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  • Jon Sheckler

The Missing Link Part I: Social Aid Clubs and Second Lines

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Lionel Batiste isn’t a name that will turn heads. He will likely be left out of jazz history books. But, his influence can be found amongst countless musicians. In the tree of New Orleans musicians, Uncle Lionel is the trunk. Kermit Ruffins, one of the more famous branches, called Batiste his “total influence”. There was an uproar when his bass drum, handmade for the Treme Brass band, was stolen. Nationally, there wasn’t a single story as New Orleans citizens began a manhunt for the thief.

After his death, the Treme neighborhood celebrated his life for almost a week. Despite the lack of historical or national attention, the city knew of his importance even if the majority of musicians didn’t. For seventy years, Uncle Lionel played bass drum for the Treme Brass band, which he also co-led. Lionel felt a deep sense of responsibility to mentor and teach the younger musicians. His very example as a lesson for aspiring musicians. Shannon Powell told an interviewer that “I learned how to relax and keep good time” from Lionel. “He taught me hot to act, how to dress, how to feel about life,” Ruffins said.

Lionel Batiste at work.

Uncle Lionel was apart of a long line of brass band leaders in New Orleans who became a greater part of the community. He became a walking example by simply being the bedrock of a brass band.

Second line parades are ubiquitous with New Orleans. They are one of the most well known parts of the city’s culture. But, like most things in New Orleans, the publicly traded information only skims the surface and there elements are added to the procession through general assumption that may not be indicative of the parade itself.

In most jazz history courses, the term “second line” is defined by jazz funerals. Generally, the first line is formed by the deceased, the family and friends, and the band while the second line is the joiners who dance and celebrate the deceased after the body is laid to rest. Another definition is the that first line is the walk to the grave site and the second line is the walk/dance/parade back. Musically, the band would play two different hymns in two different styles in both definitions. The first hymn would be a slow and mournful style while the parade made its way to the cemetery and the second hymn would be up-tempo and jovial, filled with improvisation and would come to be known stylistically as “Second Line” or “Street Beat.”

While those definitions are generally correct, a deeper dive into this tradition makes a more interesting picture.

Today’s second line parades can be put on by anybody for any reason. As long as someone has a permit and a band, the parade can happen. This wasn’t always the case. In fact, a second line parade was a significantly more exclusive event for the first generation of its existence. Looking back to the general definition, the cultural and social element of the parades is skipped over. The people who led the second parades, not matter the reason, were the members of the Social Aid or Benevolent Society that put the parade together, whose beginnings are a reaction against segregation during Reconstruction.

After the Civil War, the Freedmen’s Bureau was created to help newly freed slaves acclimate into society. The primary purpose of the Bureau was to provide loans, education, vocational training, and insurance to freed slaves in order to get housing and initially deal with day to day issues. In order to advertise their benefits, the Bureau would throw parades and outdoor parties in primarily black neighborhoods, complete with a black brass band and food. Shortly after the creation of Black Codes in the South, the situation for newly freed blacks became dire and administrators of the Bureau sought to correct the imbalance. Overreaching its original charter, the Bureau began to commission judges throughout the south and attempted to create its own justice system that would give African American defendants fair trials. Bureau agents immediately became subjected to threats and attacks throughout the South as the Ku Klux Klan struck with military precision at Bureau events, specifically voting registration, and ruled with threats and violence in whole counties, overthrowing state governments in a silent coup. In almost every explosion of racial violence, a Bureau agent was likely to be among the dead and wounded. It was an incredibly huge task that was difficult even if there were no political problems and daily threats of violence. It is estimated that hundreds, possibly thousands, of African Americans and Bureau agents were killed during the election of 1876 in order to secure Democratic victories in former confederate states.

A school set up by the Freedmen's Bureau in North Carolina

Due to President Andrew Johnson’s continued to attempts to defund the program (one of the reasons for his eventual impeachment) and the Ku Klux Klan’s repeated attacks bureaus and bureau agents, support quickly dwindled. By 1872, the Freedmen’s Bureau was dead. As the post-war fervor slowly faded, Radical Republicans, who were intent on preserving black freedom, began to lose their super majority in congress, causing the political will needed to continue projects focusing on black freedom to wilt. After President Grant left office, Democrats took control of congress and effectively killed any attempt to protect African Americans or change the Jim Crow laws in the south. From 1875 to 1958, there wasn’t a single civil rights, voting rights, or anti-lynching bill that passed the Senate. The Bureau was eventually folded into the Department of Education and its honorable mission soon ceased. While its legacy can be found in the historically black colleges it helped established, the Freedmen’s Bureau was unable to curb the political war that southern whites were waging against African Americans.

