Impromptu NYC New Orleans Jazz Funeral Forgets to Mourn New Orleans



Bullshit on Parade: New Yorkers carry an empty casket

The World Can’t Wait
NYC New Orleans Jazz Funeral Procession
Washington Square Park
11 September 2005

The one thing that bothers me more than our mishandling of the New Orleans disaster might be this collection of idiot assholes who are already turning the city into a martyr. Wasn’t the whole anti-Bush shtick here that, despite it all–financial misallocations, kitchen cabinet politics, Republicans at large–we weren’t going to let New Orleans die? But yesterday she died, apparently, for the sake of a poorly articulated political movement that amounts, basically, to “Take November 2 Off From Work, Yo!”

The World Can’t Wait makes no bones about conflating deep personal sympathies with the need for political action. “As we grieve today, we must not forget who’s responsible,” said one of the festival organizers, standing flimsily on one of the metal rails at the park. I don’t have a problem with that necessarily, but masquerading half-baked rhetoric about “criminal negligance as well as mass murder” and conspiratorial Republicans “surpressing 100,000 black voters” in the context of a jazz funeral–ripping the pomp, dignity, and circumstance due to the thousands of New Orleaners who deserve the honor of proper burial, and letting proper burial take a backseat to intro gov politics straight outta Worker’s Vanguard–this disgusts me.

(And nevermind that “Resist or Die,” that catch-all catchphrase used by people who haven’t actually read the Odyssey, let alone know that this bit from Pope’s translation comes at the part when Ulysses is caught in the rage, slaying the suitors who tried to fuck his wife when he was gone fighting in the Troy. This is the most incongruous part of the Odyssey, Ulysses so ill-tempered, so heedless, so not the stuff we need here–and they’re using it because the phrase has a ring to it. Look at this: hos ken thanaton kai keras aluxei. Don’t you know anything at all? You can’t escape fates or death–the former as close as we can get here to excuses for civil political inactivity, i.e. “we can’t do anything about it anyway, so why try.” There are congruous, logical, good and true reasons to stand against Bush, to “drive out the Bush regime” as they put it; this talk-loud, say-nothing (and in fact, say quite the opposite) catchphrase couldn’t be more emblematic of the entire The World Can’t Wait agenda. Yeah, take the fucking day off.)

From Balch Institute, Rites of Passage, “African Funeral and Memorial Traditions in America:

The New Orleans jazz funeral derives from both the Dahomean and Yoruba cultures of West Africa. The joyful music land exuberant dancing which follow the funeral rites reflect the belief that death is a gateway to the domain of the spirits. Rejoicing at death also has been the African-American’s response to a life of enslavement and oppression. Death was a triumph of redemption, an escape to freedom and an end to weary troubles. Although jazz funerals are rarer today, they still take place especially for jazz musicians.

The jazz funeral follows a detailed formula. The band accompanies the family, friends and the casket from the home or funeral home, to the church. Then the mourners either march to the cemetery, or they “Cut the body loose” (send the hearse off to the cemetery). Up to this point the procession is solemn and the band plays dirges adopted from French martial music, As soon as they “cut the body loose” or leave the cemetery, however, the band strikes up a joyous sound and everyone dances back to the lodge hall with others joining in along the way.

I don’t deny many of the people who came out probably had the true spirit of the jazz funeral in mind; most just seemed happy to play their horns. Across age, race, sex, everything, even handicap (there was a guy on a Segway with an electronic drumpad he had hooked up and played while riding), musicians gathered in the name of music they loved and the city and people that birthed it. No denying, even when the flanks of the parade are passing out Bush screeds with lots of bolds and italics and capital letters, not many hard facts, because you know how facts are.

Still, no denying that Leather Hat woman who played trumpet and led the parade in song–the dirge “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” “When the Saints Come Marching In” the cut-loose jam–knew at least a few of the jazz funeral formalities, and respected the music and ceremony enough to make sure everyone was playing in the same key. However half-heartedly, she even tried to organize the players by section, so they might actually sound relatively cohesive (and not nearly as rag-tag as it ended up). And as former jazzman myself (my first PA license plate read so), I can understand how a bunch of trumpet players would depart so far from the head that the actual song would degenerate into mass improvisation. And hey, I can even understand (but can’t condone) that the parade made it through the solemn dirge for about five minutes, then stuck to “Saints” for the rest thereafter–it is more fun to play.

Oh, right, where did the parade go? Nowhere. It stayed in the park, in the circle right in front of the arch where all the other musicians come to play, never making it out because the organizers didn’t bother securing a permit and the cops had the place surrounded. Mohawk Guy had acknowledged that earlier: “There is no permit–but we do not need a permit to be on the sidewalks!” He was at least somewhat good-humored about his group’s idiocy. When the mass murder woman hi-jacked the mic from a rock band that was permitted to play in the park, trying to explain to the kids that mobilizing her confederacy of dunces was more important than their big New York park scene break, the kids took back the mic. “Apologies to the parade, we’re gonna start playing.”

The parade leaders explained to their dwindling numbers–jazz musicians broke off from the crowd and just started jamming–that if they paraded on the streets, despite their supposedly cop-approved good cause, they would be arrested. “Show the way!” somebody screamed. Nobody seemed excited about this. The leaders decided to head up to Union Square, discreetly, and regroup there; I waited for fifteen minutes but to my knowledge, nothing ever materialized.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 12, 2005

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