Benevolent Societies and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs

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The Ponderosa Stomp Foundation

Benevolent societies and social aid and pleasure clubs (SAPCs) have played a vital role in the development of New Orleans music since the 19th century. Drawing on African antecedents, Black communities established these organizations to meet various needs including the provision of medical and burial benefits to dues-paying members. Along the way they became some of the city’s most important musical patrons, fostering the birth of jazz in the early 1900s and sustaining the brass band tradition, one of the great wellsprings of New Orleans culture, throughout the century. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, SAPCs were at the heart of the city’s cultural revival.

The first mutual aid associations in New Orleans were operated by free Creoles of color in the early 1800s. This community was largely French-speaking and Catholic, and, for events, hired Afro Creole musicians who typically played waltzes and other classical European forms.

After emancipation, African Americans formed hundreds of new mutual aid associations. Creole societies with their own meeting halls rented their facilities to other Black organizations, which had few other places to congregate legally. In this way the halls hosted an array of events including concerts, dances, and other stage performances and social gatherings featuring live music.

Around the turn of the 20th century the city and state enacted increasingly harsh segregation laws, imposing a single category of second-class citizenship on Afro Creoles and African Americans. In benevolent society halls, musicians from both backgrounds found employment, performance space, and audiences that supported their collective creation of a new style, later called jazz, which incorporated the blues and the music of Protestant churches. (While some African American musicians recalled classist or colorist discrimination at events held at elite Creole halls, the societies themselves served as bases of political organizing to benefit all Black people—Homer Plessy, for example, whose challenge to segregation resulted in the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Plessy v. Ferguson, was an officer in La Société des Francs Amis.)

Benevolent societies also conducted funeral rites for their members, including hiring brass bands for funeral processions—the source of the “jazz funeral” tradition, which continues today. These and other parades conducted by the groups inspired countless early jazz musicians. Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong, and Danny Barker, among others, left vivid accounts of their formative encounters with brass band music in the streets. Barker wrote about the “society members dressed in new flashy sports outfits: fancy expensive silk shirts, new pants, hats, ties, socks,” and “the emotion this jazz music created inside all these people, each and everybody moving in rhythm.” Similar organizations called social aid and pleasure clubs (SAPCs) and fraternal orders like the Odd Fellows paraded with brass bands, too.

European immigrants and their descendants established their own mutual aid associations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and most often hired white brass bands. The musician and scholar Dr. Michael White writes in Dancing in the Streets that these bands waned in popularity after the 1920s, while “the Black New Orleans brass band tradition grew and further developed its distinctive sound” thanks to “continuous sponsorship” by Black community groups. Though the Great Depression and the growth of Black insurance companies greatly reduced the viability of benevolent societies, SAPCs continued to pool resources for members and, on Sundays, put on parades known as second lines, a reference to the line of people following the club and brass band through the streets.

After World War II, as with the emergence of jazz decades earlier, New Orleans musicians drew on the sound of parade bands in ways that changed the course of popular music. Growing up on a second line route in Treme, drummer Earl Palmer had clapped along with brass bands on beats 2 and 4. In the 1940s and 50s he used the same emphasis as the “backbeat” he played on seminal records by Fats Domino and Little Richard, helping define the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. Other New Orleans drummers, from Smokey Johnson to Zigaboo Modeliste, brought the second line’s heavy bass drum and syncopated rhythms to the pop charts in the 60s, helping lay the foundation for funk music.

By the late 1960s “the New Orleans sound” had again permeated the wider culture but local interest in second lines was at a low ebb. Then, in 1968, civil rights leader Jerome Smith co-founded the Tambourine and Fan organization in Treme, which taught children the history and rituals of the tradition, raising consciousness of it as a source of community uplift and pride. Tambourine and Fan started the Bucketmen Social Aid and Pleasure Club and an affiliated youth brass band, and several participants later became stalwarts of new SAPCs and brass bands (Tambourine and Fan is still active today).

In the early 1970s SAPCs were among the first patrons to provide steady work for the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band, a group assembled by Danny Barker. The Fairview band provided musical and professional training to a wave of musicians, mostly in their teens, who went on to start their own brass or traditional jazz bands; many also became music teachers, mentors, and scholars of the culture. They proved to be the leading edge of a citywide brass band renaissance.

SAPCs helped kick this revival into high gear by promoting a new style of brass band music. In 1977 several Fairview band alumni, including trumpeter Gregory Davis, became founding members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which thanks to popular demand of SAPC members, started a regular Monday night gig at a barroom called The Glass House. Davis told author Karen Celestan, “the different clubs…would start showing up on Monday just to dance to what we were playing, and we realized we had an opportunity then to…experiment with some music.” The Dirty Dozen introduced be-bop, R&B, and other influences into their playing, and the SAPC members danced their approval, their moves pushing the band’s tempo.

Since the dawn of jazz New Orleans musicians had taken cues from the dancefloor; they were hired to keep bodies in motion there, and in the street for parades. In the 1980s and 90s the Rebirth Brass Band did just that by following the Dirty Dozen in bringing new musical references to the brass band repertoire. They became a favorite of SAPCs for playing nonstop medleys at second lines, with tuba player Philip Frazier hitting hard bass riffs over and over, like a sample in a hip hop song, and the other horns mixing in melodies familiar from the radio. The club members’ dancing, sometimes called buckjumping, reached new heights, and second lines surged in popularity, with new brass bands and SAPCs filling up the city’s parade calendar. This modern second line style has been a major influence on New Orleans music ever since, from bounce to the funk/rock that artists like Trombone Shorty take to festivals around the country.

While modern SAPCs had always worked on behalf of their communities—events like school supply and holiday meal giveaways remain common—they stepped into a greater public role in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005. Four months after the flood, with the city considering a plan not to rebuild some Black neighborhoods, a coalition of 29 clubs held a massive second line in Treme that rallied thousands in support of displaced residents’ right to return. It was a symbolic gesture, but not an empty one. A 2010 study by sociologist Frederick Weil found that SAPC members were the most “civically engaged” segment of the post-Katrina population, a quality correlated with stronger community recovery.

While elected officials and the media invoked jazz funerals as hopeful metaphors for the city transcending tragedy, those processions and clubs’ annual second lines did more concrete work. These parades, from their inception, had been a way for Black New Orleanians to claim public space, and affirm a cultural lineage extending back to Congo Square, where enslaved Africans first drummed and danced to the rhythms undergirding what we now regard as “New Orleans music.” SAPCs kept this music constantly accessible to the public, where successive generations of artists derived new forms from it. In the post-Katrina era, with roughly 100,000 Black New Orleanians permanently exiled after the flood, SAPCs have stuck to their traditional parade routes, keeping the beat on the street as the city gentrifies around them.

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Videos

"Showing Love: Parades, Mutual Aid, and the Importance of Place" from the Historic New Orleans Collection presented in partnership with the Neighborhood Story Project in 2021.

"When You Hear That Beat: Tradition and Change in the New Orleans Brass Band" from the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2021.