Growing Up Together in Tremé

Sean: They tell you if you read out loud while you’re pregnant, your child will come out a little more intelligent. I guess that’s how we was with music. When I was in the womb, I was listening to brass band music from Tuba Fat, Uncle Lionel Batiste, and Uncle Benny Jones in Tremé.

Charlie Brown: They call it Tremé now, but it’s always been the Sixth Ward.

Sean: I was born in 1966, and raised at 1526 Governor Nicholls with my grandfather, my mom Margaret, and my pop. If you saw a picture of my grandfather, you would have thought he was an Indian Creole. He had slick hair. He was the cinder block man. He used to tell us stories about how he built all the streets. He worked right in the French Quarters. He also raised all kinds of pitbulls and was like a neighborhood veterinarian. He cut the ears. He gave them shots. You can imagine, our house was very busy. Next door, my mama’s sister, Rose, lived with her husband, Joseph Glasper, Sr. and their kids, Lil Joe and Cornell. Papa Joe was a part of the Jolly Bunch, and we used to help them make fans. You know, pull the plumes and bust the bows.

Charlie Brown: I grew up on 1221 North Villere between Esplanade and Governor Nicholls.

Sean: We went to kindergarten together at Craig Elementary School.

Charlie Brown: Spent all our lives together.

Sean: Literally, all our lives.

Sean Martin (L) and Derrick 'Charlie Brown' Walker (R), Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade
Sean Martin (L) and Derrick "Charlie Brown" Walker (R), Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade; 2016; by and courtesy of MJ Mastrogiovanni


Charlie Brown: Our teacher was Ms. Williams. Remember that? 

Sean: That’s right, Ms. Williams. When we were growing up, I’m serious—this is not nothing you can make up—you can be at home two o’clock in the morning and you might hear a band playing coming up your street. And it was crazy because parents will tell your children, “Go to sleep and don’t wake up,” but we were allowed to wake up, sit out on the front porch, and watch the band pass and people dancing up in the street. It could be any type of celebration. It could be a birthday party. It just could be somebody had a Christmas celebration.

I remember Armstrong Park before it was Armstrong Park. We used to go on weekends and hear people get out there on bongos and play. They didn’t have a gate at St. Philip. We walked in the park, found a bottle or a can top, and beat with them with a piece of stick to make music. New second line groups started forming, and we used to watch the Jolly Bunch, the Money Wasters, and the Original Dumaine Street Gang with Terrible Tom. A Sixth Ward legend. During their parade, everybody backed out and he performed with the band by himself for four hours on the streets. It was like a normal second line because when you say second line, I don’t care what organization you with, people are coming out.

There were five or six local lounges and bars in the neighborhood. If you go around the corner from our house to Ursuline and Robertson, that was Ruth’s Cozy Corner. And across the street was the pool hall called Marva’s Place (Rest in Peace). At Robertson and St. Philip was the Caldonia Bar, and then the Candlelight Bar and Lounge. If you come back to Treme and St. Philip, there was the Three Brothers Bar and Lounge.

During Mardi Gras, kids were allowed to go in bars—that was like a dream come true for a kid. Not being able to drink; just to be able to be in the place where your mom, dad and uncles and them could go, and you’re only allowed to stand at the door or to a side window where you could order chips, pickles, pig feet, and pig lips. You can actually go in that barroom!

Around 1990, the Cozy Corner became available, and Papa Joe was like, “Nephew, we’re about to open.” It took a while to catch, but it was home base.

Charlie Brown: We’ve been involved with Papa Joe since we were babies. 

Sean: Everybody hung out from getting their shoes shined or come around there in the morning and you could get breakfast or lunch. The first year, Kermit Ruffins and Rebirth started playing on Sundays.

Charlie Brown: As a matter of fact, when Kermit came out of the Ninth Ward…

Sean: We went to school together, all of us!

Charlie Brown: He went to Clark with us. That’s where he started Rebirth with Philip Frazier.

