Marching bands are obviously not a unique New Orleans thing. Percussion and wind instruments have been used on the battlefield since ancient times — sometimes to communicate commands and sometimes to raise morale. Their importance grew across Europe for centuries, especially during the Baroque period.
Following the American Civil War, veterans returned to their hometowns across the country and formed post-war clubs that often included marching music ensembles. And that’s as good a moment as any to dub “the start of the modern marching band era.”
At that point in time, marching bands in New Orleans looked pretty much the same as they did everywhere else in America.
But flash-forward more than 150 years to today. Join in a second line. Head to Bullet’s Sports Bar on a Wednesday night for the Treme Brass Band. Watch literally any parade during this final stretch of Mardi Gras.
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There’s no mistaking it: Today, when New Orleanians think of marching bands, they’re picturing something very different than what the rest of the world does.
How did that deviation happen? That is an interesting story.
‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European-invented brass instruments already existed here, just like they did almost everywhere else in the Western world. And the music musicians with those instruments were called on to play was similar to that of other cities in America: whatever was popular of the time, which — in the 1800s — meant quicksteps, slow marches, polkas, gallops, waltzes, hymns and a variety of other styles.
In 1838, the New Orleans Picayune reported “a passion for horns and trumpets has reached a real mania.”
During the Civil War, New Orleans’ marching brass bands played a unique role. Because the city had so many Europeans — or children of Europeans — living here, there was a sizable number of musicians who didn’t have a strong opinion on who they wanted to win the war. There were several local brass bands who would be employed by, both, the Confederacy and the Union at different times.
New Orleans was captured by the Union in 1862, and — by 1864 –, even though the war was still being waged, President Abraham Lincoln was already thinking about reconciliation. He saw Louisiana as a testing ground for his strategy.
Lincoln wanted Michael Hahn, a German banker in New Orleans, to be the governor of the state, and so he sent resources to aid with Hahn’s campaign. One of these resources was a 32-piece brass band put together by Patrick Gilmore, the head of the Union Army’s military bands who is thought of today as the father of brass band music in America.
The band he brought down from Boston was an all-African-American ensemble, which was meant to inspire the many African-Americans living in New Orleans, as well as those moving to the city now that they had their freedom. The band performed here for two months, playing in Congo, Jackson, Washington, and Coliseum squares, up and down St. Charles Avenue, as well as many other notable locations.
It was here, in New Orleans, that the ensemble premiered one of Gilmore’s most famous compositions, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” written to encourage Americans to mend fences.
It was also here that a concert took place, described by the press as “possibly the greatest musical event in the history of the world.” (Wow!) The venue was Lafayette Square, and the occasion was the gubernatorial inauguration of Lincoln’s man, Michael Hahn.
Reports from the day note an ensemble of 500 musicians, a choir of 10,000 voices, 50 cannons and four regiments who accompanied the music with the firing of their rifles. Gilmore used a telegraph service to sync up the ringing of all the city’s public church bells, and he even had 40 local blacksmiths beat their anvils to Verdi’s “Anvil Chorus.”
Ironically, the event took place on March 4 (though, regretfully, long before National Marching Music Day existed).
Marching bands learn to swing
So, as we can see, New Orleans had a unique history with marching bands during the first century-and-a-half of its existence. Still, the music being played by those ensembles was similar to that of bands across the United States.
So, what was unique about NOLA during this time that would result in our marching ensembles taking a different path than their peers elsewhere?
Well, in France and Spain, interracial socializing was more relaxed than in places like England’s original colonies. That permeated our culture here, resulting in a class of free people of color, as well as the practice of allowing slaves to congregate together on Sundays.
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Second line parades carry many of the same traditions of the city’s famous jazz funerals as they march down the streets. There are plenty of different second line parades put on throughout the year, usually held on Sunday afternoons, and held in the French Quarter and neighborhoods all across the city. Each second line differs in size, organization, and traditions, but all include a brass band, jubilant dancing in the street and members decked out in a wardrobe of brightly colored apparel as they travel one block at a time. | 📷: @kewonhunter
Slaves would meet in Congo Square and were allowed drums. They’d play and sing some of the songs that would help them get through the long, difficult day — developing their style of the blues. Then, when the Civil War ended *BA’AM* we had this incredible opportunity for the music of former slaves to mix with the instruments of traditional Europe. Sprinkle in influences from Latin America and I’ve just presented an extremely simplified version of some of the factors that combined to create jazz.
In the late-1800s, it was common for a funeral procession to include a brass band. However, one of the many challenges facing newly-freed African Americans was that traditional insurance companies refused to serve them.
Neighborhood Benevolent Societies and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs stepped in to fill this void, providing loans, education, insurance and burial services to their members; and brass bands were an integral part of their work: the bands would play during the processional at funerals, as well as during annual (or more frequent) neighborhood celebrations at which the clubs could advertise to the community.
These parades were unique from the European-inspired processionals. First, New Orleans received a large number of immigrants from Haiti at the start of the 19th century, and a common Haitian voodoo idea around funerals is that death should be celebrated in order to please the spirits who protect the deceased. That contributed to the boisterous atmosphere surrounding the second half of jazz funerals.
Second — while traditional parades are known for a crisp, uniform marching style — second lines famously feature a loosely coordinated, dance-like, way of moving. Many scholars believe this style came from traditional West African circle dancers. Enslaved immigrants brought those dances to Congo Square and, eventually, onto the parade route.
And, finally, rather than playing the marches of composers like Philip Sousa — universal in parades in other parts of the country — New Orleans second lines were more likely to feature music inspired by the city’s new sounds: those of Congo Square, ragtime and jazz.
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As the tradition advanced through the 20th century, second lines spread their wings outside of funerals and advertising — introducing marching bands to weddings, festivals, and to just about any sunny New Orleans Sunday afternoon.
