Rituals Going Wilder
Perspectives from the street
It is tempting to view the long tradition of brass band parades trailed by second liners as an image of stability, the musicians leading a spontaneous choreography of the streets – a state of things such that, to paraphrase Yeats, we cannot separate dancers from the jazz.
Only the jazz is changing now, or to be more precise the shifts in music from the repertoire of younger brass bands is a choppy current flowing far from the source pools of blues, hymns, parade stomps and rags that existed in the early 1900s when “jass” began as a trickle and turned into a roaring river by the ’20s.
Early jazz was played in honkey-tonks and country clubs, blues clubs and dancehalls for whites only; but the strongest current came out of churches and ran through parades for the benevolent societies at funerals and the social aid and pleasure clubs that took a claim on urban space as they paraded through streets of a city ruled by legal segregation. The music has never really been successfully politicized, though social theorists often try; the arc of jazz had long reach as a language of movement and dance for people on all sides of the racial divide.
But for those who would make the music into a color-blind celebration of a pluralist America, the counter-veiling truth is that the music had its own primal meaning for blacks, a language with coded references to the struggle and reality. “White folks still in the lead,” Louis Armstrong joked when Artie Shaw asked how things were going.
Since the 1990s, when crack cocaine hit New Orleans, the traditional style of jazz funerals – the stately procession of musicians playing dirges, the second liners in a shuffle, coiled to release the dancing after the “cutting loose” of the deceased – has taken quite a shift. In a word, the funerals have gotten wilder.
Matt Sakakeeny, a musicologist and professor at Tulane University, isn’t the first person to explore the fiery body language of some second liners gyrating to the accelerated section-riffing of ReBirth and other bands, long wailing hypnotic passages in a song like “Do Whatcha Wanna,” so different from the clear, sunny melodies of standards like “Didn’t He Ramble.”
Indeed, Dr. Michael White, the clarinetist and a composer of New Orleans-style, has been a critic of these changes for years, how burial parades are moving to a harsher current, reflecting divisions of class and culture. (I produced a short documentary featuring White and others with footage from several funerals in 1998.)
Sakakeeny’s approach to the tensions between continuity in change in Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans, searches past academic theories, tapping many interviews and his own experiences with musicians playing “riff tunes at a fast pace, singing songs that resonate with the experiences of the hip-hop generation, and wearing sneakers, baggy jeans, oversized T-shirts and baseball caps.”
A former producer for “American Routes,” which airs locally on WWNO, Sakakeeny admires the musicians he chronicles, yet not in an overly close, cheerleading way. He writes of the rap star C-Murder (Perry Miller) convicted in the homicide of a 16-year-old fan and the unrelated incident of Soulja Slim, a rapper shot dead on the front lawn of the house he bought for his mother. C-Murder grew up in Calliope housing project, on which Sakakeeny quotes Art Neville from a 2000 interview, “Today the Calliope housing projects look like a concentration camp, but back then [1950s] when the Neville family moved in, we looked at it like better living.”
Just how and when the breakdown of project life hit the next generation so hard is beyond the scope of Sakakeeny’s book, but his intelligence shines in the struggle. “More than any other area of my research, the response of musicians to the loss of their peers has challenged my ability to explain,” he writes. “A tragically routine chain of events – murder, private mourning and public ritual – vibrates with an intensity that spills out of the nooks and crannies of a single life to intersect with critical debates about the black experience in contemporary urban America.”
Willie Birch’s black-and-white artworks function as much more than illustrations to this book. Birch is among the front-rank of artists working in New Orleans; though his carved pieces suggest an outsider or folk art status, he has an M.F.A., fellowships from the Guggenheim and NEA and works collected at the Metropolitan and Whitney in New York to his credit. The power he invests in the faces of the musicians, the vibrations of intensity that roam through his scenes of arched trombones, a carriage driver at the Ernie K-Doe funeral, the mysteries made of faces behind sunglasses and then some, are all of a piece with Sakakeeny’s report. Roll With It deserves a wide readership in the post-Katrina boom.
Adding Your Stamp
“Like jazz musicians, I believe in the personal voice. Our musicians are not trying to play like Armstrong or Buddy Bolden or whomever. It’s about adding your own stamp to the history of your art form based on your time and place on earth, to create something unique … Because I feel that in the end, we are creating for this time. And since art is a process, this is our only moment to get it right. Not tomorrow, but now.”
– Willie Birch, interview with Matt Sakakeeny, Roll With It