In the years after Reconstruction, the white South became the most powerful political block in the history of United States politics. It wasn't until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's that southern politicians finally lost their iron grip on both houses of Congress. After the Civil Rights act of 1964, a flurry of anti-segregation legislation passed during the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Senator Richard Russell, considered the leader of the Southern Bloc and the most powerful man in Washington for most of his life, slowly diminished in stature after seeing his protege , Lyndon Johnson, pass the most sweeping civil rights legislation in history. It can be argued that no minority in the Senate ever held more power and likely never will again.

A great irony of jazz history is that without Jim Crow and slavery, jazz would not exist. Slavery brought the music and culture of Africa to New Orleans and the odd brand of liberalism in Antebellum New Orleans allowed the music to thrive in public. But, it could be said that without the failure of Reconstruction, there would be no jazz because the important institutions of early jazz form as a shield against discrimination.

Once segregation came to New Orleans, black people began to have difficulty getting basic human needs. As doctors could legally discriminate against black patients, medical care was sparse and expensive because the only willing doctors would have to travel great distances. As funeral homes could now refuse service of black families, the cost of death started to become an overwhelming burden. In a stroke of innovation, the first African American Benevolent Society were founded. Also known as Social Aid clubs, their creation was a direct reaction of the new Jim Crow laws and the demise of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The set up was a simpler version of health insurance. The family would pay a fee for joining as well as regular membership dues. Out of that pool of dues, the Social Aid club would pay for any health issues requiring a doctor or any funeral expenses of that member, including a brass band.

Young Man Olympian Jr Benevolent Society on the march!

They continued the community events originally sponsored by the freedmen’s bureau. As it would be completely based in black neighborhoods, the need for permits was disregarded, though it was possible that no permit would be given by the city government. The societies continued many of the community building that the Bureau had started such as neighborhood picnics and parades. The concept of social aid societies wasn’t new at the time as there were already societies in place to help European immigrants. The most well known example in New Orleans is the Italian Benevolent Society which helped the large Italian community get acclimated to their new country. One of the biggest differences was that the European clubs were geared to housing and vocational training which is why stereotypes were created (Irishmen being police officers for example). The African American Societies’ responsibilities covered a much wider variety of problems in their communities including social issues such as general education. This emphasis on all aspects of the community led the cultural impact of the African American societies to be far greater than their European counterparts.

While there isn’t a set date for the first second line parade, the first benevolent society was founded in 1884 (The Young Men Olympian Junior’s Benevolence Association, still in existence). It is safe to assume that second line parades, as we know them now, begin within the next five years as 1884 also marks the founding of the Olympic Brass Band.

As discussed, the members of the society would lead every parade and funeral. Followed by the deceased or guest of honor with their friends and family with a hired brass band in tow. Out front, the members dress in ornate dress suits, sometimes with feather boas and wreaths. Many brass bands work directly for the societies. Once the body was laid to rest, a trumpet player would let out a call, the bass drummer would set the tempo, the band would start the next lively hymn, and the dancing would start. People would start to gather in the neighborhood, sing along and dance without restraint.

This tradition has roots in Africa. It could be said that a jazz funeral is a traditional African burial several generations removed, like a game of telephone. In Togo, the death of an elder is to be celebrated with joy. After many funerals, it isn’t uncommon to hear laughter and music or see dancing and drinking. The celebrations go on all night long and sends the funeral goers away with some happiness for the deceased. The loose limbed style of dance that became synonymous with the parades can also be traced back to Congo Square and West Africa. Quickly, the second line moved away from strictly funeral marches and became a must have part of any celebration.

As time passed, the social aid clubs began to adopt a socially defiant attitude toward the city government and white society in general. When the benefits provided by social aid clubs started to be provided elsewhere, many members sought to become counterbalance the culture of the city.

The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club became the best example. For years ex-confederates had been lampooning the Freedmen's Bureau with shocking caricatures of African Americans. The stereotypes were imbedded so deep in the culture that many continue to be persist in modern culture. Additionally, Mardi Gras, once a city wide celebration, was now run by members-only Krewes who discriminated against African Americans, led by a white clad Rex, king of Mardi Gras. No black clubs or krewes were allowed to march in any official Mardi Gras parade until after the end of segregation. Zulu began to present an alternative in the 1910s after seeing a play in which white actors donned blackface and hula skirts to demean the famed Zulu tribesmen.

First: The members of Zulu planned a route that was based solely in black neighborhoods in order to bypass the need for permits or any city government involvement. They would take back streets and make stops at bars and businesses along the way.