NOLA marching bands in decline
But, by the late 1960s, there was fear that the marching brass band tradition was in jeopardy. Many young instrumentalists, attracted to the politics and aesthetics of the black power movement, turned to funk and soul music — music popularized by the movement.
Additionally, decades of worsening conditions and Jim Crow laws pushed droves of African-Americans out of the South and into northern cities. Many New Orleans musicians left in search of better job opportunities. One of those musicians, who left for New York City in the 1930s, was Danny Barker.
Barker was born in the French Quarter in 1909, into a Creole family of color that embraced music education and loved marching brass bands. Barker, himself, played banjo and, by the 1920s, was touring the Gulf Coast, known as the “Banjo King of New Orleans.”
When he returned to New Orleans in the 1960s, Barker saw the devastation that the Great Migration of African Americans to the North had on the local music scene. He leaned on his childhood love for music education and started a church brass band, the Fairview Baptist Church Marching Band. To build its ranks, Barker went door to door, recruiting neighborhood children to join the group.
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Repost from @visit_thnoc : “Today we go back to the 1966 funeral second line for trumpet player Avery “Kid” Howard, which took place on the streets of Gentilly. Leading the band in the black suit, hat, bow tie, and white sash is jazz legend Danny Barker, who would go on to spark a rejuvenation of the New Orleans brass band tradition in the 1970s through his involvement in the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Band. His autobiography, “A Life in Jazz,” in which he shares decades of stories of his life and music, was recently re-published in a new, illustrated edition by #THNOC. Details on the book and Barker himself can be found in our link in profile.” #ALifeinJazz #dannybarker #jazzfuneral #parade #secondline #neworleanshistory #followyournola
A generation of musicians flourished under Barker’s tutelage in that Fairview Band, including Leroy Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Kirch Joseph,Nicholas Payton, Shannon Powell, Lucien Barbarin, and Dr. Michael White, as well as the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who continue to perform in New Orleans and across the country to this day.
Barker and the Fairview Baptist Church band didn’t just save marching band in this city, explained one of its members, Joe Torregano. “That group saved jazz for a generation,” Torregano said.
The Marching 100 Shatter a Glass Ceiling
Feb. 22, 1967, marked the 95th annual parade of Rex, the “King of Carnival.” But that procession also included a first that would change Carnival forever.
Before then, if you were black and living in New Orleans, your role in Mardi Gras was limited to spectator, mule driver, flambeaux carrier or Zulu member. White carnival krewes would recruit and pay white marching bands from across the region to march in their parades.
But, in 1967, the St. Augustine High School Purple Knights — better known as the Marching 100 — became the first marching band from a black high school to march in a white krewe’s parade.
However, just because the march was historic, doesn’t mean it was easy. Marching members from that day remember being spat on and hearing racial epithets thrown their way, as well as bottles, filth, and even urine.
But there were also reports of those who celebrated the integration. One woman is said to have fallen to one knee and thanked God she lived to see this special day.
Some feared integration would lead to an exodus out of the krewe by Rex members, but when that never materialized, other parades began to follow Rex’s lead by hiring local bands to march with them.
For years, the brave members of the Marching 100 became the standard for other bands to follow. Thanks to them, visitors to our city during Carnival can see parades with bands unlike anything they have back at home; and locals can look on with pride at another unique gem in our culture’s crown.
For more than a century, the signature sound of New Orleans has been a brass band jamming and dancing through the city’s streets.
There are some reports that in post-Katrina New Orleans — in part due to the restructuring of the city’s school system, and in part due to the increasing number of pastimes competing for our kids’ attention — schools are having a more difficult time filling their band programs. But watching the way the city reacts to each marching ensemble as it lifts its horn to begin the next song, it’s hard to see the struggles.
“Marching bands — and music in general — are such an important part of our city’s DNA,” explains Edna Karr High School band director, Christopher Herrero. “Nearly everyone in the city has at least one member of their immediate family that has been involved in band, and — in that way — it connects today’s kids to the generations before it.”
As I watch Karr march by in their purple and yellow uniforms — disciplined, focused, talented, powerful — I thought about those connections.
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During French rule in New Orleans, from 1718 to 1763, there are records of more than 100 Frenchmen who performed on fife, drum or bugle in the local military.
In 1787, the Spanish governor of New Orleans, Esteban Rodriguez Miro, welcomed 36 Choctaw and Chickasaw Indian Chiefs to New Orleans with a parade that included eight full marching bands.
In 1863, New Orleans’ first known African-American funeral with an African-American brass band took place in Saint Louis Cemetery No. 2 for Union Captain Andre Cailloux. He was born a slave, became a free person of color, and — once New Orleans fell — became an officer in the Union Army.
He died heroically during the Siege of Port Hudson and more than 10,000 black New Orleanians joined the brass band at his funeral to honor Cailloux.
A young girl passes me, putting everything she has into creating a sound on her clarinet that will keep up with the dozens of brass instruments in front of her. Understandably, she’s too busy trying to keep the lines in front of her and beside her straight to notice the one that stretches back hundreds of years.
And she’s probably too busy connecting with her bandmates and the tens of thousands of audience members cheering for her to notice the connections that stretch beyond this moment: through that glass ceiling-shattering parade with the Marching 100 of St. Aug; through the jazz-saving members of Danny Barker’s Pinelawn Marching Band; through the neighborhood organizations that provided bands for black funerals at the turn of the century became insurance companies would not; through the ensembles that helped with funerals during the Civil War and reconciliation after it was done; and all the way back to our earliest colonial inhabitants.
National Marching Music Day is not only a holiday just for New Orleans. But thanks to the performers we cheer for during these parades — and the thousands of marching musicians that came before them — we’ll celebrate it in a way that’s all our own.