When it's really going on, people are dancing out of their heads, maybe even out of their bodies. The bass drum rumbles like thunder on the mountain; snare drums snap your hips into twitching spasms; the horns, twisting around each other like a nest of serpents, call out to the heavens, calling all you children back home.
Dancers throw their hands into the air as if trying to grab the music and hold it above their heads for the world to see.
As a grand marshal I instigate these gyrations. I drive them on with blasts from my whistle. I twirl a festooned umbrella as my feet skip from side to side, a white dove pinned to my shoulder, beads rattling on my chest. I'm possessed as sweat soaks through my clothing. I feel as if I'm conjuring up spirits from New Orleans' legendary Congo Square, where, in the mid-1800s, nouveau Americans of color gathered to play African rhythms, dance the remembered dances and sing the sacred songs.
What's left of that these days is concentrated in the power of this dancing parade called the second line.
In those days, Congo Square was just one part of a musical mosaic. New Orleans boasted robust opera houses, a mélange of French, Spanish, German, British and Caribbean musics engendered string bands for dances, a cappella vocal groups on the corners and in the bars, and solo pianists in the whorehouses. And then, even more than now, New Orleans loved marching bands; almost any occasion called for a parade an anniversary, a birthday, a departure, an arrival ... a funeral.
Eventually the dance bands and marching bands merged. Instrumentalists began improvising the blues on any kind of song. The whole thing blew up.
"New Orleans was the biggest port town and had all those cultures mixing together," says saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. "Jazz is the first world music that embraced all cultures. It was from an African-American perspective but we embraced the cultures. Since it came from the world, the world automatically embraced it."
The music has evolved into all kinds of styles, but people everywhere recognize and respond to the traditional sound. And when they hear it, they can't help but be moved by the second line, whether or not they know what it's called or that it began as a burial rite. The "main line" leads mourners to the graveyard. The "second line" takes revelers back into the living world.
As weird as New Orleans can be with its creoles and Cajuns, voodoo and jazz, Mardi Gras and the nonstop party of Bourbon Street, perhaps the oddest thing about the city is that the sad intimacy of a funeral can turn into a bacchanal street entertainment open to the public.
"It's the same kind of stuff we would play slow at a funeral," says Roger Lewis, saxophonist with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. "We play the same songs in an up-tempo way. We take this happy music that's so spiritual in feeling and present it to people who are not accustomed to it. They can't help but respond music for the mind, body and spirit."
Charlie from New Orleans
That's the way my cousin, clarinet and saxophone player Charlie Gabriel, approaches the music. He conjures up a joyful spirit. You always have a good time with Charlie.
He was born in New Orleans in 1932 and lived there until he was 16 years old. The odor of New Orleans still hangs on him like the thick humidity that drenches you on the streets of the Big Easy.
"I've been in Detroit 57 years and I'm still known as Charlie from New Orleans," he says.
You can't run away from your blood. Much of New Orleans music flows through bloodlines the Marsalis, Humphrey, Barbarin and Jiles clans among them but few musical families can equal the six generations of musical Gabriels.
Our great-grandfather, Narcisse Gabriel, was a bass player who left Santo Domingo for New Orleans in 1856.
Our grandfather Martin Joseph Gabriel played accordion and cornet. He led dance bands and marching bands in New Orleans for about 25 years ending around 1920. Freddie Keppard and Johnny St. Cyr both acknowledged getting their professional starts in grandpa's bands. Grandpa's cousins Albert "Dude" Gabriel and Joseph Gabriel played during the same era.
Charlie's dad, Martin Manuel Gabriel, and mine, Percy Gabriel, along with my uncles Clarence Gabriel, August Lanoix and David Oxley were all New Orleans jazz musicians. Between them they worked with a wide swath of the New Orleans music establishment and top national acts from about 1915 to 1965. Big bands, string bands, ragtime bands, blues bands, early rock bands it wouldn't do to even begin naming the names of musicians they played with.
After moving to Detroit for the steady pay of the auto plants, Martin Manuel and Percy maintained the Gabriel Brothers New Orleans Jazz Band for some 25 years until Uncle Manny passed away in 1982.
