Class Acts and Daredevils: Black Masculinity in Jazz Funeral Dancing

By Atkins, Jennifer | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), June 2012 | Go to article overview

Class Acts and Daredevils: Black Masculinity in Jazz Funeral Dancing


Atkins, Jennifer, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Part of what makes New Orleans unique is its distinct traditions, like the smell of gumbo wafting through the French Quarter or Mardi Gras' mock carnival royalty parading with pomp down crowd-filled streets. Joining these vibrant cultural elements is another singular New Orleanian icon: the jazz funeral. In the African-American communities of New Orleans, death and mourning are confronted through an idiosyncratic musical and dancing procession that involves jazz musicians, benevolent society sponsors, and neighborhood tag-a-longs. At these funerals, community members take to the streets in order to celebrate the life of a deceased loved one. Improvisational high stepping and other ambulatory dancing solidify communal agency and reaffirm life; jazz funerals are spiritual, somber, festive and lively. They are so spectacular, in fact, that Willie Pajaud, late trumpeter with the Eureka Brass Band, once commented: "I'd rather play a funeral than eat a turkey dinner" (Allen).

Traditions like these are crucial to maintaining regional identity and become even more important during times of distress. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans - especially many predominantly African-American neighborhoods - endured immense loss and destruction: decimated homes, people dead or missing, and a sense of being forgotten by a government that hesitated to act permeated the landscape. Almost 1,500 Louisianans died from the storm and its aftermath. Moreover, the efforts of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to evacuate residents and assist in the city's recovery demonstrated a stunning lack of preparation, from gathering preliminary disaster response supplies to providing sanitary medical attention. Added to this was an outbreak of violence and crime in the days following the storm. Amidst these ordeals, the jazz funeral functions as a mechanism of healing and as a rallying cry that the unique spirit of New Orleans isn't lost or even silent. It perseveres.

Despite resilient determination, the jazz funeral and its cultural siblings (brass band and second line parades) face new challenges. Rising tensions and violence in Katrina's wake left one person killed and several others wounded after gunfire erupted during two-second-line parades early in 2006. In response, the New Orleans Police Department (N.O.P.D.) now requires the sponsors of these parades and jazz funerals - benevolent societies called Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs (SA&PC) - to pay escort fees of almost $4,000, more than triple the cost previously paid (Nossiter; Burdeau). According to the N.O.P.D., this increase allows for heightened numbers of parade police escorts (Nossiter). On November 16, 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana filed a federal lawsuit in representation of the Social Aid and Pleasure Club Task Force, a group of 21 clubs and "other plaintiffs" (Simmons). In addition to fighting the exorbitant costs (impossible for most clubs to raise), the ACLU suit also argues that higher escort fees run the risk of killing the jazz funeral tradition, especially as this ongoing lawsuit is continually taxing residents financially.

The jazz funeral's survival involves overcoming more than just financial woes, however; reputations are at stake. The SA&PC are fraternal societies who typically operate out of historically African-American neighborhoods - some of the same neighborhoods hit hardest by Katrina. While struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives, SA&PC men also work to combat the negative images of black men in New Orleans: as looters, violent gang members, and homicidal drug dealers. These persistent stereotypes plague most of New Orleans' black communities, but the media portrays the Ninth Ward in particular as an area inundated by shootings, drugs, and physical assaults. Against this backdrop, though, resides hope. This is, after all, jazz funeral territory, where the neighborhood turns out to support each other as they collectively face the loss of a valued community member. …

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