Lifestyle & Belief

New Orleans' soulful second line tradition marred by violence


Kenneth Terry with the Treme Brass Band plays the trumpet on the cornor of North Villere and Frenchmen Street during a community response to a shooting during a Mother's Day parade, on May 13, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Nineteen people were injured during the shooting, including two children.


Sean Gardner

NEW ORLEANS — Of the 19 people sent to local hospitals Sunday afternoon with gunshot wounds from a Mother’s Day march for a black parading club, most had gone home Monday, including a boy and a girl, age 10, with graze wounds.

But three people in critical condition will undergo further surgery at Interim LSU Public Hospital, a hospital spokesman said today on The shootings, which apparently stemmed from a grievance between two young men, make New Orleans the latest dateline in American’s lengthening saga of mass gun violence.

In the hospital, "women screamed and nearly came to blows over whose male relative was at fault," veteran community organizer Jacques Morial told GlobalPost. Moral, whose brother Marc Morial was mayor in the 1990s, also spoke with family members of Deborah “Big Red” Cotton, a popular blogger who was shot at the parade and lost a kidney in surgery, he said.

Cotton, who blogs for Gambit Weekly, was "in guarded, stable condition," according to editor Kevin Allman. She has long raised an eloquent cry in her blogs against the shootings at second lines, as jazz parades here are called. She moved here from Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina, and in making parade videos has become a voice of passion and intelligence on the fate of the second line culture.

Second lines are rituals of spiritual memory. Street dancers in color-coordinated costumes perform umbrella ballets and elaborate choreographies to the brass rhythms on parade held each Sunday from September to June. Social Aid and Pleasure clubs sponsor the second line parades and pay for police permits and security, which can cost $3,000 or more. The groups have names like Buck Jumpers, Lady Money Wasters, Pigeon Town Steppers, Prince of Wales Club and then some.

Dancers in a second line following the front line of brass players have a taproot in slave dances at an antebellum commons, Congo Square, that is now contained in Louis Armstrong Park on fabled Rampart Street. Congo Square dancers moved in counter-clockwise shuffles, resurrecting African religious memories embedded in burial dances of cultural memory. After the Civil War, the ring dances opened out in long, flowing street processions that gradually changed military marches with cross-rhythms of feet on the street melding with the boom and roll of the drums. The second line, a merging of the ring and the line, rose into a life force with the birth of jazz, circa 1900.

“Funerals with music” is what the early 20th century jazz men called burial processions that developed a distinctive style. Musicians set a tone in sculpted steps, playing slow tempo hymns and military dirges as the hearse headed to the cemetery; the bands were paid by benevolent societies who assured each member a death with dignity. After the body was put into the ground, the band headed out to the street, turning to uptempo songs like “Didn’t He Ramble” that pulled a tide of people from porches and stoops, many of them perfect strangers to the deceased as they joined the gyrating swirls and spontaneous dancing of second liners that signaled a “cutting loose” of the soul from earthly ties.

As the insurance industry replaced benevolent societies in the 1940s, social and pleasure clubs advanced the parades, with or without a funeral.

As parades have been sporadically marred by shootings in recent years, second line leaders have defended their tradition. “We intend to do everything in our power,” Edward Bucker, president of the Original Big 7 club told the Baton Rouge Advocate, “to have them convicted to the fullest extent of the law. You hurt seniors and babies.”

The gunfire did not surprise Dr. Prateek Adhikari, a trauma unit physician who grew up in New Orleans.

“It seems like family holidays are when see we some of these mass casualties,” Dr. Adhikari, who was born in Hong Kong, told GlobalPost. “It’s easier to find someone and it doesn’t matter if people are in the way of the fire. It tends to be at Thanksgivings and especially at Easter, for some reason, when you have outdoor get togethers, big family things in the front yard. That’s part of the way of life in New Orleans. A lot of these are intra-familial shootings. I don’t know why that is or what the answer is, but it always seems to be an issue.”

With the majority of legislators at the capital in Baton Rouge in lockstep with the National Rifle Association, and a city where both a congenitally corrupt police department and scandal-rocked prison operate under federal consent decrees, the miracle is that no one died Sunday.

Numbness cloaked the city where jazz began as grainy surveillance video showed a young man running from the Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade, after people dropped like flies on the asphalt to avoid the fusillade that aborted a celebration of 400 people dancing behind To Be Continued and two other brass bands.

New Orleans police called on the public to identify the shooter from the video posted on YouTube. Crimestoppers, a local group, and the Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms Bureau together offered a $10,000 reward.

Another journalist shot at the parade, San Francisco-based Mark Hertsgaard, the author of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, was released from Tulane Medical Center after treatment for a wound to his calf.

“We were about an hour into the march, on Villere Street just off Frenchmen, when the parade temporarily stopped and I heard pop-pop-pop about eight feet behind me,” said Hertsgaard by phone from Louis Armstrong International Airport, as he prepared to fly home.

Hertsgaard, who fell in love with second lines on environmental assignments here, said the footage posted by the police department “shows how completely stupid the shooter was under a [surveillance] camera....and children were directly in front of him. I’m wearing a lime green shirt in that yellowish fedora. You’ll see me running away from him – I’m glad I did. I threw myself on the ground and ended up with a bullet in the calf but it could have easily been worse.”

Second lines have been a source of enduring fascination to photographers, documentarians and feature producers, like David Simon whose HBO series “Treme” has many parade scenes.

“Unfortunately, the specialness of the day doesn’t seem to interrupt the relentless drumbeat of violence that I’ve talked about so much on the streets of New Orleans,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu, who has been outspoken in making homicides an issue for his administration, announced Sunday.

“We have mothers that were shot, sisters that were shot, we have little children that were shot, on top of the shooting that we had a couple of weeks ago where, thank God, the young boy lived. We lost Briana Allen [a girl of 5] last year. So I’ve spoken to this issue many, many, many times.”

Hertsgaard, nursing his calf wound at the airport, registered the spunk felt by many people here. “America as a nation needs New Orleans to work and succeed,” he said. “This city is the port at mouth of our continent’s largest river and an irreplaceable cultural jewel. Ninety-nine percent of the people are the kindest and most wonderful you can meet. We can fix this...It requires real resources. I was glad to see Mayor Landrieu speak out.”

The journalist Cotton, speaking thoughtfully in a video post on her personal blog New Orleans Good Good, said, “I have a particular investment in seeing men of my tribe do better. To see the main perpetrators of violence being young black men...I believe it can be prevented. We are not being smart and strategic in addressing this in systematic way...After a while it begins to tear at you internally.”


GlobalPost religion blogger Jason Berry writes the New Orleans Magazine music column and is coauthor of Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.