Any day that I am leaving New Orleans tends to be depressing, and Ash Wednesday always seems doubly so. Perhaps it is supposed to be depressing, or at least sobering. It starts the penitential season of Lent, when we are supposed to focus on our own sinfulness, and the monumental nature of what Christ did for us. But knowing that the fun times of Mardi Gras are over for another year is just a little saddening.
Most years, a good breakfast helps cheer me up before I get on the road. This year, my friend Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band and his four daughters joined me at Polly’s Bywater Cafe, one of my favorite breakfast places in New Orleans. The place is usually not all that busy, particularly on the average weekday, but this particular day was an exception. The place was packed, the kitchen and waitstaff way behind. We ultimately got our food, and it was as good as ever, but it took awhile.
I chose to leave the city on the Causeway, going across the lake to the north shore. I was in the mood for some coffee, so instead of going to a Starbucks or another chain, I ventured off the main road into the small town of Madisonville where there was a place called Abita Coffee Roasters.
As I have noted on a previous visit, Madisonville is one of the most beautiful towns in Louisiana. North of Lake Pontchartrain, its historic downtown along Water Street fronts on the Tchefuncte River, which is navigable down to the lake, by which boats can make their way to the Gulf of Mexico. There are a number of waterfront houses, and several marinas, as well as a handful of restaurants. But Abita Coffee Roasters is by far the most beautiful building in downtown Madisonville, with the look of an old creole home, surrounded by towering mossy oaks. Its front porch faces the river, and in back is a lovely patio/courtyard.
Of course people go to a coffee house for the coffee, and that is excellent too. Not only does Abita have espresso-based coffee drinks, but they also do their own coffee roasting, and have plenty of bags of different varieties of whole bean coffees for purchase. I was actually tempted to buy some, but I already had a lot of bean coffee at home waiting to be brewed. So I contented myself with a breve latte and a chocolate brownie, and then continued on my way toward Memphis. Although nothing could completely cure my sadness, the beauty of Madisonville was comforting.
By the end of the TBC Brass Band show at Kermit’s Mother in Law Lounge in Treme, I was at the end of my endurance, running on fumes. I had been awake for more than twelve hours, and on my feet for the bulk of them. I had, since Sunday night, taken more than five hundred photos and videos! In addition, I had not eaten anything since the early morning breakfast at Coffee & in Marrero.
When planning my trip to Mardi Gras, I had seen Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza on my Yelp app. It was not a place I had noticed before, so I assumed it had opened rather recently. I had hoped to go there Monday night, but Jarday Towns, Darren’s wife, had warned me that we would not be able to get anywhere near it on Lundi Gras because it is located near the convention center, and the parades end there during Mardi Gras. She was undoubtedly right.
But fortunately, on Mardi Gras Day, by the evening, the parades are largely over, and it was very easy for us to get to the area. In addition, there was street parking, and it was free because the day was a holiday and the meters had been turned off. However, from the street, it seemed that Tommy G’s was closed, even though I had called them earlier and they said they would be open normal hours, from 11 AM to 4 in the morning. The interior looked fairly dark, and nobody was sitting in the chairs. However, when Darren and I tried the door, it opened. We soon found that the street address really reflects the back of the restaurant, and on the front side, there were a number of people at the bar and some of the tables. That number grew as we enjoyed our dinner.
While a number of restaurants offer coal-fired pizza, Tommy G’s was impressive. First of all, the pizzas were delicious, as good as any I have ever had (mine was made with capricola and pancetta), but it also needs to be pointed out that the menu includes many other options, including wings, roasted shrimp, Italian sandwiches and pasta specialties. Then Tommy G’s also has a full espresso bar and an exquisite selection of Italian pastry desserts and gelatos.
As Darren and I talked over the events of the day, we decided to order gelatos, and they were delicious as well. Suddenly, it was 2 AM, and we decided it was best to head to bed!
Not the least attraction of Tommy G’s is the hours. They are open from 11 AM to 4 AM, seven days a week. When other places are closed, they are a great option.
