New Orleans native J.B. Borders remembers the city’s—and his own—past party days.
Fried oysters and a bottle of Prosecco. A bit of rousing poetry to read aloud or a few excerpts of riveting prose. Throw on Gladys Knight’s spine-tingling “End of the Road” medley (the live version from 1994) if it’s Watch Night/New Year’s Eve or José James’ Facing East concert if it’s St. John Coltrane’s Day.
Add the sparkling company of my pretty, witty woman, and I’m good to go nowhere, to stay home, to chill, as it were.
That’s my idea of a great party these days. Forget the crowds and their chaotic babble. Skip the tuxedo and open bar at a corny club ball. Nix the bathing suit and fancy boat on a summer day with a bevy of bikini-clad beauties.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Like most New Orleanians, I grew up immersed in the party life. Birthday parties, house parties, card parties, pool parties, school hops and proms, suppers, church fairs, Carnival parades, second lines, lakefront picnics, and excursions to North Shore resorts like Fontainebleau State Park or east into the Florida Panhandle, getaways to the Yucatan, Jamaica, or other versions of paradise tropicale.
As a youngster, I caroused on Bourbon Street, Claiborne Avenue, and the St. Bernard strip, including rolling into the Autocrat Club a couple of times. I think of it as a place where the regulars sing the old Creole tune “Eh, La-Bàs” every time they throw down. It was fun, harmless.
Before we turned 18, my pals and I slipped into various neighborhood joints around the city that would serve underage kids if they knew how to buy their set-ups discreetly, tip the waitresses appropriately, and conduct themselves like respectable adults when they invariably got a little tipsy.
In the early and mid-1960s, I loved attending dances at the ILA (International Longshoremen’s Association) Hall and the Municipal Auditorium. My friends and I would groove to the sounds of the Royal Dukes of Rhythm or touring acts like Jackie Wilson and James Brown. Sometimes we went as a gaggle of guys from the neighborhood hoping to meet unattached girls from other parts of town. Frequently, we lucked out. Later, though, we all seemed to get girlfriends or to bring dates, which made these occasions more fun and memorable, especially when we all met up later at the same night spot.
These gatherings later extended into intimate gatherings we called “sets.” I’ll never forget a small, scorching house party that took place in the spring of 1967 when I was a senior in high school. We had a half-day at school and decided to get together at one of our friends’ homes. Five teenage girls, five teenage boys, no parental supervision. We played all four sides of the James Brown Live at the Apollo long-playing recording over and over and over. Four hours straight of James Brown grunting, squealing, and keeping it funky. Nothing else. We were dancing fools. It was a magical afternoon. And it was a long time before anything topped that.
Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, however, it was marches and demonstrations for such issues as civil rights, black power, and African liberation that were generally most charged with excitement and thrills. I missed Woodstock but outdoor music festivals like Spring Weekend at Brown University, the Newport Jazz Festival, and concerts on the Mall in Washington, DC, during my college years were close substitutes. In comparison, events like second lines or Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans seemed pointless, senseless, jive.
My feelings wouldn’t change until the late ’70s, after I had moved back to New Orleans. That’s when the Dirty Dozen Brass Band revolutionized New Orleans brass band music and brought hot-paced heavy-duty funk to the streets. In late 1977, Ernest “Dutch” Morial was elected the first African-American mayor of New Orleans. Black people in the city started standing taller and straighter. Around the same time, the Dirty Dozen began playing Monday or Tuesday nights at a hole-in-the-wall joint called the Glass House on South Saratoga. It was located near the Magnolia Housing Projects and the fabled intersection of Washington Avenue and LaSalle Street, just down the block from the Dew Drop Inn, the legendary music club. The Glass House was so tiny and decrepit people routinely spilled out into the street outside the club to listen to the music. The sound was infectious, however, and you couldn’t help but move your body to the beat whether you were inside the shack or out. Some nights, being in that crowd was otherworldly. It seemed everyone would lock on to the same groove but keep doing their own thing. People would start gravitating toward each other and tightening the dance space. There would be no room to pop a Gator (these were pre-Worm days). And so, out of the blue, some sweat-drenched manchild would start jumping straight up and down like a Maasai warrior. And it would spread, becoming manic almost. And there was no telling where this energy might lead, what spirits it might invoke, what consciousness it might raise. At which point the band would stop playing, catch their breath, and let the crowd chill out a bit.