Charlie and I, along with our cousin Clarence Ford, are in the fourth generation. And there are two more generations of musicians after us. They include Louis and Thaddeus Ford, and Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow. Louis was a saxophonist in Harry Connick Jr.'s big band when the musician-actor first gained acclaim. Marjorie was a member of the National Black Catholic Organization that created the historic publication Lead Me, Guide Me, the African-American Catholic Hymnal. She's a church music and choir director.
I've got nephews and little cousins who play piano, banjo, trumpet and clarinet. My 9-year-old daughter has had her own guitar for two years.
Charlie, 74, is the eldest living musician in the family. His first music job, at age 12 in 1944, was playing a funeral with T Boy Rena's Eureka Brass Band. He got the job partly because it was during World War II and a lot of older musicians were serving in the military.
"I played clarinet on those New Orleans dirges right next to George Lewis," Charlie says of his first job.
He doesn't remember who the decedent was, but the main line paraded from the church, past the decedent's house and to the cemetery. Other musicians in the band were Percy and Willie Humphrey, Walden "Frog" Joseph and Jim Robinson each one of them now, like Rena and Lewis, considered a New Orleans legend. Theirs is the generation that made Preservation Hall a destination for traditional jazz enthusiasts around the world.
After the internment the second line began. "The band struck up again about two blocks from the cemetery," Charlie says. They played "Panama Rag" and "Didn't He Ramble." And though they weren't singing, everyone then would have known the words to the song. Lines like: "Didn't he ramble ... oh, didn't he ramble. He rambled till the butcher shot him down."
"We went playing straight to the bar. It was hot and everyone in the band started drinking. We were there about 15 or 20 minutes and the trumpet player played the trumpet call for the musicians to get back in line. They got back and we played again going to the next bar. We went to about three or four bars where this guy used to visit and was known. Each time the people from the bar would follow us to the next bar. They were going crazy.
"I was with my daddy; I didn't understand what was going on. Those guys was having such a great time, Daddy was doing the same thing they was doing. I was protected a little bit. Daddy didn't let me get in the middle of them old men getting drunk. I had a sandwich and a soft drink. They had all kinds of food and drinks."
Old music played by the old men who learned it directly from the guys who first began improvising parade music on the streets of New Orleans that's where Charlie is coming from.
Here comes the Big Chief
Donald Harrison Jr. comes from deep New Orleans family roots too the Mardi Gras Indian "krewes" that color the parades with their dazzling feathered, beaded, sequined velvet and satin costumes.
The krewes grew out of the social clubs and secret societies African-Americans created in reaction to segregation and discrimination. Among other things, membership in a club was a sort of life insurance. It meant that when you died your brothers would bury you in style with food and drink, a band and a parade with a second line to celebrate your life. It also meant an opportunity to participate in Mardi Gras parades. Since only white people were allowed to perform in the official carnival parades, the African-American community created their own. The upstart carnival parades were restricted to black neighborhoods until 1968.
Each year the krewes try to outdo each other with elaborate costumes and their own original music. The costumes are thought to draw from a bond with local Native Americans who had welcomed runaway slaves into their communities. The music draws from the rhythms that once rang out from Congo Square.
Donald Harrison Jr. is chief of the Guardians of the Flame.
Donald Harrison Sr., who first became involved with Indian krewes in the 1940s, founded the Guardians of the Flame in 1988 after having been the chief of the Creole Wild West and White Eagle tribes.
Harrison Jr. is one of the leading jazz saxophonists of a younger generation of New Orleans musicians. Born in 1960, he studied music at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and the Berklee College of Music. He's worked with Roy Haynes, Jack McDuff and Art Blakey, co-led a group with New Orleans trumpeter Terence Blanchard and made past Detroit jazz fest appearances with Eddie Palmieri and Larry Coryell, as well as with his own combo. As a leader he is known for taking his music well beyond the common post-bebop rhythms and into a "nouveau swing" approach that's informed by R&B, Caribbean, funk, hip-hop and Mardi Gras rhythms.
When his father founded the Guardians, Harrison was drawn into its magic. The Indian chants and rhythms synthesized with the jazz he had been playing.
