Dirges for the Olympia

The end of a brass band clashes with the very tradition it embodies, the flow of life as musicians fill the ranks of those who pass away. Thus do second lines roll on. Jazz funerals in recent years have become synonymous with “cutting loose” – the high-kicking, up-tempo parade anthems that follow the burial, as the musicians play “The Second Line.”

With the death in May of “King” Richard Matthews, the longtime grand marshal of Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band, the band itself has passed on. Matthews, 60, was for Dejan’s Olympia the last of the line.

Olympia’s final active musician, 77-year-old saxophonist Ernest Watson, passed away in February. 

Harold “Duke” Dejan gave the band its name in 1958, when the alto saxophonist, who had established himself with the Eureka Brass Band, decided to start some competition. Dejan resurrected the Depression-era Olympia Serenaders, renamed them with his own eponymous stamp and guided the group across more than four decades, transforming Dejan’s Olympia into a living symbol of the city. By the early 1970s the Eureka was no longer marching, though Percy and Willie Humphreys became mainstays of Preservation Hall. Under Duke Dejan, with his unflappable cheer, Olympia played for Pope John Paul II on his 1987 visit and at the White House for several presidents. The band had a cameo (playing a funeral) in the James Bond film Live and Let Die and performed countless parades, funerals and public events.

Dejan’s trademark line was “Everything is lovely,” and the old man was lovely in his own right. After a stroke slowed him down, one arm nearly useless, he handed the marching duties to his young protégé – trumpeter Milton Batiste – but kept singing with Olympia at concerts and club venues where he radiated eternal energy. Dejan went out with a glorious second-line several years ago.

Milton Batiste produced most of Olympia’s signature recordings and with help from his wife, Ruby, managed the band’s bookings and contracts. Batiste was Matthews’ stepfather, though in the texture of that family, “step” had little meaning. When Batiste married Ruby, her son was named Richard Matthews.

As he got older, Batiste ushered Matthews into the world of parades. As Olympia’s Grand Marshal, King Richard Matthews wore a sash and carried an iconic umbrella, top hat held over his chest, setting the tempo for the marches in slow, sculpted steps, one foot ahead, a pause, the other foot dragging in a stutter-step just behind and then that gleaming smile with the front tooth of shiny gold.

King Richard Matthews’ persona of swirling youth cut a distinctive contrast with that of the legendary Fats Houston, a huge man who filled out his role for Eureka, then Olympia, while becoming an iconographic figure in his own right in photographs and a 1970s Jazz and Heritage Festival poster in which the tuxedoed grand marshal of ample girth looks noble and timeless.

Matthews picked up the mantle from Houston with his own aura, sashaying along streets, leading the Olympia with the “dance beat elegance” (thank you, Albert Murray) we have come to associate with traditional brass bands.

“We were married 35 years,” his wife Pam told me a few days before his funeral. “He had an aggressive, mean cancer – pancreatic. It went so fast for us, from March 12 [when he was diagnosed] and he died in May. Richard was an electrician before he became a full-time Grand Marshal and started running all over the place. Electricity took a back seat to the second line. The Olympia stopped parading about 10 years ago. He worked with Ruby in keeping the band together after Milton [Batiste] died.”

“We have three daughters and two sons,” she continued, running down their achievements, which include “a nurse, an ultra-sound technician, and my youngest just finished her first year in Southern Law School in Baton Rouge. This thing is so sudden.”

That familial pride registered in saxophonist “Doc” Watson’s obituary. He was married 56 years to Annabelle Washington. Watson and had four grown children (including a minister and a doctor). “Also survived by 12 grandchildren, one great-grandchild and a host of nieces, nephews, cousins and friends from around the world.”

Expansive family lines marked Olympia’s past, but what then of Olympia’s future? “We have a lawyer handling the business side,” says Pam Matthews. “My little brother, Mervin Campbell, is trumpeter with Treme Brass Band, and Ruby’s cousin Byron Bernard is with ReBirth. The future of Olympia is up in the air, but people are trying to make something happen. I don’t think Milton would have it any other way.”

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