up and do all of this work only to have the weather shift at the last minute. It just was getting to be overly stressful. A parade is a lot of work. It’s a lot of moving parts. The real issue is everybody has a heavy schedule — musicians, business people — and they work by calendar.

I know that the Black Men of Labor originally held its parade during the Labor Day weekend in part to remember the parades presented by the Longshoremen. Will it lose that part of its identity?

Fred: The identity will remain the same. The people who make up the parade are still working men, and we are still paying homage to the black men who work. That’s where the name came from.

The theme for the parade is always to keep the traditional music on the streets. No matter what we do, the theme of the parade is always going to be based on the musicians wearing black and white and playing traditional brass band music. To shift it to October also gives the club members the opportunity to wear a different season of clothes.

Do you think the BMOL has been influential in keeping the tradition alive?

Gregg: I think we’ve been quite influential, not only with the young musicians but even with some of the second liners. In the beginning stages, it was hard for them to even try to dance to the music. Now, we’ve won them over. We don’t have the foolishness that goes on at some of the other parades. The second liners have been very respectful. Out of Benny’s, Fred’s, Sunpie’s [Bruce Barnes] and Uncle Lionel’s working efforts in training younger kids, you can see their development. Some have gone on to take on other jobs as well.

The Black Men of Labor’s parade usually presents a band made up of members of the Treme Brass Band augmented with some younger musicians. Will that continue?

Fred: Primarily. That’s the foundation. We’re always going to gravitate to the band that’s playing the most traditional brass band music and that is willing to play a street parade. We have some bands that are playing traditional music but don’t do street parades. We’re never going to settle for less.
Before we settle for less, we’ll just zero out.

Who are some of the brass bans or musicians that you’ve taken under your wings?

Benny: I don’t remember all of their names but there is [trumpeter] John Michael [Bradford] and [folk artist] Ashton Ramsey’s two grandsons. We started back playing with the kids at the Jazz National Historical Park. We have some new kids, and they’re learning the music. Last week, we had two trumpet players, and they are really developing. We’ll have them working on the parade this year, too. So we’ll have new kids joining.

Do any of these bands get hired to play other social aid and pleasure club anniversary parades?

Benny: I don’t know about parades, but they’ve been working at clubs out there on Frenchmen Street and a couple little private gigs — wedding receptions and parties and things. Besides playing with us, they’re doing their own things on the side.

Fred: In all of the kids that we teach regarding brass band music, we always try to instill in them that if you want to be good at this music, you have to get the foundation of this music. That doesn’t mean that you’re not going to opt to play with other bands who are taking the music fast. We understand as a young person, you’re going to flirt with that. What we try to instill is that anything of substance has to have a foundation. There are certain standard institutions that are in place that are core to brass band music. The core has to do with the men and women who came before us over the last 100 years. In order to know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve come from. You have to put this music out in a quality manner and a respectful manner.

The dilemma that we are faced with in every aspect of the culture — whether it is the Mardi Gras Indians, whether it’s the second line clubs or the brass bands — is that there is this urgency to go new. In the process of trying to satisfy that urgency, we are constantly losing the very substance of that from which we come. We try to educate kids holistically: Here is the foundation; here is where it comes from. We try to catch these kids at a very early age before they get exposed or brought to the other side that what’s not okay is to jump over the history and the origins.

Not to diminish the young musicians who are playing gigs at clubs and private functions, but how important is it for them to do street parades?

Gregg: To piggyback on what Fred just said, he was giving a total testimony of what Danny Barker was about. In the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band, he was instilling in us that if you don’t educate people and give them a reason for keeping the music going, somebody might change the history and say, ‘Well, black people didn’t create this music.’ It’s important for kids to learn the music, play the music and find out that there’s a chance for them to make a substantial livelihood in the music.

In relation to our existence as Black Men of Labor, if the musicians continue to play the music that we want them to play, it allows for future generations to be able to hear the music and for younger generations behind them to take an interest in the music. Like they say, ‘What is out of sight is out of mind.’ As long as the music is on the street, there is an opportunity for it to be heard.

Benny: Many of the older musicians are dying, so we need the younger people today to play the traditional music. A bunch of the older people don’t walk the parade; they don’t play the street parades. A lot of professional musicians that we used to have on the streets are traveling — playing clubs, festivals, conventions. We need some young people to step up to the plate. We need some young musicians to fall in the area of music like that of the Olympia Brass Band.

Fred: In addition to parading, I have had the experience of masking Indian [previously with the Yellow Pocahontas]. What I come [sic] away with from that experience is that when you perform on the street in the form of a Mardi Gras Indian, in the form of a brass band musician, or in the form of a second line person that is in a division, you have a certain kind of growth and a certain kind of maturity that you can’t get playing in a bar; you can’t get in a concert hall; you can’t get playing in some special quaint venue. Because on the street, you have a multitude of attitudes; you have a multitude of disciplines; you have a multitude lacking of discipline. You have rich people, poor people, black people, white people, Chinese people. So, you’ve got this multi-racial, multi-cultural audience that you’re playing to. You’ve got people who are ruly [sic] and people who are unruly. For you to step into this venue known as the street, it is a certain kind of baptism that you can’t get any place else. It gives you a certain edge. It’s like going from a boy to a man. So you don’t have any intimidation about getting on the street or engaging people, and in a lot of cases you’re not easily misled. I thought I heard that Louis Armstrong said that there is no more powerful experience than to go on the streets of New Orleans and perform in a brass band.

Gregg: The brass band was the breeding ground for jazz music. All of the great jazz musicians that came through New Orleans, most of them played brass band music. You can go back to Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet. All of those instrumentalists, they played in brass bands all the way up to this stage. It is one of the most significant aspects of the history of the music. The same spirit that Fred was talking about, you encompass all that when you’re playing on the street. So, when you play at a nightclub, you have all that feeling. All those emotions are coming through your horns. Teddy Riley, Percy Humphrey — when they hit the stage and were playing cabarets and dances, all the energy was coming out of their brass band experiences.

Fred: You can’t be soulful in your art if you haven’t been baptized on the street. For young people, it’s gargantuan in their growth and development.

With all of this serious talk, I’d like to remind people how much fun you have. Benny, as a member of the Black Men of Labor, you don’t play in the Treme Brass Band at the parade, you second line with organization.

Benny: I’ve been involved with the social aid and pleasure clubs since 1960. I paraded with the 6th Ward Diamonds, the 6th Ward Highsteppers, the Money Wasters, and then I joined the Black Men of Labor. I always did love to dance. It’s been part of my life. That’s one thing I can’t get rid of. I might get rid of my girlfriend, but I can’t get rid of that. [Burst of laughter all around.]

Gregg: Well you’ve seen me on the streets. I usually emulate the old dancers that I enjoyed watching. So when you see me cutting up, it’s coming from the old school of second lining. Today, the second liners are taking it to another level because the music is much faster. They create their own type of dancing. I kind of enjoy watching some of the young second liners with some of the steps they do.

Fred: There is nothing more thrilling than putting the division on the street and the band on the street in the proper order. When you say “fun,” what fun is to me is when that division is on the ground and the men know where they’re at, what they’re doing and — much more than that — how to do it.

Benny: I think we’ll pull a big old crowd out there this year.

For the last 26 years, Fred Johnson, the president and spokesman of the Black Men of Labor, has been the executive director of the New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation. Benny Jones, Sr. is the leader and snare drummer of the Treme Brass Band. Gregg Stafford, who worked as a school teacher for 23 years, blows trumpet as the leader of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and the Jazz Hounds — a group formerly led by Danny Barker.