The approaching end of any holiday can be depressing, but there is no better way to close out a Mardi Gras Day than with what is arguably New Orleans’ best brass band, the TBC Brass Band, playing the patio at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge like they would normally do on a Sunday. If anything, the crowd was larger and more ebullient than it had been on the Sunday night before Lundi Gras, and everybody was in high spirits. By the end of the show, I had been on my feet for nearly twelve hours straight, and I was thoroughly exhausted. But it was a contented tiredness. New Orleans is the greatest city in the world.
The house where TBC was to play at 4 PM looked like a fairly ordinary Uptown home from the street, but it was abuzz with activity and people coming and going, including a number of Black Indians who had been down at Second and Dryades. The party was being held in the back yard of the house, and when Darren Towns and Bunny Adams arrived, we were all led into the backyard, and it became apparent that the house had been beautifully equipped to host parties. On the back, a roofed deck complete with a bar was full of partiers, and another free-standing bar was located in a corner of the backyard. At least fifty people were present as the TBC Brass Band struck up a brief set of their most popular tunes, and everyone had a remarkably good time. I was later told that the house in fact belonged to the Big Chief of one of the Black Indian gangs. Although it wasn’t even 5 PM when we left the party, and Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge was less than a mile away, due to Mardi Gras, it took us from 4:45 PM tp 6:15 PM to drive the mile from First Street to Treme.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.
The end of Zulu is followed almost immediately by Rex, and although they follow different routes to a point, they end up coming right behind each other on St. Charles. Back up at St. Charles and Sixth, the crowds were not nearly as thick, and it was easier to photograph marching bands, such as Warren Easton from New Orleans. It also seemed easier to catch beads, and this time I managed to duck a cup rather than getting hit by it! Also, as in 2018, the Gracious Bakery and Cafe was open, giving us access to baked goods, cold drinks and coffee. However, one of the difficulties of Mardi Gras is the way that many different events conflict with one another. Doing one thing often precludes doing others; I had been invited to spend the day with Joe Maize from TBC, who was playing the drums for a Black Indian gang, the Golden Eagles, but I feared that if I spent the whole day out there with them, I would miss the parades. Even so, at 1 PM, I decided to leave the parade route and see if I could find the Indians uptown. Their parades are unscheduled, and wander through the neighborhoods as the spirit moves them, looking for rival gangs to confront ritually. They no longer fight violently as they once did; the battles are all danced, but it is still a one-of-a-kind experience. The parades are full of beauty and grandeur, but it is more of planned beauty. The Indians are something entirely different, a beauty more spontaneous and indigenous.
I was awakened by children’s laughter. My friend Darren Towns’ four daughters were as excited by Mardi Gras morning as kids usually are on Christmas Day. Their mother had stayed up late making them special screen-printed shirts to wear, and Darren was soon up as well, playing a recording of Kermit Ruffin’s reading of the Dr. John classic “All On A Mardi Gras Day.” Most people in New Orleans, if they are in a hurry to get to the parades, skip breakfast, but that was not an option for me, so I told Darren I would catch up with them uptown, and then headed out to look for breakfast. I didn’t have to look far this year, because Coffee & in Marrero was not only open but packed from wall to wall. I could only sit at the bar, but that was fine, while the TV screens showed the people already gathered along St. Charles Avenue for the day’s parades. Although the weather was grey, it was quite warm, and the forecast had been revised, reducing the chance of rain. The man sitting at the bar beside me said “I hate Mardi Gras,” and I had to ask him why. It turned out that he was retired from law enforcement and had worked the holiday for eighteen years. I could somewhat understand. He also indicated that people were not supposed to be throwing cups from floats, like the one that hit me in face the day before. By ordinance, they are supposed to hand them to people in the crowd.