Sean: We used to have Sidewalk Steppers meetings at Papa Joe’s. At that time, we were about 30 strong, so that meant if everybody brings a plus one to any event, that’s 60 something people in the bar. After Joe’s Cozy Corner closed, we met at Treme Center, Labat Funeral home by Kim Charbonnet. When Kermit was on St. Bernard, he extended and opened his doors to us. “Hey man y’all need somewhere to meet up?” And now that he is at the Mother In Law Lounge, we meet there as well.

From the days of the Cozy Corner, I’ve watched Tremé transform. It kills me because I feel like, even though everybody’s due for change, don’t change the culture and the tradition that was formed and based here. So many jazz musicians formed out of Tremé at a young age. They don’t have to go to school and let a band director tell them that they want to play drums, trumpet, trombone, tuba, snare drum, bass drum, clarinet, or flute. They pick that up at their doorstep, on their front porch.

With a club like Ole and New Style Fellas, their whole family is connected to their organization. We grew up together. Sue Press lived on Villere right across the street from Joseph A. Craig school with her mother, Ms. Emelda Franks. In her 90s, she was still doing it. She couldn’t dance on the ground no more, but she’s coming out the door at Jackie and George’s every year. She’s an inspiration for me. Ms. Barbara Lacen, who was married to Tuba Fats, is another inspiration. She’s fighting for everything for us. We honored her last year during our parade.

Charlie Brown: With the Sidewalk Steppers, we have gone back to Craig to help the kids practice for the LEAP test and do back-to-school giveaways. Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys...

Sean: We walked around the neighborhood to see what kid needed a jacket. We have a card where we write our name and number and their name on it and tell them, “Hey, bring this to your mother and tell her to bring you to Treme Center on such and such date.” And we make sure that they got jackets.

A New Style

Juanita 'Nita' McNair, Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade
Juanita "Nita" McNair, Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade; 2007; by and courtesy of Judy Cooper

Sean: The Treme Sidewalk Steppers goes by the motto, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” It’s like, “We do what we want, the other people do what they can.” Until you actually participate in a Sidewalk weekend, where we have the ball one day, the meet and greet the next day, and the parade, you won’t be able to explain that. That’s something. Not to toot our own horn, but when the Sidewalk Steppers and the Lady Buckjumpers perform, people from out of town come in. People literally take their vacation for these two second lines. 

Charlie Brown: We have some loyal followers.

Sean: I love the Sidewalk Nation.

Charlie Brown: What’s it been, 26 years now?

Sean: 1994 exactly. Charlie Brown, my sister Kelly, and a few of our friends like Corey, Lil Joe, Cornell, and I didn’t want to change the tradition, we just changed the fashion that goes with the tradition.

Charlie Brown: Our first year, we came out of the African American Museum in Tremé. People were amazed that such a young and new club would bring that many people out our very first year. We started switching things up.

Sean: We young. Older clubs were rollin’ with the older bands like the Olympia Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, but we wanted the younger ones—the Little Rascals, the New Birth and the Rebirth. Trombone Shorty Andrews had to be only six years old playing in our parade with a trombone bigger than him. We also added a different style of dress to the parade.

Charlie Brown: We started to come up with themes for the parade. We did the cowboy thing with the cowhide. We did the Cab Calloway theme and wore all white zoot suits. People love it. The year Rebirth made the song “You Don’t Want to Go to War” for us, we came out in army fatigues. 

Sean: “You don’t want to go to war with the Sidewalk...”

Darryl Bordenave coming out the door, Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade
Darryl Bordenave coming out the door, Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade; 1997; by and courtesy of L.J. Goldstein

Charlie Brown:  You don’t want to go to war with us cause we not playing.

Sean: Another year, we came out of the Treme Music Hall in two-toned dark brown and light brown with the lion heads.

Charlie Brown: The lions had the red eyes.

Sean: The ruby eyes.

