Historic Funeral Traditions: The Jazz Funeral

Of all the times I traveled to New Orleans, I never witnessed a jazz funeral. The only so-called “jazz funeral” I’ve seen was in Nassau, Bahamas in 2005 during a archeological study course. Considering the similarity in much of the history between the two cities, I could have been standing along the Mississippi River that day instead of the Caribbean Ocean as mourners filed past, swaying to the tune, “Nearer My God to Thee.”

While many historians contribute the origins of the jazz funeral to New Orleans, Louisiana, I wonder if the tradition did not begin in the Bahamas – or in Haiti. The connection between the three locations is tight, beginning with the slave culture and continuing with slave soldiers and free black men sent to New Orleans from the Bahamas and Haiti during the Battle of 1812. Many similarities in architecture are part of this culture, include ironwork that was created by slaves and free blacks in Nassau, Haiti and New Orleans, a skill that was carried from Africa.

The jazz funeral in New Orleans was noted by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe a few short years after the War of 1812, when – in 1819 – he stated that New Orleans jazz funerals were “peculiar to New Orleans alone among all American cities.” The late jazzman Danny Barker, writing in his book Bourbon Street Black, noted the funeral is seen as “a major celebration.”

No matter where the jazz funeral originated, it typically carries a similar venue. The march is led from the funeral home to the cemetery, led by family and close friends who follow the musicians. They follow the casket, which – in earlier times – was carried by a carriage with white horses. Today, a hearse may creep along ahead of the marchers. Throughout this portion of the funeral, the band plays somber and slow tunes, or dirges and hymns.

After the deceased’s ceremony at graveside, the atmosphere changes and the music does, too. A hymn or spiritual number may be the first tune, but it is upbeat. Then, the band swings into songs that elicit dancing and celebration of life and the life of the deceased. Those who follow the band and family members to enjoy the music are called “the second line,” and any parasol twirling that occurs in that ensemble is called a “second lining” that compliments the family’s handkerchief waving and umbrella twirling.

The jazz funeral saw a decline during 1970s, but since has seen a resurgence thanks to the James Bond film, Live and Let Die. There is a New Orleans funeral scene at the opening of the film, and this has captured the imagination of people that watched the film – especially those of the Baby Boomer generation. One of the New Orleans’ bands to revive this tradition includes the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, while Jazz Not Jazz has pulled the tradition of the jazz funeral into Great Britain.

Image: Musicians at Jazz funeral in Treme, New Orleans, at the door of St. Augustine Church. c. 1993.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.