© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Strutting and jumping and high-stepping underneath their decorated parasols, blowing whistles and waving feathered fans, the African-American members of New Orleans’ social aid and pleasure clubs are the organizers, originators, and sponsors of the second line parades for which the city is famous. The brass band that follows the parade’s grand marshal and club members, who are always dressed in coordinated suits and classy hats, blast out exuberant rhythms to propel everyone’s high-spirited march through the streets. The club and brass band are known as the first line, and the audience that forms behind the parade to join in the festivities is the second, hence the term second line parade.
African-American social aid and pleasure clubs aren't just about parading, however. They grew out of organizations of the mid to late 1800s called benevolent societies, which many different ethnic groups in New Orleans formed. Serving a purpose that today has largely been supplanted by insurance companies, benevolent societies would help dues-paying members defray health care costs, funeral expenses, and financial hardships. They also fostered a sense of unity in the community, performed charitable works, and hosted social events. Benevolent societies always had strong support in the African-American population, and some scholars trace the roots of the African-American societies back to initiation associations of West African cultures from where the majority of New Orleans blacks originally came.
For the burial of a member, African-American benevolent associations would often hire bands to play somber, processional music on the way from the church to the cemetery. On the way back, the music would become upbeat and joyous with mourners now celebrating the deceased’s life; tears about the person who had passed gave way to gratitude that the person had even been blessed to exist. The brass bands that played in these processions, known as “jazz funerals,” mixed military marching music with African rhythms.
In modern times, social aid and pleasure clubs no longer serve all the former functions of benevolent societies, but they do continue to unify communities and neighborhoods and are source of cultural pride among African-Americans. Club dues normally cost hundreds of dollars a year along with additional expenses for the sharp suits, shoes, and general finery that members wear.
Before Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans African-American social aid and pleasure clubs numbered in the forties, and a different club “rolled” just about every Sunday except during the summer. While the parades were rarely advertised or well publicized, second line devotees would know the time and location of the route. Social aid and pleasure clubs are now struggling, but some are still parading. Those who love the tradition come out and bring a handkerchief to wipe away tears and to wave aloft.
In New Orleans, about 40 such clubs hold "second line" parades on Sundays from August to May. A second line parade is led by the club captain and members, followed by the grand marshal and the brass band. Everyone who joins the spontaneous dancing behind the band is in the second line, hence the name.
"I try to make 'em all," says Richard Martin of the Young Men's Olympian Junior Benevolent Society, "I just like good second-line music, At the end of the day,we used to empty all our pockets just to keep the band around for a few more hours."
A brass band led by an umbrella-toting grand marshal is a quintessential symbol of life in New Orleans. It's meant to convey the flamboyant and funky spirit New Orleanians can muster for the most common or uncommon of occasions. Less well known is the history of the organizations that developed and carried on the legacy.
During the days of Jim Crow and segregation, insurance companies wouldn't sell policies to African-Americans. To take care of their families and communities, African-Americans banded together in benevolent societies that paid for doctors and provided funerals for deceased members. The original benevolent societies maintained their own cemetery plots. The Young Men's Olympians still hold a large plot in St. Joseph's Cemetery.
The Olympians will celebrate their 130th anniversary at its annual parade this September/2014. While the group has joined the second-line trend and wears elaborate outfits, their funeral marches adhere to the old customs. They wear black and white and observe solemnity during the first half of the procession. "You don't play jazz 'til the body is in the ground," Martin says. "It's different from the second line because that is when you get funky." The ubiquitous tune "When the Saints Go Marching In" is a traditional hymn played by brass bands in what came to be known as jazz funerals.
Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs provide members with jazz funerals but don’t own cemetery plots. Walter “Twiggy” Taylor is the President of the Scene Boosters Social Aid and Pleasure Club, founded in 1973. Several years ago, his uncle received a full Jazz funeral from the Boosters. “We sent him out in style - the way he lived,” Taylor said. “It’s his last go-around. So in the neighborhood where he was well-known we took the body out of the hearse and walked the casket. If there was somewhere he hung out a lot we put the casket on the porch.”
For the annual parades, clubs work all year to raise money and design new outfits. The Scene Boosters started the trend towards identical outfits. Matching clothes from head to toe. Members also wear sashes, dangling corsages and hats and carry elaborately decorated fans and umbrellas.
“We compete against ourselves - to do better than we did last year,” Taylor said. “When we hit the street, our work speaks for itself. We don’t have to say anything.”
Here are two video montages that may help provide the look and feel of New Orleans on parade.
The first features the photography of William Claxton set to Cry Me A River as performed by the Eric Alexander-David Hazeltine Quartet with Dwayne Burno on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums. [Click on the "X" to close out of the ads.]
The second video montage contains many of the posters used at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and features bassist Ark Ovrutski’s quintet performing his original composition New Orleans with Michael Dease, trombone, Michael Thomas, soprano saxophone, David Berkman, piano and Ulysses Owens, drums.