Sean: The Soul Rebels recorded “Let Your Mind Be Free” inside our bar, the Treme Music Hall. Magnolia Shorty recorded “Monkey on a Stick” there with DJ Peewee. Now, Rebirth only does two parades: Lady Buckjumpers and ours. Normally, our parade day is Super Bowl Sunday. If they have a conflict with their schedule, we go with the Big 6 or TBC. Last year, we used a collaboration of New Birth and Rebirth together. Derrick “Kabuki” Shezbie is a member of our club. I’ve also been working with Derrick Tabb on recording a Sidewalk album dedicated to us. 

Sean: One year when we came out, we landed a helicopter on Hunter’s Field.

Charlie Brown: Yep, no one had ever done it before. Sean was king that year, and everybody and their mother was waiting, waiting, waiting for him to drop out of the helicopter.

Sean: It was an adrenaline rush. The pilot said, “Can I just loop around two or three times to get everybody hyped and excited?” And I’m like, “Sure!” I thought we were just going to land.

Charlie Brown: That just really helped catapult us to another level. There’s another song about us called “Don’t You Wish You Could Be Like the Sidewalk Steppers?” A lot of people want to be a part of something that’s everybody into. Other people want to join, but we had to turn it down because we want to keep it close knit. We pick ones who are full-hearted in it. They are serious, they are dedicated, and they love it like we love it. The youngsters now, they hoppin’.

Sean:: We can’t hang up front with those guys. We be in the back. Look, we be in the way back. 

Charlie Brown: That young group we got in the front are high energy, full of excitement.

Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade; 2018; by and courtesy of Vincent Simmons


High Fashion

Sean: Yeah, it’s competitive. Yeah, it’s a battle. Who don’t think that they look the best or they dance the best or they bring out the most people?

Charlie Brown: But only on parade day. After that, it’s not like that.

Sean: For the last few years, Melvin “Left” Reed has been doing a tremendous job for the Sidewalk Steppers with his designs. He always meets us on St. Bernard right in front of the Autocrat to see us. Everybody just bows. When we see him, we got to bow to him.

Charlie Brown: He’s a bad man. He been at that forever and he is so serious about putting that work together. We spend top dollars.

Tremé Sidewalk Steppers 25th anniversary parade
Tremé Sidewalk Steppers 25th anniversary parade; by and courtesy of MJ Mastrogiovanni


Sean: People pay attention to details, especially for us. They are looking for fault or fraught in any way. No other second line club had ever worn Gucci, Louis Vuitton, or Christian Louboutin red-bottomed shoes, but us. One year, where everybody was known for wearing alligator shoes, we wore alligator vests. The prices was ridiculous at this time—spending six thousand dollars just on a vest. And that’s not including the $1,200 for the shoes, another 500 dollars for the belt. Literally, you’re paying ten thousand dollars to parade for one day. So that was totally different. We only wear it one time and we (Charlie Brown joins in) tear it up. That’s our slogan. 

Charlie Brown: It’s called, “Wear that shit one time and tear that up.”

Sean: They made a song out of it.

Charlie Brown: Sean took the vest and everything off, poured gasoline on it, and put it in a big ole can.

Sean: True story. The fire department came out: “Y’all gotta put that out! You’re ‘bout to start a fire!” It was crazy.

Charlie Brown: We don’t do the fire thing anymore, but every year we for the most, we tear it up—especially me and him. We bring scissors, hatchets, and we tear it up.

Sean: If you want the clothes and shoes, you have to buy it twice. When you put an order in, you buy two, cause you know what you’re gonna do with one pair at the end, on top of the Mother In Law Lounge.

Tremé Sidewalk Steppers 25th anniversary parade
Tremé Sidewalk Steppers 25th anniversary parade; by and courtesy of MJ Mastrogiovanni


People yell, “Please don’t cut that or tear it! Give it to me! I’ll wear it!” Then they be hustling for pieces of scrap. It’s like a trophy—like if you go to parades and catch beads or a doubloon. A piece of our material is valued just as much. 