During this era when the Dirty Dozen started hyping up the crowds outside the Glass House and, increasingly, at Sunday second lines, a new New Orleans was born and New Orleans Negritude (our beloved NON) was reinvigorated. It was pure, unadulterated stankness, one hundred years in the making. And the second lines found a way to embody that new spirit. There was good reason to dance in the streets again. It was a glorious moment. But it didn’t—perhaps it couldn’t—last.
Even though I would go on in later years to serve as managing director of the 1994 National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, the single hippest and deepest cultural event in the history of this country, for me, the celebratory urge finally died after Katrina. I realized that I had been running on party fumes for years.
The realization hit me in the fall of 2005 when I was back in Atlanta at a cozy, convivial house party being given by one family for their New Orleans relatives who had relocated to the ATL temporarily after Katrina. Folks were drinking Crown Royal, of course, eating lots of tasty Creole dishes, and talking plenty of smack, but try as I might, I couldn’t shake off an overwhelming sadness that just seemed to envelope me.
I’m homeless but I’m at a party with a bunch of other exiles and we’re shrugging it off like it’s no big deal if we just keep a positive attitude about the whole situation. What’s the matter with us? What’s the matter with me? The time for fun and games is gone, brother man. You just got wiped out. It’s time to fight back. No more ha-ha, hee-hee. Let’s start to grind. The more laughter I heard, the more loss I felt.
Since that evening, I’ve gone out less and less. Now, more than ten years later, I don’t miss the old ways of partying. In fact, I relish this mellowness but I’m dogged—comforted even, in a peculiar way—by the memory of things and people no longer in my life.
Maybe that’s what comes with growing older, reaching your prime, so to speak. When I was a rambunctious, rambling teen, my devout grandmother would frequently chide me for being on the go so much. “I don’t know why you have to be running the streets all the time,” she would say. “There’s really nothing out there for you, baby.”
I was utterly convinced, however, that everything was “out there”—liberation, joy, and big-big (nasty) fun. I now understand and appreciate more fully what she was trying to tell me. For my grandmother, the streets were full of vice and violence and life-taking absurdities. She didn’t drink, smoke, or gamble. In her experience, the people who did indulge in such practices were needlessly putting themselves at risk and were bound to face difficulties.
I got that. I saw it, too—the craziness, the waste, the stifled potential. But I can only stay out of the streets today because I ran them so hard yesterday.
That’s what it used to mean to be a New Orleanian. We had a genuine devil-may-care, squeeze-every-second-out-of-every-day way of life. There’s only one way out of this existence, may as well enjoy ourselves along the way.
But in this present post-diluvian marshscape, who can say if we’re really true to our code? Is it just muscle memory pushing us out to Jazz Fest, Zulu, Essence, and all the rest? Merely hollow attempts to resume/reconstruct our lives, to push on, and, dammit, have a great time in the process.
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Not many old-timers, however, would deny that there’s definitely something missing from the party scene these days. It is innocence? Ignorance? Invulnerability? Insouciance? Or revolution on the horizon?
Who feels it, tows it. Though it’s nothing a platter full of oysters and a bottle of chilled bubbly can’t lighten for a couple of hours.
Eh, la-bàs, comment ça va?
Eh, la-bàs, comme si, comme ça?
Eh, la-bas, muhfukka, eh, la-bàs.
Read more from J.B. Borders on New Orleans history and culture in his recently released book, Marking Time, Making Place: An Essential Chronology of Blacks in New Orleans Since 1718.