Second: The members dressed provocatively. In a tradition that in currently under great debate, hula skirts and outrageous wigs were worn on the floats and “black face” make up was applied to extreme effect.

Third: In keeping with parade tradition, float members would be equipped with throws to toss into a crowd. For Zulu, their throws were gold painted coconuts (now considered the most sought after throws of Mardi Gras).

Final: The Zulu parade mirrored the Krewe of Rex, complete with a Zulu King. Instead of a crown, the Zulu King wears a tin can. Instead of a scepter of royalty, the Zulu king uses a staff of banana stalks.

While not an officially sanctioned Mardi Gras parade, the Zulu parade and other backstreet parades became wildly popular. When Louis Armstrong was appoint Zulu King, his royal photo was on the cover of Time Magazine.

In today’s culture, the Zulu club is under attack for perpetuating racist stereotypes by continuing to don blackface. As much as this is understandable in a cultural vacuum, the purpose of the Zulu club antics are very much in line with New Orleans style protest. By taking on the white caricatures, the Zulu could own and satirize the stereotype that was being footed by whites in New Orleans. Their great sense of irony came into play when the Zulu parade became wildly popular and the coconut throws became the most coveted throw of all the Mardi Gras parades. Not only had the Zulu achieved fame, but they had effectively used the whites racial weapon to do so, becoming one of the most recognizable elements of New Orleans culture.

There are certain things that only work in New Orleans due to the natural inclination to align public parading with political protest.. In the early parts of 2019, Virginia’s state government was in political purgatory. The governor, Ralph Northam, had given a disastrous press conference regarding a picture in his college year book where he was pictured wearing blackface. Originally, Northam admitted to his mistake but the suddenly turned and announced that he wasn’t sure that he was in that picture. During the press conference, Northam declared that no, he wasn’t in the picture in question, but he had donned blackface for a Michael Jackson costume, something no one had asked about or known. Almost a week later, amid called for Northam and his Lt. Governor to step down (for unrelated reasons), the Attorney General Mark Herring was presented with a picture of himself in blackface from his high school yearbook. Amid all the calls for all three to resign, Chelsea Clinton posted a tweet declaring, rightly, that donning blackface is unacceptable under any circumstance. “Agreed,” one follower replied. “Unless you’re riding in Zulu.”

This isn’t a cultural outlier either. While Congo Square is famous for its Sunday gatherings, the site was used for slave auctions during the week. But the site became such a strong symbol for African pride that renaming the site after a Confederate General became a priority for southern whites in the Jim Crow era. It is somewhat remarkable that the African American community in New Orleans repeatedly took ownership of symbols of oppression and made them symbols of African American defiance and cultural pillars of the city.

In February of 2019, the activist group TakeEmDown rallied outside the headquarters of the 110 year old Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. TakeEmDown had been working to destroy the monuments of white supremacy in the city such as statues to PT Beauregard and Robert E. Lee and helped remove the dedication to the attempted insurrection in 1873 from the French Quarter. The group had been targeting the Zulus for sometime, even going as far as lobbying the city council to deny Zulu a parade permit for Mardi Gras. Looking at the throng of protesters shouting for the club to cease its donning of blackface, the leaders of the Zulu Club reacted in the most Zulu Club way possible. They put on their makeup, hired a second line band, and paraded through the protest.

Today, the second line parade isn’t limited to the social aid clubs. Any person with funds can hire a second line band for four block long parade after their wedding, birthday, anniversary or bar mitzvah.

The social aid clubs, while still involved in the community, primarily are formed to parade in Mardi Gras. They no longer have the charter to sustain the community or neighborhood. Their membership is still lively and vibrant but as the government began to enforce the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960’s, the groups became more akin to networking opportunities rather than social leaders. However, as the seen in the current war with the Zulu Club, the old defiant ways come out when attacked.

What made the second line parade music special was rhythm of the band. While most people would call this a simple accent, legendary New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich calls this rhythm “the clav”. The proper term is clave but clav turns out to be a more apt description. Vidacovich still describes it as a 2+3 rhythm that underlies the decisions of all the musicians of a band. But, whereas Afro-cuban 2+3 clave includes syncopation, the New Orleans clav is more square in construction. In the New Orleans second line clav, the bass drum plays the following line:

(rests are in parenthesis, accents are in bold)