Charlie Brown: We don’t play.

Sean: We strive on perfection. If you don’t have on the same T-shirt...

Charlie Brown: You won’t parade.

Sean: The same underwear... 

Charlie Brown: You won’t parade

Sean: The same socks…

Charlie Brown: You won’t parade.

Sean: You won’t come out the door as a Sidewalk Stepper. Honestly.

Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade; 2020; by and courtesy of Pableaux Johnson


Charlie Brown: We have a contact with Mauri Shoes himself, Mr. Luigi Tanzi in New York City. 

Sean: The first year we worked with them, we ordered 35 pair of rainbow shoes. We told Mr. Luigi what we wanted, and he sent us a sample. No one else had this shoe.

Charlie Brown: We had camouflage boots nobody else in the world had. When we had those purple boots...

Sean: On the twentieth anniversary.

Charlie Brown: Most every year we come out, what we have on, it’s made for us by a designer or whomever we’re dealing with. You won’t be able to go in the store and buy it. I give it the average of thirty-five hundred dollars per member a parade. We pay light dues every month and have fundraisers throughout the year. Any money we raise goes towards the parade.

Sean: The Norman Dixon, Sr. Foundation helps too.

Charlie Brown: We bring money to this city.

Sean: That weekend you go to the mall, you be like, “Girl, I know you going to get you something for the Sidewalk.” We need to get our cut from the beauty salon, the nail shop, the mall. I’m serious!

Charlie Brown: Everybody shopping for it.

Sean: It’s like a fashion show. It’s where you can see people come out from all walks and nationalities and cultures to celebrate. No violence, no crime. I mean, literally looks like millions of people out that day. When we’re gone, our kids can be like, “Man, my dad and my uncle started this organization.” Heart, sweat, and tears. They put this on their back.  They’ll be proud knowing we brought these people together. I mean, if you can bring love and peace together even if only for one day, that’s a beginning.  That’s a start. After the parade ends at Mother In Law Lounge, the polices literally have to clear the streets out because there’s so many people you would have thought it was a Mardi Gras parade.

Last year, they had a guy jump in the parade right before we started with a cowbell and he was offbeat with the band! They told him he had to stop playing and he didn’t want to. The police said is, “Hey, man you gotta escort yourself out of here.” I said, “Why would you want to get escorted out this parade? The greatest show on earth!” About an hour later, somebody said, “He coming back.” I said, “He ain’t coming back with no trouble.” He came right there, got along, put his cowbell up and went (clap, clap) the whole parade like nothing ever happened.

Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade
Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade; 2019; by and courtesy of MJ Mastrogiovanni


Expanding the Second Line Network

Sean: We have a whole organization that’s representing. If I meet someone out of town at a Saints game, I invite them to our parade. Last year, we had two guys from Miami. I had two people from Chattanooga and we put them on a float for the very first time. Nobody seen that. Next year, they’re getting a bus here for our parade. He stayed for the whole weekend: a ball, a meet and greet, and a parade. 

Charlie Brown: And that’s another thing. Our ball is just growing, growing, growing.

Sean: We started at places like the Treme Center and the Autocrat Club. We had events at Xavier University, Sugar Mill, and now Mardi Gras World.

Charlie Brown: It’s growing. Every year, it’s getting nicer. I have a little trucking company, so I’m more gone than my brother is. When I’m on the road, he’s politicking with this person, he’s politicking with that organization to bring some positivity back to the community that is helpful to people in need. And I love him for that because we have the same heart, but I’m working...

Sean: We’ll just keep striving. I remember when our tickets were fifteen dollars when we first started. Now we actually charge a hundred. We can get a hundred. People say, “You should charge two hundred dollars,” cause we always have star-studded performers at our ball. Last year, we had Big Freedia and Juvenile We have Manny Fresh DJ. You don’t want to sit down. Listen, people tell us, I promise you, “We’re not going to the Zulu no more. We come to your ball and have a good time.”

