When the second line season ends in June each year, enthusiasts of the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs’ annual anniversary parades often find Sunday afternoons a bit empty. So it is with much eagerness that the members of the organizations, the brass band musicians who bring on the street beat and the parade followers greet the arrival of the beginning of a brand new season. As has long been a tradition, the Valley of Silent Men Social Aid & Pleasure Club maintained its position as being first up on the second line schedule, parading on Sunday, August 27 in celebration of its 32nd anniversary.
As much as these parades have changed through the decades, many aspects have remained the same. An early fan once said he could still hear the power and the tonal qualities of old-time ensembles like the Eureka and Tuxedo brass bands in the horns of the present crop of musicians who now rule the streets. “Just the shoes are different,” he said, laughing on looking at the street scene. The parades, which originally were all-day affairs, are now just four hours long and the “season” that once ended by Christmas presently extends past Father’s Day. The police had been known to raise holy hell blowing their sirens and inching up behind the last second liners to push them along. Now, since Big Chief Tootie Montana demanded in the City Council Chambers, “This has got to stop!” in reference to similar treatment of the Mardi Gras Indians, the NOPD does its job of protecting and serving the “lines.”
A common phrase used by the brass bands when talking about the evolution of those who play the parades is “we came up under.” The Rebirth, which did its first second line for the Sixth Ward High Rollers in 1984, is often mentioned as being influential to all including those participating in this upcoming 2017–2018 season. The Grammy-winning Rebirth, who shared the streets with the likes of the Dirty Dozen, Chosen Few, Olympia and Soul Rebels brass bands, has now, like those groups, retired from playing the social aid and pleasure club parades—an end of an era and the passing of the torch.
Last year, several names of brass bands working the second lines kept popping up. The Hot 8, which now could be considered one of the elder groups on the streets, as well as the well-established Stooges, was naturally in that number. However others appear to be increasingly getting the calls.
“I lost track after five,” says Travis Carter—the leader and tuba player of Da Truth Brass Band—of how many lines the group played last year. Da Truth, which was established in June 2004, is enjoying a second coming after dispersing following Katrina and finally being put back together by Carter in 2013. The members of the nine-piece ensemble range in age from their early twenties to their thirties.
“Oh yeah, I look forward to the new season,” Carter declares. “We have a fresh new sound; we have new members and new music. It’s going to be fun. Every Monday and Thursday we practice new original songs and a few new cover tunes that we’re doing. Yeah we’re preparing for what’s to come. We’re noted for our big sound and we play hard. For the four hours we’re out there on a second line, from the beginning to the end we’re pushing. We’re giving 100 watts.
Da Truth will again be in the last, fifth division of the Young Men Olympian Benevolent Association’s parade. The granddaddy of the clubs celebrates its 133rd anniversary on Sunday September 24, 2017.
“Being in the back we can control our pace—we don’t have to rush,” Carter explains. “We can take our time and it allows the club and the people in the second line to dance. It gets wild in a good way, oh yeah.”
Through the years, the bands playing for the YMO’s last divisions have been known to challenge each other musically. Memorably, the Rebirth and New Birth would go at it and also try to hilariously play some hijinks on each other.
“We have our rivals,” Carter offers with a laugh. “Usually it’s To Be Continued (TBC). That was our rival band comin’ up. Outside of the music, we’re all good friends. But when it comes down to the music, you know, yeah.”
“My favorite part—just is being out there and enjoying myself and being free,” he says of participating in the lines. “I can go out there and let all my frustrations out on my instrument and play through the music and make everybody happy.”
“I came up under the Hot 8 and the Stooges,” he continues. “That’s who we based our band upon—those guys, their music. Each decade you have maybe three new brass bands—one falls off, two remain. Now it’s like a new band is born all of the time.”