1 (2) 3 (4) 1 (2) 3 4

Much like African drumming, the clav normally isn’t played exactly as written and the players are given freedom so long as they play within the clav. Structurally, the band also centers around a drum leader who is termed the most important member of the ensemble. In this case, the bass drummer is the master drummer who keeps the tempo and signals changes. However, the Afro-cuban clave is an asymmetrical, rigid rhythm. If the clave is turned around, the harmony and musical phrasing generally is the reason. For example, a band would add or remove a measure to the phrase in order to turn the clave. Also, the clave itself has no accents and is used as a pulse more than its own rhythm. In practice, this restricts the rhythmic discovery of a drummer. A drummer may build a new part, but it will have to be connected to an asymmetrical pulse in some way, shape, or form. It also makes it difficult to infuse outside influences into the rhythm. It could be argued that this is the reason why Afro-cuban music didn’t evolve similarly to jazz but contains more traditional African elements then second line parades. While this made the music a cultural touchstone, the restriction is apparent when compared to the extreme evolution and worldwide impact of jazz.

The Olympia Brass Band, founded in 1883.

Additionally, the accent gave the clav a natural end-point to improvisation. It is a rhythmic landing place for the entire band when it is internalized. Vidacovich collaborates this, saying that most musicians in New Orleans feel beat 4 as 1. Many musicians have come to call this the “Big 4” and attribute Buddy Bolden with introducing the rhythm. However, Bolden didn’t start playing until well after the establishment of second line parades.

There is another rhythm associated with street parades that is used as a foundational beat as well as a fill.

1(+2)+(3+)4 1(+2)+(3+)4

Based on the 3 part of the 3+2 clave, it is the most well known rhythm in New Orleans music. Much like the previous rhythm, it is internalized by all of the involved musicians and normally played in a more accented pattern.

1(+2)+(3+)4 1(+2)+(3+)4

Once again, the Big 4 is apparent and the musicians internalize the rhythm, allowing for cohesive rhythmic improvisation due to the strong rhythmic framework. A rhythmic descendant of West Africa, the improvisation around the rhythm is usually simple and signals a new section. Unlike African drummer, which limits improvisation to the master drummer while the rest of the ensemble continues to play their assigned part, all the musicians can improvise leading to a cacophonous crescendo of fills and unpredictability at the end of musical phrases.

Both rhythms are based on musical anticipation and basing rhythmic and improvisatory choices on the weakest part of a measure, leading to a natural inclination to highly syncopated beats. Also, the emphasis on the weak beat is the forerunner to what is known as the backbeat, which is featured in all facet of American Popular Music.

Many ethnomusicologist have identified a strong European influence in the instrumentation and the form of second line parade music but there is reason to believe that these aren’t influences but rather vehicles. For example, second line forms are rarely song forms in the European sense. European forms are more elaborate and deal with melodic and harmonic content.

The traditional March form is the best and most cited example of the influence of European forms on early jazz. There are two major sections of each march which include subsections. There would be a twice repeated A section, following by a related but different B section which would lead to another A section. This form would be used in the second half of the march, known as the trio which would introduce a new melody and new harmonic content. While many symphony movements and compositions had followed this form in a more elaborate and sophisticated manner, the truncated version in Marches was wildly popular.

But, there is no evidence of this form in second lines. It could be argued that this form didn’t become an element of jazz music until the early 1900’s when Jelly Roll Morton was writing jazz for publishing. Also, marches weren’t the primary music played at a funeral, church hymns were. As discussed, there were always two hymns for a funeral that were repeated until the conclusion of each part of the procession. Protestant hymns were simple by nature. After the Reformation, Protestants detested anything related to the excesses of the Catholic churches including the music, which was sung by a choir in Latin. Instead of the complex four or five part harmony and moving lines that wove in and out of the key at times, reformers wrote hymns that were melodically plain and rooted in basic I IV V harmony. The complicated forms were replaced with repeating structures that repeated until there were no more lyrics. There was rarely an A or B section and even sections with what would be called a chorus would have the same harmony. Basically, hymns are no more than harmonic vamps that repeat until finished.

As far as instrumentation, this is the weakest link to Europe that music historians have made. There were only European instruments tuned to the European scale in New Orleans. African drums and instruments weren’t allowed during slavery and even Congo Square didn’t involve African melodic instruments. If Africans Americans were to express themselves, there was no other option then to adopt these vehicles and infuse them with African sounds and concepts. With that, the melodic influence also begins to wane as the only available instrumentation was tuned to the western scale.

As much as it could be claimed that jazz eventually became influenced by European Classical music, that influence becomes ingrained much later when big band composers started to become primary influencers of jazz. In the initial stages of the music, the European elements are morphed rather than added, creating a unique tradition in African American music that will be discussed later.

