New Orleans is a city of parades, most famously the Mardi Gras processions that roll down the wide boulevards of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street during Carnival season, but in all the seasons and in every neighborhood there are jazz funerals and parades known as second lines that fill the backstreets with a joyful noise. On Sunday afternoons from September through May, African American forms of music, dance, and dress are put on display in parades that have become symbolic of New Orleans and its association with festivity and pleasure. The upbeat tone of second line parades originates in the distinctive local tradition of jazz funerals.
The Jazz Funeral
Though funerals would seem an unlikely source for such a festive tradition, the jazz funeral celebrates life at the moment of death—a concept common among many cultures until the twentieth century. In New Orleans and elsewhere, Europeans and Anglo-Americans attended funerals with music that featured a brass band playing “solemn music on the way to the grave and happy music on the return.” There is also a history of rejoicing at death through music in West African burial traditions. In 1819, architect witnessed a continuance of this tradition at a black funeral in New Orleans. The funeral began with the mourners making “loud lamentations” and ended with “noise and laughter.” With the end of slavery, black funerals with brass bands became commonplace. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the funerals had become forums for the performance of a new style of music—jazz—eventually becoming known as jazz funerals. Simultaneously, the popularity of funerals with brass band music waned among white New Orleanians.
In the traditional jazz funeral, a prominent member of the community—often a musician and nearly always a black male—is “buried with music.” Benevolent and burial societies traditionally arranged these funerals, often offering the services of a brass band for an extra fee. The societies collected dues throughout the year to pay for members’ health care and burial costs. The musicians, funeral directors, family, and friends of the dead make up what is called the first or main line, while the crowd marching behind is collectively known as the second line. As the procession moves from the funeral service to the burial site, the first and second lines march to the beat of a brass band. At the beginning, the band plays dirges, somber Christian hymns performed at a slow walking tempo. After the body is laid to rest, or “cut loose, ” the band starts playing up-tempo music, the second liners begin dancing, and the funeral transforms into a street celebration.
At some point in the late nineteenth century, the second line detached from the jazz funeral and developed its own identity. Organized by social aid and pleasure clubs, second lines wind through the neighborhoods of club members, making designated stops at their houses and other significant neighborhood sites, usually barrooms. From September through May, there is at least one parade every Sunday, often held on the anniversary of a club’s founding. Each club hosts fundraisers throughout the year and collects dues at regular meetings in order to pay for police permits, brass bands, and the coordinated outfits that members wear at their parade.
Anthropologist Helen Regis defines a second line parade as a public festival in which club members, musicians, and second liners come together to create “a single flowing movement of people unified by the rhythm.” At the head of the parade, club members wear suits and sashes that display the club’s name, often twirling matching umbrellas above their heads. For approximately four hours, they strut their dance moves in front of the band while the second liners fall in behind and along the side. Many second liners show off popular dance steps such as the high step and the buck jump. Others make their own sounds by singing, clapping, blowing whistles, hitting cowbells and beer bottles, and shaking tambourines.