"There are things that come out of you only because of that experience," Harrison says. "None of my generation was dealing with the Mardi Gras Indians or Congo Square. I'm the first guy who wrote a second line song from my generation back in 1979 ['New Orleans Second Line']. ... Modern jazz musicians, everybody started investigating what is the second line. They thought it was ignorant music. Then they did an about-face, something positive that came out of it."
Harrison's father took him deeper into the customs. He had always been aware of his father's krewes and what they represented, but he had to earn the right to learn the inner workings.
"I wasn't aware of many of the secret aspects of it until I had paid some of the dues, initiations. There are ancient secrets which he only passed on to me. The secrets go back to Africa. I'm the only jazz musician who knows the secrets.
"I know stuff that even Wynton [Marsalis] doesn't know."
And the secrets will remain his until he sees fit to pass them on to another generation. The rest of us will only receive hints revealed through his music in the way he moves though an improvisation or in a rhythm he builds a composition around.
"I call it transcendental music," Harrison says. "It takes you away from your worries or your cares for a certain amount of time. You're always drawn back to it."
Charlie Gabriel was also drawn deeper into the music's foundation by his father. When he moved to Detroit with his family in 1948, Charlie immersed himself in the storied local bebop and growing R&B scenes. Over the years he had musical associations with Lionel Hampton, Nancy Wilson, Joe Simon, J.C. Heard and others.
In 1970, he toured Europe in Aretha Franklin's orchestra. During a rehearsal in Nice, France, Charlie played a tenor saxophone solo. Later an older Frenchman who had heard the rehearsal approached him and declared, "You are from New Orleans."
Charlie replied that he was from Detroit, reasoning that he was with Aretha, the band was from Detroit and he'd been based in the Motor City since his teen years; he was, indeed, a Detroiter. The Frenchman, a bit agitated, responded, "No, you are from New Orleans. I can hear it in your playing." Surprised by the stranger, Charlie admitted, "I was born in New Orleans, but now I'm from Detroit."
Charlie introduced himself. "Charlie Gabriel," said the Frenchman. "Do you know Manny Gabriel?"
"Gee, that's my father," said Charlie, bowled over by the man's knowledge.
As it turned out, the Frenchman was a music writer with an expertise in New Orleans jazz. And the Manny Gabriel he referred to was our grandfather, Martin Joseph Gabriel. Both he and Charlie's dad were known as Manny.
Charlie afterward became more curious about the family and recorded oral histories with his father and various uncles and aunts. While he gathered the stories, his own music stayed on the modern front. It didn't change until Uncle Manny was dying in 1982. Martin Manuel Gabriel, born in 1898, wanted a traditional New Orleans funeral.
"I got mad with Daddy because he said he wanted me to play that music," Charlie says. "He told me the songs he wanted. I rehearsed the band in my basement. Nobody around here knew that music."
The family brought a grand marshal from New Orleans to lead the funeral parade. Manny Gabriel's was the first traditional New Orleans funeral known to have taken place in Detroit. But one thing was missing; Detroiters didn't join the parade after the ceremony.
They didn't know how to second line at least not at a real funeral.
Back on track
After that, Charlie went back to New Orleans and began sitting in with traditional groups. But as a musician soaked in the more modern bebop style, he wasn't getting far with the locals. That's when cousin Clarence Ford stepped in.
Martin Manuel had taught Ford and Charlie side by side as children. They both played that 1944 funeral parade with the Eureka Brass Band. Ford, too, moved to Detroit in the early 1950s, picking up on the bebop scene, but he headed back to New Orleans after a short stay here.
In New Orleans he quickly learned that he couldn't make a living playing bebop. But he did well playing blues and R&B, touring with Guitar Slim and working with Fats Domino from 1958 through 1970, half of that time as bandleader. Then, one night on the road, the band was in an auto accident.
"People thought I was dead," Ford told me years later. "My foot was cut off, and they sewed it back on."
Ford never toured again. He stayed in New Orleans and started sitting in with Papa Celestin's band at Dixieland Hall, a predecessor to Preservation Hall. He passed up numerous and prestigious opportunities to travel. By the time Charlie showed up in 1982 Clarence was an established figure in the traditional music community.