I had meant to go across the Huey P. Long Bridge, fearing that the Crescent City Connector would be gridlocked by the parade crowds, but it was surprisingly easy to get across, and I exited at Magazine and Camp streets. Staying between the river and St. Charles, I was easily able to make my way to Sixth street, and found that I had no problem finding a place to park. But Zulu does not go down that end of St. Charles, and though there were crowds around, they were largely waiting for the Rex parade. I also did not find Darren and his family at Sixth and St. Charles, so I had to call him, and I found that they had gone to Washington Avenue in order to catch the end of the Zulu parade. It took some walking, but I soon made it there, and had no trouble meeting up with them. Here the crowds were thick indeed, everyone in a festive mood. I need not have worried about missing Zulu, for I caught the vast majority of it. What I didn’t catch was any coconuts. They are actually quite stingy with them, and I had noticed that in previous years as well. I also found that the drastic press of crowds made filming the various marching bands difficult. But the weather was great, and everyone had a good time.
Lundi Gras is really a holiday in New Orleans, with schools and some businesses closed, and a lot of people off work. My friend Darren Towns, his wife, his four daughters and I all headed across the Huey P. Long bridge fairly early in the morning to the Elmwood neighborhood in Jefferson Parish to a new restaurant called Sunny Side Up. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it had really good food, and the kids particularly enjoyed it.
The parades were not until the evening, and we missed the first one, but Orpheus started later, and we managed to find parking south of St. Charles Avenue near Sixth Street. I had heard a great marching band as I walked up to the parade route, but I didn’t know who it was. When I caught up with Darren and his dad at the parade route, I learned I had missed Jackson State’s Sonic Boom of the South. Stillman College and Coahoma Community College bands were two of the first to go past after I arrived, and the darkness was illuminated by brilliant-lit and colored floats, as well as the traditional flambeaux carried by young men which used to be part of all Mardi Gras parades. While the floats interested the younger kids, the interest for Darren, his dad and myself were the marching bands. Despite the obvious differences between marching band and brass band styles and cultures, New Orleans is a city of serious “band heads,” as they are known, and most of the city’s better brass band musicians began their musical careers in school bands, some of which are now famous. Bands from St. Augustine, Marion Abramson, Edna Karr and Landry Walker were among those marching in Orpheus on Monday night. Despite being focused on the bands, I managed to catch some beads, but one thing that was not very much fun was getting hit below the left eye by a cup thrown from a float. Even though I was standing a considerable distance from the float, the cup struck me hard, and led to soreness and swelling below the eye. Darren managed to get the cup, which was emblazoned with Orpheus 2020, and gave it to me, even though I was not at all sure that I wanted it! I later learned that float riders were supposed to hand the cups to people, not throw them.
All too soon, the parade was over, and although we had talked about going down to the Central Business District for pizza at Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza, that was near the end of the parade route, and we thought better of it. Instead, we headed the opposite direction to Pizza Domenica, way uptown on Magazine Street, arriving just before they were scheduled to close. This restaurant makes a good mainstay during the Mardi Gras holidays, as they remain open normal hours, and cheerfully serve people coming from the parades. And the pizza is outstanding as well.
Afterwards, I had suggested to Darren that we go to Cafe du Monde in the Quarter for coffee and beignets, but he was tired. Instead, he informed me that a place called Coffee & in Marrero was open 24 hours a day and had coffee and beignets. So I stopped there and got a cafe au lait and an order of beignets. If they weren’t quite as good as the Cafe du Monde, they were certainly good enough, cost less, and were more convenient. I was surprised at how crowded the place was on the night before Mardi Gras, and it was nearly midnight, at which time Mardi Gras day would begin.
We were all thoroughly exhausted. Even after drinking cafe au lait, I had no problem drifting off to sleep.
After a long drive across Mississippi through drizzly, wet weather, I was late getting into New Orleans, and thought I might actually miss the start of the To Be Continued Brass Band‘s weekly Sunday night gig at Kermit’s Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge. But Darren Towns, the bass drummer for TBC told me they might not get started until 9 PM, so I decided to try to grab a dinner before heading to the venue. I got off on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie because I knew they had every kind of restaurant along that route, but I forgot that there could be parades in Jefferson Parish too. When I got to Clearview Parkway, the police had the road completely closed due to a parade, and there were only two restaurants in the area, Don’s Seafood and Saltgrass Steakhouse. I like Saltgrass, but was more in the mood for seafood, so I chose Don’s and it was quite good, and rather crowded, to my surprise. From its parking lot I could hear the music, yelling and laughter from the parade to the east on Veterans.
