ROLL WITH IT
Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans
By MATT SAKAKEENY
Duke University Press Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ONWARD AND UPWARD
EPISODE 1.1: A Funeral Fit for a Duke
Harold "Duke" Dejan was born in New Orleans's historic Tremé neighborhood in 1909, just after the dawn of jazz. His first music lesson was with his neighbor Albert Nicholas, the great clarinetist among the first generation of jazz musicians, and his first job was at the College Inn on Rampart Street, next door to Tom Anderson's saloon, where Nicholas and Louis Armstrong played together. It was the early 1920s, jazz was becoming an international phenomenon, and both Armstrong and Nicholas would leave for Chicago to launch careers as ambassadors of black music to the world. Dejan meanwhile would go on to cultivate a thoroughly local musical ensemble and gain a relative degree of notoriety as the founder of the city's most prominent group in the 1960s and 1970s, Dejan's Olympia Brass Band.
As young men, each of these musicians solidified his status in the community by performing in musical funerals and parades, cultural displays that occupied public space with the sights, sounds, and physical presence of people subject to segregationist laws intended to limit their movements. "I really felt that I was somebody," Armstrong wrote in his autobiography. "When I played with the Tuxedo Brass Band I just felt as proud as though I had been hired by John Philip Sousa or Arthur Pryor."
Over the course of the twentieth century, the brass band parade became recognized not only as a proud communal tradition among black New Orleanians but also as a traveling symbol of their rich heritage for a global audience of admirers. By the end of Dejan's life, in a radically different era defined by the events of September 11, the cultural capital of the brass band tradition had given him a degree of social mobility that, while nothing in comparison to Armstrong's, allowed him to travel the world, be recognized as a local celebrity, purchase his own home, and tool about in a Lincoln Continental with the personalized license plate "Duke D."
A week after he passed away at the age of ninety-three on the Saturday afternoon of July 13, 2002, Harold Dejan was memorialized with a traditional jazz funeral befitting a musician of his age and stature, attended by thousands and accompanied by media coverage from the Times-Picayune newspaper and all the local network television stations. The artist Willie Birch was there, "looking for imagery," as he later put it, and he created a piece in honor of Dejan titled In the Sweet Bye and Bye that graces the cover of this book. The full scope of the prestige accorded to the brass band parade and to Dejan himself is also indicated by my presence at his funeral. At the time, I was a radio producer assigned the task of recording the procession for broadcast on the public radio program American Routes. Alongside the host, Nick Spitzer, I marched with my microphone on a boom pole and my headphones atop my head in what I perceived as another day at the office.
The event begins with Dejan's casket carried out of the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home and placed in a horse-drawn carriage, followed in precise order by those who make up the first line: parade marshals wearing black suits and hats and carrying feathered fans with pictures of Dejan in the center; funeral directors clearing a path for the cortege to pass through ("Open up, please, off to the side, please"); Dejan's pastor; his family; and the Olympia band playing the slow dirge "What a Friend We Have in Jesus."
The first line turns onto Claiborne Avenue, the main thoroughfare cutting through the Tremé neighborhood adjacent to the French Quarter in the Downtown district. The second line of black and white New Orleanians, tourists, reporters, and photographers falls in behind and alongside the mourners. We march beside the concrete decks of Interstate 10 that tower over the street. As vehicles zing by overhead, the procession moves slowly and solemnly for several blocks, the band gradually ratcheting up the tempo with the traditional Baptist spirituals "Bye and Bye" and "I'll Fly Away," each faster than the one before. Thirty musicians march in honor of their former bandleader, wearing the traditional uniform of "black and whites": short-sleeve white work shirt, black pants and shoes, and a visored cap bearing the band's name in gold lettering. The back row of bass drum, snare drum, and tuba provides rhythmic and harmonic consistency, while the trumpets, trombones, clarinets, and saxophones in the front line play the melody and improvise simultaneously, creating a thick contrapuntal texture that has been a hallmark of New Orleans brass band music for over a century.
At first recognition of the melody, we clap along to the beat. Some have brought their own cowbells and tambourines. The rhythm ripples through concentric circles of bodies. More and more sway to the strike of the bass drum in a freestyle choreography of communal motion. I take off my headphones to find that I too am swaying. Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, a respected musical elder performing in the funeral of his former bandleader, leads the crowd in the refrain. In unison we sing:
I'll fly away, oh Glory, I'll fly away When I die, Hallelujah bye and bye, I'll fly away
The cemetery is several miles away, so the funeral organizers decide to "cut the body loose" at the intersection of Claiborne and Esplanade Avenues and then proceed to the cemetery by car. As we near the overpass, the band switches to "Lord, Lord, Lord" at a fast march tempo and the dancers move with more force, undaunted by the heat of the midday summer sun. When we make the turn under massive decks of the interstate, police sirens melt into the soundscape of instruments and singing. The band plays the most recognizable musical phrase in the brass band repertoire, known as the "Joe Avery riff," a four-note trumpet call from the 1950s standard "Joe Avery's Blues." After each statement by the trumpets—"DA-DA-DAAA-DA!"—the crowd punctuates the riff by yelling "HEY!" Call-and-response phrasing, what the musicologist Samuel Floyd calls "the master trope" of black music, highlights the lack of separation between audience and performer. "Joe Avery" is a gesture of inclusion, because if you do not yell "HEY" along with the musicians and everyone else, you are not participating.
