Hunter’s Field, a precious swath of green space in the Seventh Ward, has been a venue for cultural education and community gatherings since the late 1960s. The civil rights leader Jerome Smith willed it into existence after the construction of the I-10 overpass along North Claiborne Avenue, as he explains in the essential volume Talk That Music Talk:
Before they had the expressway on North Claiborne come, we’d run up and down the neutral ground. It was a safe place to play. Now it was covered in concrete, but there was a piece of land at St. Bernard and Claiborne under one of the off ramps that had a grassy area. I said ‘Them children need somewhere to play. Let’s go take the land.’ We squatted on it, and then went down to City Hall and took it over with 400 children. That’s how Hunter’s Field…came about.
The field, named in honor of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, became a venue for the Tambourine and Fan youth organization founded by Smith and fellow activist Rudy Lombard. After school and in the summertime, Tambourine and Fan programs melded team sports with lessons about social justice and the cultural legacy of Black New Orleans for kids in the neighborhood.
Some of those lessons came courtesy of legendary jazzman Danny Barker, who worked with a group of young musicians at Hunter’s Field in the early 1980s. Barker, who’d sparked a brass band revival with the Fairview Baptist Church Band a decade earlier, formed the Roots of Jazz band here to enlist a new generation of artists. James Andrews started on bass drum, but before long he was leading a band of his own on trumpet. He became a pillar of the brass band community and mentor to his younger brother Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. Mervin Campbell, whose mother sang in the Fairview Baptist Church choir, spent years studying under Barker. Known today as trumpeter and bandleader Kid Merv, he helped start the Soul Rebels Brass Band. Barker tapped one of the Roots of Jazz youngsters, Nicholas Payton, to join his regular gig at the Famous Door. It was the first job on Payton’s path to becoming a Grammy-winning trumpeter and composer.
Jerome Smith also formed a parading organization called the Bucketmen, whose processions were “a moving classroom” for students in Tambourine and Fan. At Hunter’s Field, they practiced second line dancing and learned traditional parade protocols, and fledgling musicians formed a Bucketmen Brass Band. The latter took lessons from trumpeter Milton Batiste, co-leader of the Olympia Brass Band, the preeminent New Orleans brass band in the 1970s. His acolytes included trumpeter Kenny Terry, bass drummer Cayenao “Tanio” Hingle, and snare drummer Kerry “Fatman” Hunter, who became the core of the New Birth Brass Band; Stafford Agee, future trombonist with the Rebirth Brass Band; and Abraham Cosse who played with the Coolbone Brass Band.
Super Sunday, a procession of Mardi Gras Indians from across the city, was another Tambourine and Fan creation rooted here. Beginning at Bayou St. John and culminating at Hunter’s Field, students joined the parade with symbols and signage related to social justice. In Smith’s estimation the spectacle overtook the statement—the event has become a quasi holiday, bringing thousands of people into the streets to get a close-up look at the Indians’ beadwork. (Another Super Sunday celebration developed uptown, centered at Shakespeare Park.)
Beyond Tambourine and Fan, Hunter’s Field became a fixture of second line parade routes and a regular stop for Mardi Gras Indian tribes on Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s Night. It hosts a variety of other cultural events as well, including an annual rally commemorating Hurricane Katrina, whose organizers include the pioneering female emcee and chef Mia X and the rapper Sess 45, proprietor of the record store and label Nuthin But Fire Records a few blocks down North Claiborne Avenue.
About North Claiborne Avenue
Built over a drained swamp, North Claiborne Avenue began to take shape in the mid-1800s, with a canal running down its center flanked by rows of trees (which is why it’s nearly 200 feet wide).
Around 1900, in the formative years of jazz, the surrounding neighborhoods—Treme and the Seventh Ward—were home to African-Americans, Creoles of color, and working-class families of various European backgrounds.
Segregation intensified toward mid-century, with the new Lafitte public housing development admitting black families only. Under Jim Crow, an array of black-owned businesses took root on North Claiborne, catering to those who were denied service elsewhere.
By this time the drainage canal was filled in and live oak branches created a canopy overhead, making the Claiborne neutral ground (median) an ideal promenade for black residents’ parading traditions: Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, Baby Dolls, and Skeleton Gangs all attracted crowds here.
In 1966, over the protests of residents, public officials chose to uproot the oaks and build an elevated expressway above North Claiborne. As in other cities, the interstate paved the way for white flight to the suburbs.
A community of artists maintained the cultural vitality of the Claiborne corridor despite the ensuing divestment. Then, in 2005, the flood following Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. An uneven recovery followed, with many former residents unable to resettle in their neighborhoods.
Nevertheless, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, and their followers still throng their traditional parade routes along North Claiborne, with brass bands and percussionists using the acoustics of the overpass to amplify their sound.
Though some post-Katrina plans proposed removing the overpass, today the city is trying to revitalize the space beneath it. Ironically, some now see it as a bulwark against the wave of gentrification that has displaced black households from sections of Treme and the Seventh Ward closer to the river.
As part of the revitalization effort, in 2018 local artist Ceaux Young painted murals of local musicians on the underside of the bridge. “It’s hard to control the space you don’t own,” he told OffBeat. “My main job is to protect that footprint.”
Fred Johnson, a former instructor at Hunter's Field, discusses cultural transmission in New Orleans.
Bass drummer Tanio Hingle recalls his musical education with the Tambourine and Fan organization, which convened at Hunter's Field.