A Tale of Two Jazz Funerals

New Orleans is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of jazz. Buddy Bolden, Sidney Bechet, Kid Ory, King Oliver and the inimitable Louis Armstrong practiced their craft in the Crescent City. In the early twentieth century jazz musicians didn’t rate very high on the actuarial table, so not many years after the birth of jazz a curious custom arose-the jazz funeral.

Jazz funerals follow a tradition which is rooted in the beginnings of the Anglo-American slave trade. Slaves saw death as freedom. As Simon Schama wrote, “To die in the Carribean was to go home.” Funerals were therefore seen as an occasion for joy as well as sadness.

Musicians of all races and ethnicity have told me the most important criteria for inclusion into the jazz community is not the color of your skin, but how well you play. Jazz funerals are multiracial events and have been for some time. There is no question, however, that at least in its inception, the jazz funeral was a ceremony defiant of the white oligarchy of Jim Crow and a way to celebrate the lives of some of the heroes of African-American culture.

The funerals were a moving tribute to the deceased. They also allowed participants to be involved in something culturally significant and escape the persona of their everyday, often menial job. The Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs were other ways that people of color, who were pushed to the economic and social margins, asserted their cultural identity. All of these customs and traditions struggle to evolve, and many are in danger of being relegated to a museum.

This danger is occurring not only because of lack interest in jazz funerals, but because of a lack of respect for the participant musicians and lack of knowledge of their wishes. Their wishes deserve to be respected because many of these people create music revered around the world. Brass band and jazz music, which has always been intertwined in New Orleans, is a vital part of American and Louisiana culture. The traditions, the ground on which the music stands, are eroding, just like our barrier islands.

Two jazz funerals in 2004 showed the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the surreal, and the best and the worst of this changing ceremony. Tuba Fats was emblematic of the brass band musicians in this city. He scrambled to make a living, including a sidewalk gig working for tips every Saturday in front of Saint Louis Cathedral. He had poor health-care benefits and made poor life-style choices. He endured countless drudgeries just to keep going. Yet Tuba was one of the most popular musicians to ever play in this city. Joe Torregano, a fine clarinet and saxophone player, said, “Tuba was probably the second most photographed musician to ever come from New Orleans. Only Louis Armstrong was photographed more.” Tuba was also the composer of the oft-covered brass band staple Food Stamp Blues. With all his talent, charisma and goodwill going for him, Tuba should have done well. But he passed on before his time, dying at fifty-three.

Perhaps because he was so revered, Tuba’s jazz funeral drew more people than any in recent memory. The procession traversed the middle of the French Quarter and several thousand people, many from the music community and many more who were not, played, watched or second-lined. From the outset the funeral was disorganized. There was no designated leader, and no command hierarchy, which with that many people was a recipe for disaster. The musicians didn’t stay together, and at times those in the vanguard were separated by several blocks and a milling crowd from those behind them. Nobody was on the same page musically, and only one or two songs were played as a group. Instead of dirges there were only fast-paced songs, most of which could barely be heard. Vendors in trucks trolled for customers, pushing beer and hot sausage po-boys on the crowd. A man jumped up on the horse-drawn casket, and sat between sprays of flower videotaping the chaotic mess. It was more like a wild Mardi Gras day than a funeral.

Frog Joseph’s funeral was dramatically different. Frog was one of the greatest trombone players to come from this city. After a beautiful service, which featured the performance by three trombones of a haunting rendition of The Wabash Blues (one of Frog’s signature tunes), people assembled in front of the church. The funeral route was in a more sedate area of New Orleans than Tuba’s, between St. Bernard and Esplanade, and the procession was mostly comprised of family and old friends. Members of the procession knew where they should be, bystanders stood solemnly on the curb, and the procession wound to the graveyard without any problem. The cream of New Orleans brass band and jazz players were there. The old dirges they played were moving and cathartic.

The difference between the two funerals is directly related to their organization. Three of Frog’s sons are prominent New Orleans musicians and they were friends with many of the musicians who played. Kirk Joseph, a big man who is a wonderful tuba and sousaphone player, spoke to the crowd at the church service. He promised, “As long as I’m alive my family will be involved in New Orleans music.” (Kirk has a son who is a budding musician.)

Kirk lived up to his statement and his father’s memory. He was absolutely in charge at his father’s funeral (with lots of subtle help by his family), and his determination that there not be any silliness was respected. He helped prove that New Orleans’ residents could respect family and tradition and the inherent beauty and grace of a jazz funeral and still have a good time.

Music city jazz fest will start in Louis Armstrong Park, which is in the Treme neighborhood. It was there that many of the first notes of jazz were played. Fittingly, the Treme Brass Band will be the lead brass band for the Music city jazz fest, though many of the city’s other fine musicians are expected to participate.

The funeral will be a symbol of a city’s mourning: mourning for our dead and wounded in Iraq, mourning for the countless innocent lives that have been lost, mourning, most of all, for those lost civil liberties that used to define being an American. The organizers intend to exercise control over this event, just like Kirk Joseph did for his father’s funeral: there will be dirges until the Patriot Act is buried in the river, there will be no people stumbling among the band, there will be no grandstanding to get on television, and parade marshals and police will be in charge.

Together we can show that the jazz funeral has new and vital meaning. Together we can send a signal of unity in our sorrow. Together we can adhere to the traditions of this very solemn occasion. Together we can say some people in our nation still care.