Archive for the Witness Category

“The Good Thing About Showers At A Second Line Is, Everyone Already Has Their Parasols.”

The rain began at 4:30 p.m. in the metro area and continued unabated for an hour and a half. A group of Jackson Square artists and I met up at Matassa’s to get “warmed up” and then crossed over Rampart to the shooting side and made our way through Treme to Tuba Fats Square.

No one in my group would be recognized by Uncle Lionel Baptist except possibly in passing but we were all affected by his his graceful Tao. Conversations were often had between us over the years about where he had been seen, what he was doing and perhaps most importantly, what he was wearing. So his presence was always noted in our lives in the Square and the blocks surrounding it where we live out our working lives on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. He was like some sort of astronomical or meteorological phenomenon.

“I saw a shooting star last night”
“There was a rainbow this afternoon”
“I saw Uncle Lionel outside Three Muses yesterday. He was wearing a gorgeous caramel colored coat.”

At Tuba Fats Square, we waited for 45 minutes for the second line to start and in that time the rain poured more and more and the umbrellas stopped doing much good as the rain either blew under them or concentrated waterfalls of it from the eaves of houses overwhelmed them. So many just accepted that they would be soaked and stood in the rain.

“Whoever thought to dress all these women in white during a heavy rain was a genius.”
“It was probably some divine intervention from Uncle Lionel.”

A man came by with sandwich bags for people’s cell phones. Another with a rolling cooler full of beers. The cooler bar even had a price structure. Domestics were $2 and imports were $3. A woman in a laundry mat was selling photos of Unc.

An old time artist told me a man had been shot at Tuba Fats’ funeral for selling water from a cooler in front of another man’s business. He died and the business owner went to jail. I guess it’s a kinder New Orleans after the “blank slate.”

The crowd looked full of New Orlenians. We would later see a crowd that did not look like New Orleanians standing on the side of the street as we passed by. But here at the Square we didn’t see so many.

The rain drenched scene became beatific when the downpour became a drizzle and the sun began to show through. It occurred to me recently that that heavenly scene that happens after an afternoon shower comes from the slanted sunlight reflecting off of the still damp environment and the puddles on the ground. All this reflected, refracted light couples with long shadows of negative space and creates a blessing aesthetic. This happened just as the brass bands began to play. As the environment, emotion and spirits all seemed to converge, we were underway.

Two teen-agers who seemed at a glance in unison but were each executing utterly different moves to the same rythym danced in front of the doors of a raised double shotgun. A weathered woman we dubbed “Mello Yello” with shorts mostly up her ass and a little halter top blew the lid off. A man in a motorized wheelchair kept pace. My fellow artist Justin was cutting loose and drenched in perspiration and precipitation. My flip-flops and the density of the crowd limited my down-getting but I was doing my best. We were nestled just behind the drummers so it was quite easy to be seduced by the music and sort of, just let go.

A few times our group was able to juke our way up to the brass and it is there where one can authentically bask in the sound of a second line. Brass is very loud, but it’s a full and especially fine sound. Not like a feedback amplifier with electric guitar, this is not a technological creation. This is not an electronic sound. It’s a true sound. An ancient sound. A triumphant sound with a brilliant visual aesthetic of curves and shiny iridescence to accompany it.

By the time we made it to Rampart, the slant of Sun was quite glorified and the golden coloring of the whole experience became almost absurd, like Thomas Kincade absurd. Perhaps it was my orange-tinted sunglasses. Some even reported a rainbow.

The line was quite long and spirited and the numbers were hard to estimate from the inside. French Quarter tourists who came upon the scene unawares bore astonished looks, stopped in their tracks.

We continued down Rampart to St. Claude where the line became a two headed snake and halted traffic in both directions. Some on the stopped city bus enjoyed the scene from inside, others, not so much.

“In New Orleans, crowd dispersal techniques only require brass bands moving in opposite directions.”

After a final I’ll Fly Away was sung on the streets by anyone who knew the words, a sousaphone heavy contingent splintered and made its way toward Frenchmen and our group obediently followed. It broke up along the way and spilled loosely organized alluvial groups into the Marigny to finish off their evenings.

Ours was pretty much finished already. We reveled all the way home.

Though the catharsis of the event was exhilarating. It still exists as only a placeholder on a shelf inside the mansion of our hearts. When the loss of the iconic Uncle Lionel Baptiste is thought of in the future, the events of this Friday the 13th and any future events to honor him will be duly noted. They serve as apt punctuation, true, but the loss remains. Hopefully, as sons become fathers, more of us can stay true to our bliss and follow it to the level of respect and love reached by this man, this great Uncle.

(Some images used in this post were taken by Derek Bridges. See the gallery here.)