Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Remembering pre-Katrina New Orleans Jazz Funerals

A wonderful article by Dr. Michael White.


"I met disappointment searching for musical direction in pop music, modern jazz, and the commercialized jazz of Bourbon Street. Things changed when I started going to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1973 and heard real traditional jazz bands for the first time. It was there I met the brass band leader and legend Ernest “Doc” Paulin. Though the elderly trumpet player seemed skeptical about hiring “young fellas,” a few weeks later I answered the phone to hear his thick Creole accent offer me a job: “Be at my house at nine o’clock sharp next Sunday. You need to wear black pants, a clean white shirt, a solid black tie, black shoes and a white band cap. You won’t mess up will you? You know you young fellas ain’t no good.” That Sunday, after a brief military-like inspection and reprimand of those not properly attired, Doc led a caravan of ten musicians just across the Mississippi River to Marrero and parked in front of the small Morning Star Baptist Church—the place where the baptism into my jazz life began. I was sure it would be my first and last musical engagement. I was very wrong. Over the next four years I was a regular member of the band and played over 200 jobs.

Most of Doc’s work was in the African American community: social club and church parades, jazz funerals, and dances. Doc employed several older musicians who, like himself, had been playing jazz since the 1920s. It was during that time that I really got to know various New Orleans neighborhoods and became immersed in the subculture whence jazz originated. Doc and the older band members taught me that, at least in the neighborhoods, jazz was not the same as tourist music. It was a musical accompaniment to a way of life, an expression of community spirit that permeated dancing, speech, cooking, mannerisms, dress, walking, wit, and humor. And over the years of many memorable engagements I came to appreciate the strong spiritual and cultural ties between the local African American community, West African customs, and European traditions. The band often played for seasonal benevolent society, and social aid and pleasure club parades—very different in look, sound, nature, and purpose from the better-known, more Eurocentric Mardi Gras parades. New Orleans African American social club parades consist of colorfully attired dancing club divisions, uniformed brass bands, and a “second line.” The second line is a crowd of anonymous followers, sometimes numbering in the thousands, who dance and cheer throughout social club parades and jazz funerals. The term also refers to the participants’ free-form, West African–influenced dance that has endless variations and symbolic gestures, and often involves the use of umbrellas and handkerchiefs.

Eventually, I began to see beneath the collective hysteria an important social significance. Like the jazz music that accompanied them, the community parades since the early 1900s not only celebrated ancestral traditions, they gave scope for pride and free expression; they promoted visibility, unity, respect, and strength.

The first nonmusician’s jazz funeral Doc Paulin’s brass band played after I joined was for a member of an old benevolent society across the river from New Orleans in Hahnville. I will never forget the look, sound, and feel of that very spiritual day. Society members wore navy blue nineteenth-century French military-style uniforms trimmed in gold—complete with shiny swords and plumed admirals’ hats. There was an air of beauty, majesty, and seriousness throughout the procession. The band’s sad dirges, played en route to the cemetery, were marked by the slow, orderly steps of the somber, sunken-faced, elderly society members and attendees. Our instruments seemed to sing and cry out the melodies of “The Old Rugged Cross” and “Nearer My God to Thee” with all the passion and somber emotion heard in the sobbing and screams of the deceased’s closest family members. After the burial the traditional joyous second line dancing—to upbeat songs such as “Just Over in the Gloryland” and “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble”—was almost comic in its combination of graceful reserve and soulful expression. It was one of the last of the traditional jazz funerals conducted with the sound, look, and ceremonial dignity originally intended for New Orleans’s unique dualistic celebration of death. There was no way of knowing at the time, but those years marked the end of an era. No longer would the traditional jazz sound and style of brass bands dominate community street processions—as they had for over three-quarters of a century."

Read "Reflections of an Authentic Jazz Life in Pre-Katrina New Orleans" here in the Journal of American History.

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