I feared that the Sunday parades could cause traffic gridlock in getting to Kermit’s, which is on North Claiborne Avenue, but the journey was remarkably uneventful. I parked under the I-10 overpass, walked into the lounge, and found to my surprise that TBC was just setting up and had not started playing yet. Their weekly Sunday night gigs often attract crowds, but with so many people off work on the following day, Lundi Gras, the crowd was the largest I had seen at Kermit’s. The band played a number of its newest songs, including “I Heard Ya Been Talking” which was aimed at the Big 6 Brass Band after members of that band had been allegedly talking down on TBC. As is always the case at Kermit’s, at a certain point during the night, a female dancer appeared on the roof of the lounge, and Kermit Ruffins himself came outside to shoot off fireworks over the patio. The weather was warm, and with its banana trees and tin-roofed outdoor bar, the patio had the ambiance of Jamaica or somewhere else in the Caribbean.
However, the biggest surprise of the night was after the TBC Brass Band had played their final tune and were putting their instruments away. The crowd, as usual, begged for one more tune. To oblige them, Brenard “Bunny” Adams started a tuba bass line which Darren Towns picked up on the bass drum, and soon the whole band joined in. The unfamiliar tune proved to be the Meters’ “Fiya on the Bayou,” a tune I had never heard TBC play before, and a fitting way to close out a Sunday night before Mardi Gras.
Later Bunny, Darren and myself met up at the Cafe du Monde in the Quarter for some coffee and beignets, since my old favorite spot in City Park is no longer a 24-hour establishment. There was a fairly big crowd in the Quarter too, but it was late and I was tired. As is so often the case in New Orleans, the next day offered endless possibilities.
Drum practice can be noisy, and in the early days of young people learning to play, whether snare drum or the set, parents demanded that they practice in the backyard, in the wood shed so as to not disturb the house. Over time, practicing became known as “hitting the woodshed” and eventually just “shedding.” Informal gatherings at which several drummers battled back and forth became known as “shed sessions” or “drum sheds.”
In the milieu of Black gospel music, where many musicians are largely self-taught, aside from possible mentoring by older musicians in the tradition, shed sessions gave young drummers an opportunity to practice in conjunction with other drummers and other musicians, and continue to be an important part of the way Black music styles are transmitted from older musicians to younger musicians outside of a formal classroom setting.
Sheds are also exciting, and a great deal of fun. Unfortunately, they are not generally advertised ahead of time, and often are spread only by word of mouth. Even if they are mentioned on social media, it is not always clear where they are being held. So when South Memphis’ K3 Studio Cafe announced something called the Start Playing Drum Shed on a Wednesday night, it was both exciting and somewhat unusual. With February 12 being a Wednesday night, and a cold, wet one at that, I was not sure just exactly how many people would attend.
To my shock, the tiny venue was filled within an hour of doors opening. There were four drumsets, and about three keyboards, and although I had come with the intent of watching and documenting with my phone, I ended up playing the Rhodes piano, and fortunately one of the drummers who was taking a break filmed while I played. That particular groove turned into a Prince-ish funk romp that I enjoyed immensely By that point we had three keyboard players, four drummers, two saxophonists and a bassist. I had supposed that this was the shed, but we soon learned that the actual shed would be after the workshop presented by Memphis drummer Chris Pat.
Chris has been impressing me for some time with his recorded solos on the Memphis Drum Shop channel. Although they are intended to sell drum sets or cymbals, they are well-composed musical solos in their own right and not just product demos. Pat is a versatile drummer who is at home in gospel or behind Christina Aguilera, and who has as good a sense of swing as any jazz drummer I ever heard. More impressively on this workshop occasion was his great advice to young drummers and his humility. He also played drums against three recorded tracks and was absolutely amazing.
At that point, it was 10 PM, and it was announced that the shed was going to begin in earnest. I had to work the next morning at 5 AM, so I was not able to stay. I suspect that it went on until the wee hours. Did I mention that there was also no admission charge?