The trumpet calls and we respond; "Joe Avery" comes only when the musicians want to intensify their dialogue with the second liners. The participatory nature of the second line multiplies its affective power as first and second lines commingle, the sound emanating from all of us. The brass band organizes the extramusical sounds and accounts for the environmental effects in order to provide sonic structure, continuity, and coherence. The musicians set the pace so that under the overpass, when our bodies are closest together, we share a responsibility to move in sync, to land our feet on the ground when the beat hits or risk disrupting the flow. The earth shakes with the collective thud of feet and bass drums. The music is based on improvisation, intended to produce unrestrained emotions, and yet the formula for this degree of participation is necessarily controlled and even somewhat rigid in its adherence to certain tempos and repertoires and, in a particularly iconic practice, the summoning of a minute musical phrase. Participation is generated by musicians who initiate chants, call-and-response textures, collective improvisations, and polyrhythmic grooves at specific tempos, while the rest of us determine our degree of involvement based on our proximity to the band.
I once asked a photographer how to avoid disrupting the parade while taking pictures; his suggestion was to distance myself from the dancers surrounding the band and roam along the perimeter. "The energy radiates from the center, from the sousaphone," he told me, his metaphor underscoring the fundamental role of the band as the energy that fuels movement. Gerald Platenburg, a second line dancer, described the "bass horn" as "the quarterback of a second line." The desire to take a photo, converse with a friend, or fully participate in the parade poses the problem of where to situate yourself—among those in the first line, in the more sparsely populated area behind them, or along the sidewalks—and the bell of the sousaphone is literally at the center of the decision-making process.
The band plays their final chord, and the merriment continues a cappella for several minutes. When the collective excitement dissipates, the hearse leads the cortege to the burial site and the second line disperses. "There was something special about Mr. Dejan, boy," Willie Birch later recalled of the funeral. "It felt so peaceful, man, it felt so spiritual."
EPISODE 1.2: An Eventful History
In the first years of the twentieth century, when Harold Dejan was born, the New Orleans brass band was not perceived as a tradition of distinction and a career as a brass band musician was not equated with prestige. Up until that time there had been little to differentiate bands in New Orleans from those throughout the United States, initially brought by European militaries and Christian missionaries and then popularized by the bandmasters Patrick Gilmore and John Philip Sousa. In antebellum New Orleans, bands of Europeans and Americans were a routine presence at every major holiday, funeral, or commemoration, and after the Civil War bands made up of people of color became a sizable presence as well. Reports suggest that these ensembles, though ethnically and racially distinct, were otherwise roughly comparable: the musicians all wore Prussian-style military uniforms, marched in closed formations, and performed stock arrangements of the latest marches, European dances, and popular songs. The black bands would not have identified themselves as such, for they were made up predominantly of Creoles with mixed European and African ancestry who were generally musically literate and otherwise fluent in Eurocentric methods, and who adopted names (the Excelsior, the Imperial, the Superior) that captured some of the grandeur previously reserved for the white bands.
Harold Dejan's parents were Creoles who grew up in the Downtown district that included the French Quarter, Marigny, and Tremé neighborhoods, where Italian, Spanish, and especially French were spoken, across from the Uptown district on the other side of Canal Street, where English-speaking Anglo-Protestants and black Americans were concentrated. While Dejan does not appear to have come from a particularly musical family, he grew up around dynasties such as the Barbarins and their patriarch, Isidore Barbarin, a cornetist with the Onward Brass Band and father of four professional brass band musicians (Paul, Louis, Lucien, and William) and grandfather to guitarist Danny Barker, born in the French Quarter in the same year as Dejan.
Between the time when Isidore was indoctrinated into brass bands in the late 1800s and Harold Dejan and Danny Barker first picked up instruments in the 1910s, radical social, political, and musical changes had transformed their lives and livelihoods. In 1892 Homer Plessy, a Creole New Orleanian, was arrested for sitting in the white car of a segregated train, leading to a landmark Supreme Court decision that institutionalized segregation, stripped blacks of their rights, and had the local consequence of legally classifying Creoles and black Americans together. From a strictly musical perspective, the subsequent interactions—sometimes contested—between black American, Creole, and European immigrant musicians caused an efflorescence akin to a chemical reaction brought about by the synthesis of multiple elements: jazz. From a broader perspective, the public performance of social dance music within a hierarchical order that imposed humility and deference was an act of political significance. Dancing to "goodtime music," in the words of the cultural critic Albert Murray, "is the direct opposite of resignation, retreat, or defeat," nowhere more evident than in the jazz funerals and second line parades that literally marched across the segregated spaces of New Orleans.
