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New Orleans jazz funerals — A joyous tradition

22nd September 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Mary LaCoste
Contributing Writer

Ernie K-Doe was laid to rest in style. He was known for recording the hit Rhythm & Blues single “Mother in Law” in the 1960s. He faded from public sight for decades but was back in the musical limelight when he passed away in 2001. His jazz funeral was a bit over the top even by New Orleans standards. His lifelike wax statue was in his procession and thousands lined the route on the way to his final resting place in a donated tomb in St. Louis No. 2 Cemetery.

Even more grand was the jazz funeral for Tuba Fats (Anthony Lacien) in 2004. It started at the old City Hall on St. Charles Avenue, made its way to the French Quarter and then on to Tremé. A regular at Preservation Hall, he was loved by the public and the music community. A mentor to younger jazz players, he had played on Jackson Square, in Europe and wherever his talents took him.

Not all those honored with a jazz funeral were musicians or African Americans. The popular white and long lived retired Archbishop Philip Hannan of New Orleans had one in 2011. His jazz funeral was labeled “a solemn funeral cortege” in official press releases. It began at the seminary on Carrollton Avenue and made its way to St. Louis Cathedral accompanied by many marchers, school bands and jazz groups. The streets were lined with well wishers. He is buried below the floor of the sanctuary of the St. Louis Cathedral.

A more typical jazz funeral begins at a church or funeral home. A brass band is followed by a glass-sided hearse, very likely pulled by a white mule. The flowers go on top, the coffin inside and the mourners walk behind. The procession moves slowly, dirges are played, sometimes punctuated by “A Closer Walk With Thee.” Arriving at the prepared grave site, often a tomb with a curtain hiding the empty vault, the words of religion and remembrance are said and the pall bearers lift the coffin and slide it into the tomb.

The curtain drops. The mourners realize that the cares, worries and suffering of the deceased are over. That person has gone to GLORY! The band switches to spirited music like “When The Saints Go Marching In.” A mood of joy dawns as mourners begin to celebrate the release of their brother or sister to a better life. They follow the band, keeping time to the music, sometimes as far as to the home of the deceased. Others can join in, forming what is called a “second line,” as even strangers can help celebrate a life.

The defining moment of a true jazz funeral is the “switch” of music from sad to joyous. With long funeral processions of local celebrities, the lively music and second line activity can make its way to the starting point. This is not perceived as disrespectful, but as a tribute, particularly by the well organized and well-dressed marching groups that join in.

Jazz funerals have been held that do not involve a burial or prayers. Jim Monaghan’s was one example. He was well-known and loved in the French Quarter, had owned several drinking establishments and sponsored parades on St. Patrick’s Day. One of his last wishes was for a jazz funeral complete with a traditional hearse for his cremated remains and a band to lead the procession on a walk through the Quarter past his favorite spots.

Not a religious man, he told his wife Liz that, if there was such a funeral, he wanted no religious music. When he passed, his friends saw to it that his wishes were carried out, hired motorcycle police to line the route, saw to the proper city permits and arraigned for a first-class brass band, the Storyville Stompers.

When it was time for the event, his wife asked the band members to omit religious tunes. After a brief conference among themselves they told her that ALL jazz funeral music was religious. So the traditional music was played as he was in no position to complain. The funeral ended as he had wished, with his ashes placed above the cash register of his favorite establishment. There they remain today.

In the late 1800s, when early deaths were more frequent than today, families had a horror of being too poor to bury a loved one. Working-class people brought burial insurance at a nickel a week, collected by door to door insurance men. Another option was to join a mutual aid society that could provide a proper funeral. In the Black community a good “sendoff” could include a procession and music.

The importance of going out in style is reflected in these lines of the old blues song, “St. James Infirmary”:

“Oh, when I die, burry me

In my high top Stetson Hat;

Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain

So the boys will know I died standing pat.”

Traditions evolve. A development relating to the jazz funeral is, of all things, weddings celebrated the jazz way! On a typical Saturday afternoon there may be two of three of these happenings in the French Quarter. A couple will take their vows at the Cathedral or in Jackson Square and have a procession to the reception led by a brass band, often the very group used in funerals. The guests become the second line – strutting and keeping time to the music.

There are other second-line spinoffs, like the marching clubs seen on Mardi Gras day. Groups of men, all dressed alike, will hire a band to lead them. They will walk along the major parade routes, but not as part of any parade, having fun and strutting to the music, second-line style. They are known to carry sticks supporting dozens and dozens of paper flowers which they present to pretty women . . . one flower in exchange for a kiss! The best known Mardi Gras marching group was founded by clarinetist Pete Fountain. It is the (pronounce it carefully) “Half-Fast Walking Society.”

Scholars may not all agree that jazz was born in New Orleans, but they will admit that the word “jazz” certainly did. It was in New Orleans that it matured and became a part of the fabric of music everywhere. One wonders when the joy of jazz funeral celebrations and spirit of second- line processions will spread to enrich the world scene.

Isn’t every life worth celebrating?

This article originally published in the September 22, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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