A Dirge 'Round the Corner
Another dispatch from the Crescent --
Sylvester Francis, an infamous repository of NOLA lore and proprietor of the Backstreet Cultural Museum, tipped me off on a recent return visit to a jazz funeral for Billy Ding. Not an everyday occurrence, and so not to be missed. And like so many cultural events in this city, it has an only in New Orleans quality to it. A crowd began milling about Jackson Square in the French Quarter, seemingly equal parts those in the know and those who wandered by and stopped, knowing something was about to happen. The bells at St. Louis Cathedral began tolling and out came the coffin. It was led into a hearse, which began the parade. The band struck up its first number.
On a hot May day, the Treme Brass Band was in full regalia to honor one of their own, while the crowd was a strange mixture of eccentric locals, family, friends, and yes, tourists (self included, sadly). It was both a musical event that warranted serious photography and audio recording -- which I saw -- but plenty of snapshots by the simply curious as well. The jazz funeral has assumed a kind of mythic quality that makes it a tourist attraction. And needless to say, a funeral comes off as an awkward event to spectate, perhaps no better than devastation tourism. East Coast funeral rites certainly don't include drinking beer and dancing.
I would imagine those involved knew what they were in for -- this isn't the first jazz funeral (formerly "jazz with music," FYI) to have attracted passers-by who never knew or even knew of the deceased. But in New Orleans, musicians are civic figures, so perhaps it is fitting that their funerals be a public event, as with intellectuals in France (tens of thousands clogging JP Sartre's funeral in Paris). In the end, the crowd hardly diminished the most solemn moments, as when the parade encountered a bend on Chartres St., which indicated the passage from the Quarter to the Faubourg Marigny. Crossing a neighborhood border is not to be taken lightly by bands who self-identify by neighborhood, and so the band leader declared, "We'll do a dirge 'round the corner."
As the road straightened back out, the up tempo numbers returned and the marchers continued on, whetting their whistles and celebrating Billy Ding all the while.
I just finished up Ned Sublette's history of the antebellum and colonial eras of the city. No surprise to learn that the jazz funeral has African roots. It's all part of the rich but chaotic world that made New Orleans.