Strictly Second Line: Funk, Jazz, and the New Orleans Beat (from Ethno Musicology Review)

Ethnomusicology Review
Volume 18 (2013)

By Benjamin Doleac

Abstract: In 1976, filmmaker Maurice Martinez asked Mardi Gras Indian Chief Jake Millon to describe the characteristic rhythm that underlies the music of black New Orleans. “Some people call it funk,” Millon replied, “but to us it’s strictly second line.” “Funk” has several different meanings in American popular discourse, but since the 1970s it has largely connoted a heavily syncopated, groove-centered style of African-American music. “Second line,” on the other hand, refers to the rhythms of a black parading tradition originating in nineteenth-century New Orleans. Since the 1960s, when James Brown essentially invented funk music by building on rhythms introduced to him by two New Orleans-schooled drummers, the relationship between “second line” and “funk” rhythms has been increasingly symbiotic. Herein I offer a historical survey and a comparative analysis of two musical examples to illustrate the varied usages of second line rhythm in jazz, rhythm and blues, and funk music.

It would not be outrageous to claim that the musical traditions of New Orleans were the wellspring of twentieth-century popular music. The city’s music has been most profoundly influential in its approach to rhythm. Over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, black musicians in New Orleans developed a unique rhythmic syntax which underlies Crescent City jazz, rhythm and blues, and funk music. “Some people call it funk,” notes Big Chief Jake Millon in James Hinton and Maurice Martinez’s 1976 documentary The Black Indians of New Orleans, “but to us it’s strictly second line.” Taking its name from the black street parading tradition in which it was developed, second line rhythm has spread around the world through the music of jazz pioneer Louis Armstrong and “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, among others. Due in part to their widespread influence, second line rhythms are a foundational component of many international jazz and popular music styles today.

In second line parades, two drummers establish the central rhythm. As with a typical marching band, the bass drummer plays on the one and the three. The snare drummer, however, improvises march-style beats that often depart from the standard accents on the two and the four. Second line drummers vary the standard march beat with syncopations, added notes, and shifting patterns of accents, while revelers joining the parade provide additional layers of rhythm with hand percussion, bottles, sticks, and improvised instruments (Stewart 2003:620). The rhythms of the second line parade are a composite of native and imported musical traditions that include features of standard marches, African-American church music, Caribbean rhythms like the son and the rumba, and black slave dances both sacred and secular. While many musicological and historical studies have focused on the absorption of second line rhythm into jazz drumming styles, studies of the relationship between second line rhythm and the highly syncopated, groove-centered genre known as funk are a relatively recent development. As Jim Payne has written in his 1996 book Give the Drummers Some, James Brown, the progenitor of the funk genre and arguably the single most important American musician of the late twentieth century, transformed the rhythmic vocabulary of popular music by adapting rhythms taught to him by a pair of New Orleans-schooled drummers. Likewise, Alexander Stewart’s 2000 article “Funky Drummer” demonstrates the roots of funk rhythm in specific Afro-Cuban and second line rhythms from New Orleans through historical investigation and comparative analysis.

In this essay I hope to expand on the work of Stewart, Payne, and other scholars through a historical and musicological exploration of the relationship between second line rhythms and funk, as well as a comparison of the usage of second line rhythms in contemporary jazz and funk contexts. Where Stewart’s and Payne’s analyses typically focus on one instrument at a time, however, my intention herein is to illustrate the interaction of multiple instruments within a piece and the ways they articulate elements of second line rhythm both together and individually. The first piece, which appropriately enough is simply titled “The 2nd Line,” is a New Orleans jazz standard performed by the Marsalis Family. The second, “Hey Pocky-a-Way,” is an original song, based on an old Mardi Gras Indian chant, by “second line funk” group the Meters. As my analysis of these examples illustrates, jazz and funk musicians draw on many of the same basic features of second line rhythm—including the clave, the “Big Four,” and “between the cracks,” all terms that I will later explain in more detail—but shape and contextualize these elements differently according to the dictates of the genre.

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