When we first started, the kings and queens came out in a suit or a dress with a tiara or crown on. When Sebril and I were the king and queen of Treme Sidewalk Steppers, we wanted to do traditional king and queen outfits with from tights to the wigs. We made the costumes a tradition. Now, we have gone so big to where now the Columbo’s Artist Designs do our uniforms—the same people who do Mardi Gras parades like Bacchus, Zulu, and Endymion. They start anywhere from seven to ten thousand dollars and on up. When Trombone Shorty was king, they got the trombone in his crown.

Troy 'Trombone Shorty' Andrews reigns as King, Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade
Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews reigns as King, Tremé Sidewalk Steppers parade; 2019; by and courtesy of Charles Muir Lovell


Sean: We gave mock funerals for Prince, Tom Benson.

Charlie Brown: Michael Jackson. We gave a mock funeral for a dog named Buck. 

Sean: You remember that?

Charlie Brown: It made front page news.

2020 and Coronavirus

Sean: In 2020, we had Mona Scott-Young as our queen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with reality TV, but we had a lot of the housewives riding on our float because Mona Scott-Young, who produces the show Love & Hip Hop, was the queen. Hiram Smith was our king. Mona couldn’t make our regular date, so we reached out to the CTC Steppers who had the date the following week. We offered their president, Drew Johnson, to go out to lunch. We sit down, “Hey brother, we’re gonna cut to the chase. This what we need.”

Charlie Brown: Switched it up with us.

Sean: They were honored to swap it out! No questions asked.

Charlie Brown: And he was so nice with that. We lost a member the week before the parade. Chris was one of the best guys. He was of Cuban descent, and oh my God, he was more Sidewalk Stepper than me.

Sean: He worked at Galatoire’s in the French Quarter with one of our members, Shelley. He come to our parade every year. Shelley told us, “I got a guy working with me for years. His only wish is to be a Sidewalk Stepper.” I had to convince Charlie because we don’t want to take no more members.

Charlie Brown: Never regretted it. This guy was love to the third degree. He gave everything he had to us.

Sean: When he passed, they reached out to us to notify us before they notified his mother who was out of town. We were supposed to parade that Sunday. He would have passed while we was getting dressed. Got all his clothes, got everything.

Charlie Brown: If we wouldn’t have swapped that parade, he woulda died that day.

Sean: That’s the day he passed away.

Charlie Brown: That year, we came out with the mock casket, and everything was dedicated to him. 

Derrick 'Charlie Brown' Walker (L) and Sean Martin (R) coming out the door, memorializing a club member
Derrick “Charlie Brown” Walker (L) and Sean Martin (R) coming out the door, memorializing a club member; by and courtesy of Charles Muir Lovell


Sean: It’s devastating what happened to 2020 with this COVID-19. We had a whole agenda rolled out for this whole upcoming year, and it put it on the backburner. We had a health fair scheduled. 

Charlie Brown: We was pretty much about to have a reality show right in New Orleans because my brother, like I tell you, do all this hard work.

Sean: Til COVID-19 hit. Just to show them about the culture, what we go through. Everybody thinks its peaches and cream, but it’s not when you see the arguing and disagreement, flying out of town to go back and forth with the seamstress and the shoe people. It’s a lot of preparation. If we continue to pray for all the people who lost their lives and the people who are sick through this COVID, hopefully we can give a celebration in honor of this and that celebrating once this is gone and we can forget about it. We need to have a jazz funeral for to bury COVID. People are calling us right now: “Hey man. Is the greatest show on earth happening this year?” I’m like, “We don’t know what’s gonna happen with Corona, but we stay ready to keep from getting ready.” If the city changes the rules today or tomorrow…

Charlie Brown: We ready. We have a theme that’s going to commemorate the COVID and people are gonna love it.

Sean: We strive for a bigger and better tomorrow—the next year.

Interview conducted by Rachel Breunlin of the Neighborhood Story Project.