The New Orleans jazz funeral embodies a rich heritage that serves as another reminder of the significance of brass band music and its ability to draw people together in a collective experience. (Podcast of the show that goes with post.)
As I prepare for my All Souls Day show this Monday, I’m naturally drawn to thinking about this tradition. While I’ve never had the occasion to witness a jazz funeral, my sense is my life is richer by its very existence.
I’ve told the story about Danny Barker and how he taught the brass band tradition to a new generation of musicians who would later found and inspire a renaissance in New Orleans music with brass bands like the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth, Soul Rebels and Hot 8. A deeper story is how Danny Barker’s death created a resolve to preserve jazz traditions, ensuring a creative tension between the old and new that lives on today.
By the end of his life, Barker had become unhappy with the conduct of some of the younger brass bands. With a musical career that dated back to playing on the streets of New Orleans in the 1920s, Barker felt the jazz funeral in particular had strayed from its origins with improperly dressed musicians, inappropriately timed songs and undignified behavior. He had made it clear to his wife that he did not want a jazz funeral.
Gregg Stafford understood his former mentor’s concerns and as an experienced trumpeter and band leader, he believed he could ensure that Barker’s jazz funeral could be done right. With the help of Fred Johnson, who had been a spy boy with the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and the blessing of Barker’s family, he set out to do it.
On March 17, 1993, the members of the band assembled three blocks from St. Raymond’s Catholic Church on Paris Avenue. Every band member was dressed in black shoes, an ironed white shirt, black tie, black coat and matching cap. As they approached the church playing “Just a Little While to Stay Here,” Stafford knew that the minister and congregation in the church could hear them approach.
The band lined up outside the church waiting for Barker to be taken out with a Grand Marshall in the lead, stepping proudly and precisely to the beat. The band played “In the Sweet Bye and Bye.” As called for by tradition, the band played dirges all the way to St. Louis Cemetery No. 2. Fred Johnson and other members of the Tambourine and Fan marching club walked deliberately behind the hearse, creating the right tone and atmosphere. No buck jumping was seen at this stage in the funeral
Once the body was interred, the band left the cemetery with the drummer switching from the somber tom tom to the snappier snare drum. And then the livelier part of the parade began.
Matt Skakeeny, author of Roll with It – Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans describes the relevance of brass bands and funerals in this way:
The music organizes the collective suffering of those at the funeral and the collective pleasure that they anticipate in the shift to up-tempo music. . . The instruments of the brass band do not only communicate with the dead; they mediate the relationship between the living and the dead. (Page 167)
The response to this return to tradition was felt so strongly by Gregg Stafford and Fred Johnson that they formed the social and activist club Black Men of Labor to “pay tribute to the contributions of African American men in the work place while promoting and preserving Traditional Jazz Music.”
Please join me Monday (the recording is here) where I’ll feature traditional music from jazz funerals on Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa.