New Orleans Jazz Funerals

By Marsalis, Ellis L., Jr. | American Visions, October-November 1998 | Go to article overview

New Orleans Jazz Funerals


Marsalis, Ellis L., Jr., American Visions


Rejoice When You Die is photographer Leo Touchet's documentation of several jazz funerals. The photos were taken from 1968 to 1970 at the funeral processions of clarinetist George Lewis, bassist Alcide "Slowdrag" Pavageau, drummer Paul "T-Boy" Barbarin, and Leon "Nooney-Boy" Shelly, a member of one of the social and pleasure clubs. The time frame is important, for it was in the 1970s that jazz funerals began to change irrevocably from their traditional form. Touchet's photographs show the end of an era.

The photos represent the two main aspects of the traditional jazz funeral: the Somber journey to the gravesite and the exuberant return from it. They are images of a people experiencing and acting out a cultural memory that their ancestors were never allowed to express formally. In viewing them, one can almost hear the melodic strains of old Protestant hymns echoing through neighborhoods of shotgun houses and corner barrooms.

In a traditional jazz funeral, the band meets at the church or funeral parlor where the dismissal services are being conducted. After the service, the band leads the procession slowly through the neighborhood. In a recent film, Jazz Funeral: From the Inside, Milton Batiste, the lead trumpeter in DeJean's Olympia Brass Band, observed that "as the procession heads through the neighborhood, you might see a black wreath hanging on the door where the deceased lived or worked." The mood is, generally somber, and the musical selections are taken from Christian hymns, such as "Free as a Bird" or "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," commonly sung in black Protestant churches. While playing the hymn(s), the musicians indulge in virtually no improvisation.

The distance the band walks today may be only a few blocks, since burial sites are not always within walking distance of the church or funeral parlor. If the cemetery is nearby, the band accompanies the procession to it. When the interment ceremony is completed, the band leads the procession from the gravesite without playing. When a respectful distance from the site has been reached, the lead trumpeter sounds a two-note preparatory riff to alert his fellow musicians. At this point, the drummers begin to play what has become known as the "second line" beat.

The band now sheds its solemnity in favor of music more conducive to lively, even joyous, activity on the part of family, friends and other celebrants -- the group affectionately known as the "second line." Out come umbrellas, many of them elaborately decorated, that seem to be more about styling and profiling than protection from nature's elements.

When a returning brass band is heard in the distance, that sound announces the impending arrival of a public celebration. Those who are willing and able will fall in behind the band, next to the band, between the band members, affecting the body language of a dance, a strut, a "booty bounce" to the music of the second-line beat. …

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