The To Be Continued Brass Band, another second line regular, perhaps remains most memorable for its years blowing people away performing at the corner of Canal and Bourbon streets where it built its reputation for its powerful blasts. Formed in 2002 by students from Carver and Kennedy high schools, these veterans of the streets will be blowing at both the Young Men Olympian’s “mini,” two-hour parade on September 10 and at the YMO’s spectacular, full-blown event on September 24. “We had a few battles with the Stooges at those [second lines],” remembers 31-year-old Sean Michael “Trumpet Slim” Roberts, who joined TBC soon after its formation. “I’ve spent almost half my life with TBC.”
“Nine Times, that was my first parade and I’m from the Ninth Ward and it passes right by my house. Yeah, keep it ‘hood,’” declares the trumpeter and Carver graduate. Last year’s November second line originated at his high school alma mater.
It’s difficult to mistake the 10-piece, 7 horn–filled TBC, which also rolled last year with the Dumaine Street Gang, Sudan and Revolution clubs, as it makes such a joyful, overwhelming noise. Roberts, as one of the spokesmen for the democratically inclined band—“everybody has a vote”—points out that brass bands tend to play the music of their era while keeping the New Orleans funk in it. The TBC, he says, enjoys mixing up familiar melodies like “Land of a Thousand Dances” with their original material. The band, which has recorded and been the subject of a documentary, relies heavily on chanting and getting the crowd involved with call-and-response.
“What I like about the second lines is just playing the music and people dancing—everybody’s on the same accord. Usually when the crowd knows the song they get more in it. Once you play ‘Let’s Go Get ‘Em’ everybody goes crazy.”
The Free Spirit Brass Band is one of the newer ensembles to hit the streets. Formed and led by bass drummer Jerel Brown, the group played its first social aid and pleasure club parade just five years ago, providing the beat for the Nine Times. Free Spirit, which performs regularly in Jackson Square, boosted its street creds in the 2016–2017 season by again working with Nine Times plus the Sudan and Extraordinary Gentlemen and Ladies clubs.
Brown remembers watching the second lines when he was about five or six years old and observing the excitement of the crowd and hearing the energy of the music. At one time, he also paraded as a member of the Sportman’s Hard Hitters club. “I like the camaraderie and that they [club members] put their money out just to have fun,” Brown says. “It’s part of my culture and it’s truly fun and I love it to death. I was born and raised off it. As long as it’s there I’m satisfied.”
“When I was younger, I really didn’t understand it as much,” remembers Free Spirit trombonist Robert Walker. “I just wanted to have fun with me and my cousins. But now being a part of it as a professional musician and knowing every musician who is playing on the second lines, it’s a different experience from when I was younger.”
Unlike many brass bands whose members often hooked up during high school or through neighborhood connections, the Free Spirit guys, of ages presently ranging from their early twenties to their mid-thirties, initially met when blowing on the street—Frenchmen and/or Canal and Bourbon. Most call Downtown their home, some Uptown. Two members of Free Spirit also represent a next generation of New Orleans brass band musicians—snare drummer Eric Chapman is the son of Hot 8 trombonist Tyrus Chapman and trumpeter Revert Andrews is the son of trombonist Revert “Peanut” Andrews.
Walker, who also leads his own group, the Street Legends, credits TBC and its late trombonist Brandon Franklin for inspiring him to pick up the trombone professionally. “I learned a lot from just listening to those guys,” Walker extols. “They taught a lot of musicians.”
Passing it on and coming up under remain the constant heartbeats of New Orleans music. In my 2015 interview with Hot 8 Brass Band founder, leader and tuba player Bennie Pete explained the process simply. “The TBC, they do all our numbers, Da Truth Brass Band do a lot of our songs—all the younger bands. It’s alright, because the guys need to start somewhere like we did. We did that with Rebirth. We had to learn all the Rebirth numbers because they were the most popular numbers on the street.”
Folk artist Ashton Ramsey once said, “The best second line is every second line because they happen.” The dedication to the tradition of the social aid and pleasure clubs and the brass bands ensures that they do.