Funerals and parades led by bands of all races and ethnicities serve the essential function of regulating the movement of crowds, of "keeping together in time" as wind bands have done since Crusaders first encountered Saracen armies seven centuries ago. But as Rob Boonzajer Flaes writes in Brass Unbound: Secret Children of the Colonial Brass Band, community brass bands never lost their association with "the brightly polished expression of a Western sense of beauty and order, the resounding proof of Western military, religious, and cultural superiority." By leading processionals in the same streets where lynchings and race riots occurred, bands made up of black musicians turned this association on its head. The musicologist Thomas Brothers writes in his book Louis Armstrong's New Orleans that the second line parade, as a "public display of African American vernacular culture," was implicitly a "symbolic act of resistance to Jim Crow." As laws and codes sought to segregate public accommodations into black and white spaces, parades defied segregation in their volume and plenitude.
The ways that the music oriented black New Orleanians toward one another connected the black brass band parade of the post-Reconstruction period not only to European-derived marching bands but also to another, entirely different antebellum musical event. Until the 1840s slaves were permitted to congregate and sell goods on Sunday afternoons in Congo Square, a grassy expanse on the perimeter of the French Quarter, where they also sang and danced in the form of a ring shout.
In an essay linking the slave dances in Congo Square to the development of brass band parades, Samuel Floyd locates "all of the defining elements of black music" in the ring shout, including "call-and-response devices; additive rhythms and polyrhythms; ... timbral distortions of various kinds; musical individuality within collectivity; ... and the metronomic foundational pulse that underlies all Afro-American music." The most detailed account of Congo Square, from an 1819 journal entry by the architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe, makes reference to several of these characteristics. The many drummers, whose sound Latrobe compared to "horses trampling on a wooden floor," were likely creating the complex polyrhythms that characterize ritual drumming in West Africa and the Americas. While one group of women was "respond[ing] to the Song of their leader" in call-and-response fashion, others were "walk[ing], by way of dancing, round the music in the Center," creating what Floyd would recognize as "an activity in which music and dance commingled, merged, and fused to become a single distinctive cultural ritual." The historian Michael Gomez writes that the ring shout helped to strengthen communication among slaves, "[bringing] them together, transcending cultural barriers and hastening the creation of a pan-African cultural mix with numerous points of intersection."
In historical relation to the black brass band parades of freemen and their descendants, the ring shout is the foundational ritual of community recognition and value through participatory music making in what the historian Gwendolyn Midlo Hall refers to as "the most African city in the United States." It would be crude and essentialist to draw a direct link from the music at Harold Dejan's jazz funeral back to ring shout dances at Congo Square, and it would be equally problematic to ignore the ongoing persistence and dynamic vitality of outdoor festival traditions among black New Orleanians subject to varying forms of bondage. In the time of Jim Crow rule, Isidore Barbarin witnessed Joe "King" Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and other jazz musicians transform the brass band through improvisation, syncopation, and the addition of repertoire including ragtime, blues, and spirituals; Harold Dejan updated the Olympia with rhythm and blues music that was the soundtrack of the civil rights movement; and the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth brass bands brought the music into dialogue with funk and hip-hop as the hopes attached to the movement receded in the last quarter of the twentieth century. These musicians and their contemporaries maintained the participatory, inclusive character of brass band music not through preservation but through recalibration, retuning tradition to be consonant with the experiences of younger generations.
Dejan was an agent in mobilizing musical traditions, racial identities, and social locations from the Jazz Age up through the birth of the hip-hop generation. He was partly responsible for the prestige that the New Orleans brass band accumulated over the course of his lifetime. In turn, his own status as a cultural practitioner was enhanced both in terms of economic capital and what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu identified as symbolic capital, such as cultural capital and social capital, which bestows status on individuals within a group. This broad understanding of value as the accrual of material and immaterial wealth, accumulating like puddles of water on uneven pavement, reappears throughout this book in stories of the haves, the have-nots, and the in-betweens. The noble Duke's jazz funeral, like his flashy yet respectable Lincoln Continental, was a sign of individual and collective wealth: a memorial for a prominent community member honored with a spectacular funeral procession and a reaffirmation of a tradition that was now known around the globe. A durable tradition, the brass band is by no means static; it has been continually redirected by powerful innovators who have deployed specific yet adaptable musical practices in public events situated within shifting political infrastructures. Along the way, musicians have enhanced the prestige of the brass band tradition and the music, in turn, has bestowed social and economic capital upon them.
Excerpted from ROLL WITH IT by MATT SAKAKEENY. Copyright © 2013 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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