One of the more drastic changes between the two marches is the adherence to the original melody. During the dirge phase of the funeral, the musicians generally conform to the melody of the hymn even while playing with extreme expression. However, during the second hymn, the instruments would begin to improvise around the melody by slightly departing from it. Another descendant of West African tradition, the improvisation is conceptually similar to the improvisation of the master drummer. Generally, the master drummer would improvise in short bursts before returning to the original part, repeating this process several times. Taste and rhythm were the main characters of the improvisation, elevating those traits over proficiency and flash. Such is the second line improvisation. It is unusual to hear a technical showcase in the second line and the improv language is simple. Melodically, the improvisation wasn’t based on notes and harmony as improvisors began to play notes outside of the harmonic structure, specifically a flatted third, better known as the blue note. Culturally, this is another vestige of West Africa. Generally, the tribal music of West Africa is based on a five or six note scale which has tonal leaps built into it. In today’s improvisation, these scales would be called pentatonic but there is a wide gap between the jazz pentatonic, which is largely based on evenly space tones, and the variety of African scales. While used with wooden keyboard instruments like the kalimba and balafon in Africa, American slaves could only pass this music down through singing and musicians would begin to imitate the vocal inflections and scales on their instruments.

While it could be assumed that the days of Congo Square created a strong West African influenced culture in New Orleans, the events and political realities in the South counter that argument. Some hold the assertion that the Congo Square exhibitions continued as a show of African pride through Reconstruction and the Civil War, but it is widely documented that there was a decline in the Sunday gatherings as harsher slave laws came into effect. Even though there isn’t a specific date, the general consensus is that the practices shown in Congo Square were effectively removed from public life in the decade before the Civil War. It wouldn’t be until the Jim Crow era began that gatherings would again take place in Congo Square and the area would become a cultural battleground between southern Whites and African Americans. While the area of Congo Square (technically named Place Publique until 1892, it was officially named Congo Square in 2011) was still in the memories of the citizens, there are no documented gatherings.

In this situation, there is little evidence to suggest that all of the practices of Congo Square continued in secret. In the late 19th century, many of the elements from Congo Square aren’t imbedded in the culture of New Orleans. Second Line music includes some elements of West African music, but those elements had already been modified or stripped away over the course of almost 35 years. One of the great mysteries is the disappearance of these elements from any type of historical record. There is an assumption of secrecy due to the threat of violence and the many attempts by former confederacy members to destroy African culture, but the large numbers of participants in the Sunday markets would reason that any continuation of these traditions, even through an oral history, would be documented.

It also stands to question how the high standing of the second line musicians came to be. While the social aid clubs were community organizers and were built with the community in mind, the brass bands have generally been seen as simply as hired for the club. Uncle Lionel isn’t the only example of this. Preservation Hall, while a relatively new organization, continues to be a major organization in the education and a cultural ambassador of New Orleans, even becoming working with the US State Department on a special tour of Cuba when the travel embargo was lifted. This sense of community leadership has continued through newer ensembles. The Rebirth Brass Band is a staple in New Orleans music education. The Hot 8 Brass Band has be a vocal member of the community regarding city wide violence that took several of their members. The leaders of these bands have long been heralded as cultural and community ambassadors.

As jazz became the popular music of the United States, the political elements of its birth were either glossed over or removed entirely in favor of a narrative that purely discussed the musical elements. In many expedited histories, the reactionary elements of the social aid clubs isn’t discussed if the clubs are mentioned at all. American history rarely discuss the clubs even though they may be the first display of public African American defiance of segregation by parading in the streets without permits.

In this deeper dive, there is an even bigger issue with the “melting pot” theory of early jazz history. As shown, there are many connective cultural tissues that are threaded from Congo Square to the beginnings of second line parades. Culturally, the ownership of symbols of oppression is seen through the Zulu social club and through the exhibitions at Congo Square. It could be suggested that this viral nature can be found when jazz musicians began to use songs from Broadway, a community that didn’t truly accept African Americans until Eugene O'Neill and George Gershwin began to write specifically for African Americans. Even then, black productions were generally received poorly until their renewal during the Civil Rights era. This ownership doesn’t align with the suggestion that the elements of Congo Square were continued in secrecy. The nature of social aid clubs and benevolent societies also refutes this notion. While some of the more explicit religious ceremonies may have continued privately, there is reason to suggest that there must have been some kind of public display between the civil war and the beginning of the second line parades. Also, while there were dramatic differences between the music of second line parades and Congo Square, the similarities in structure and rhythm suggest that another party continued these traditions in a manner that could be changed or morphed.

Jazz history doesn’t specify a group nor does it touch on these traditions in New Orleans. Perhaps the answer lies in the beginning.

Part II: Congo Square

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