My first jazz funeral was Blue Lu Barker’s, which took place during the last month of my senior year of high school. I was actually enough of a nerd that I protested when my dad insisted that I skip school to come with him to the funeral.
“But, Dad,” I remember whining, “I have a calculus quiz, and I’m on deadline for the newspaper.”
“You have got to be kidding me,” he said. “There is no part of your education that could possibly be more important than going to a jazz funeral. I can’t believe I let you get to the age of 17 without you attending one, but I am fixing that right now. No daughter of mine is going to Missouri of all places without having been to a jazz funeral. So, no, you are not going to school tomorrow, and that is a parental order. I’ll pick you up at 10. Wear something festive.”
And I muttered for awhile about how unfair he was being and how lame this all was and then I sulkily put together a “festive” funeral outfit. I tried my best to sulk all through the funeral, too, but it was impossible. The music, the dancing, the camaraderie – it was all just amazing. And I, like many a sullen teenager before me, was forced to admit that my dad was totally right.
More than a decade later, I had a hand in planning a jazz funeral for my dear friend Jim that confirmed to me that we really do death right down here.
My aunt’s funeral, which was held this past Monday, was another wonderful, life-affirming New Orleans funeral. And yes, funerals can be life-affirming – if you do them right.
My Aunt Libby was decidedly not religious, and so we kept her service very free form, with lots of music and personal remembrances, all of which she would have absolutely loved.
Trumpeter Buddy Ruff, one of my aunt’s favorites, showed up to pay his respects – but without his horn. My cousin Stewart jokingly told him that my aunt would haunt him from beyond the grave for not playing at her funeral – and 20 minutes later, no one could find him. It turns out that he had started walking – in the rain – back to his house to get his trumpet. Another friend tracked him down and gave him a ride, and he arrived with his trumpet just in time to play “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Stewart, my aunt’s son and a talented guitarist, then played a duet with Ruff of “What a Wonderful World.” And then Stewart did a second duet, this time of “Free Bird,” with “guitarpist” Phil DeGruy.
As far as personal remembrances, we had everything from a few Bible passages to my aunt’s neighbor reminiscing about how confused everyone was initially when the “tiny, crazy white woman” moved into their predominantly black neighborhood. Eventually, he said (in what was one of the most touching and nontraditional eulogies I have ever heard), everyone in the neighborhood came to love and respect Libby, and he even teared up a bit as he recalled how Libby treated him like one of her own, always checking up on him, admonishing him to be careful and bringing him the occasional box of condoms – delivered, no doubt, with her signature advice to be careful who you breed with.
When the last note was played, the last memory shared, we all filed outside, where her casket was loaded into a horse-drawn carriage and the Treme Brass Band was playing her favorite songs. The cast of characters following the carriage was so incredibly diverse – black and white, rich and poor, young and old, lawyers and bartenders and professors and musicians, all laughing and crying and dancing. It was so perfectly New Orleans.
To Ruby, though, it was nothing special – at age 5, she has already been to her share of jazz funerals. After all, no one wants to make the same mistakes their parents made – and my dad was right: 17 years is way too long to live in this city without experiencing one of its very best features.