"Clarence was working three jobs at the Marriott, Storyville and the Commander Palace and I couldn't get not one job," Charlie says. "Then Clarence took off from one of his jobs and said, 'Let me show you how these traditional songs go.' I had forgotten the format, by not knowing the form I couldn't fit in. Me and him sat down and went through all those traditional jazz tunes one at a time. My cousin helped me remember things I had forgotten and other things I never knew. My cousin got me back on the track."
Clarence showed Charlie how to play "One Step" with an interlude that New Orleans musicians played. They worked out "Clarinet Marmalade," helping Charlie regain his chops on the instrument after mainly playing tenor sax for decades. Bebop musicians crave constant innovation; New Orleans music sometimes calls for a note-perfect rendition of a solo painstakingly crafted 100 years ago, other songs might require a fanfare or arpeggio grafted from operas once popular in the city.
Soon Charlie was working at the Storyville club, and since then he has toured the world as a sideman and as a headliner with traditional bands. These days the guys in New Orleans send for Charlie.
Pass it on
Clarence Ford, who never fully recovered from the 1970 accident, died one night in 1994 after becoming ill while playing at Preservation Hall. The Dirty Dozen's Lewis remembers him fondly from his own days climbing up his hometown's pecking order.
"That cat was responsible for me buying my first baritone sax," Lewis says. "I was in the store looking at baritones but I didn't know much about them. Ford was there and I said, 'I'd appreciate if you would play this horn and let me know if I should spend my money on it.' ... Ford could play like Coltrane; the dude was incredible. On top of that he was humble and a real nice cat."
When the Dirty Dozen gained popularity during the 1970s, it thrust the brass band members into a celebrity atmosphere they had to grow comfortable with.
"During jazzfest I had a gig with Clarence Ford and Gerald Adams," Lewis says. "They sent me on a gig with these cats. I was nervous. I'm supposed to be a headliner. I was so nervous I was shaking. It was like, 'Clarence Ford is on the gig, what am I supposed to do?'"
You're supposed to hang in there and keep playing. Today Lewis is a self-assured musician, a veteran who tries to help another generation come up.
"As a musician you just play till you drop. There ain't no retirement," Lewis says. "You try to teach younger musicians. Try to pass the knowledge on. That's what you do."
So that's what I do, try to play music passed on from my father and grandfather. Daddy taught me how to play bass. Then I learned banjo so I could play with his band. I started leading parades as grand marshal because banjos aren't part of the brass band. Daddy played tuba and marched behind me tossing out instructions. Mama showed me the stately stroll for leading the main line to the burial ground.
I almost gave it all up after Daddy died in 1993. He was a better musician than I'll ever be. But Charlie won't let me stop. He keeps calling me to play traditional music jobs, getting me to lead parades, especially at family funerals. He always says, "You're a natural. It's in your blood."
Last year, shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, there was a benefit held at Detroit's St. Monica-St. Augustine Catholic Church to raise funds for a historic black New Orleans church of the same name. The band played a jazz mass Charlie wrote. Marjorie led the musicians and the choir.
As the service ended I put on my sash and beads, and picked up my umbrella. Marcus Belgrave trumpeted the introductory notes to "When the Saints Come Marching In." I blew a couple of ear-piercing blasts on the whistle and started the second line.
Daddy once said, "I come up with the old men. I keep the old ways."
That's why I second line.
Charlie Gabriel's New Orleans Traditional Jazz Band, including Larry Gabriel, performs at 6:45 p.m. Saturday at the Pyramid Stage. Earlier that day, Charlie is part of a 2:30 p.m. panel discussion on New Orleans brass bands held in the Jazz Talk Tent, moderated by Metro Times editor W. Kim Heron and including jazz writer Howard Mandel. Charlie and Marcus Belgrave also perform Friday night at the SereNgeti Gallery at a release party for their latest disc. Music starts at 10 p.m. and a jam session continues to 3 a.m.
The Donald Harrison Quintet with Christian Scott performs at 6:15 Monday at the Pyramid. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band performs at 6:45 Monday at the Ford Spirit of Detroit Stage. See full schedule at detroitjazzfest.com.
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