Sunday, October 09, 2005

Jazz Funeral in Nola

Jazz Funeral Procession Back in Big Easy

By RACHEL LA CORTE, Associated Press Writer 51 minutes ago

This city's historical jazz funeral procession returned to debris-lined streets Sunday to honor a famous chef who died last month in Atlanta, where he had evacuated after being rescued from Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.

More than two dozen people carrying black and white photos of a smiling Austin Leslie marched down the streets of the devastated Seventh Ward in New Orleans, celebrating the life of the famous chef whose Chez Helene soul food restaurant inspired the television show "Frank's Place" in the 1980s.

Leslie, 71, was rescued from his home two days after Hurricane Katrina and went to Atlanta to be with relatives. He died Sept. 29 after falling ill. An autopsy report was pending.

A brass band started Sunday's procession with a spiritual hymn, "A Closer Walk With Thee," which was followed by dancing, singing and the waving and twirling of yellow umbrellas.

Stan "Pampy" Barre, the owner of Pampy's Creole Kitchen in New Orleans, the restaurant where Leslie had last worked and where the procession began, said the crowd was "going to march into New Orleans and dance him into heaven."

The group made several stops, including the former location of Chez Helene, dancing past debris and garbage that remained along the streets six weeks after Katrina flooded the city.

"It's going to get back to normal eventually," said snare drum player Dinerral Shavers, 24. "We're going to bring the life back."

As the procession made its way toward the Backstreet Cultural Museum on the outskirts of the French Quarter, the few residents who have returned home came out of their houses and joined in the jubilance by dancing, clapping and singing.

Mildred Matthews, 79, was swaying on her front porch waving a fly swatter in the air as they passed.

"You all come back to New Orleans," she yelled out.

Gralen Banks, a member of a local social club leading the procession, said the scaled-back procession was a first-step toward restoring New Orleans' jazz heritage.

"This is how we do it. We ain't closed. Tell your friends," he said.

But Jason Berry, an author who has written a history of New Orleans music and is working on a book about the history of jazz funerals in the city, said the city's musical establishment still has a way to go before returning to its pre-Katrina status.

"On a sentimental level, one can't help but be delighted," he said. "It certainly speaks about the endurance of the art form of jazz and the funeral traditions associated with it.

"Until all the musicians are back, and until the brass bands as a community gather and begin to play funerals on a regular basis, I don't think it's fair to say that New Orleans has regained that cultural territory that was so rich and beautiful."

A similar jazz funeral for Leslie was held Friday in Atlanta.

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