How to Attend a Jazz Funeral

Different occasions call for different dress. A Jazz funeral is no different. How do you dress for one? If you take your cue from the musicians that participate you can’t go wrong.

Musicians wear comfortable black shoes with white socks or spats. Check out Treme bass drummer and local heartthrob Uncle Lionel Baptist and his styling spats. They wear black trousers, a white shirt or blouse, a black sports coat and a cap emblazoned with a band name. It is not unusual for a player to belong to several different bands simultaneously, and to have affiliations with a quite a few over the course of a lifetime. Players regard their caps with reverence and if you are ever given one you will know you have arrived.

On the day of the funeral, musicians and mourners gather at the church. In our case we will meet at Louis Armstrong Park at 10:00 a.m. If you play a brass band instrument, and are properly dressed and prepared to play dirges, you are welcome to march and play with the band. The instruments commonly used in a brass band are snare drum, bass drum, trumpet, tuba, sousaphone, saxophone, clarinet and trombone. The band will depart from the park at 11:00 a.m. sharp, heading to the river.

If you are not a brass band player, then you essentially have two options, you can either second line or pick a spot along the parade route and watch from there. Second-lining is a term which encompasses all the different ways you can follow a parade by foot: a mournful walk, a happy stroll, a spirited dance or as part of a frenzied undulating mass. Until we reach the riverside, we hope people will honor our wish for a solemn occasion. There will be times as the band plays that they will walk very slowly: one foot is placed forward and sideways, the other moves to join it, then that foot moves forward and the step repeats again. Practice at home, get the feel if doing it right and when you get here you will know more than many of the locals.

The cardinal rule a second-liner must follow is never get among the official procession. Careers have been cut short and avocations have been lost because a players’ horn got hit and busted his lip or knocked out a tooth. You must be respectful of them and give them space to play. All other rules are somewhat optional, this one is not. This rule is not only for the musicians’ safety, but for yours. Nobody wants to get a tuba up side the head. This rule also applies to those standing and watching the band pass by.

In a jazz funeral following the release of the departed’s body, the band begins to swing in a celebration of their comrade’s life. The signal is given by the snare drummer, whose drum is muffled with a rag inside; he will wave the rag and the band will launch into Didn’t he Ramble. The entire procession will then begin a tour of the deceased’s favorite haunts: bars, lounges, pool halls, restaurants and bordellos. In our case, we will adjourn to Washington Park on Frenchmen street where there will be more music, beer and food. (The trinity of New Orleans’ delights.)

It is not unusual for a brass band player to have a pre-march cocktail. It is almost obligatory to have one after the procession. We certainly don’t discourage that tradition but we ask that you mindful of your safety, and drink responsibly. You do not want you to conclude your visit to New Orleans with a trip to Central Lock-up. Have fun!