In the last cool days of spring, an assemblage of musicians turned out for the funeral of Keith Moore, a 43-year-old conceptual artist, musician and son of rhythm-and-blues bandmaster Deacon John. The wake at Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home in Tremé was equal parts tender and impassioned as family members gave the space eloquence through spoken memories.
Kids Shots Madison
With musical selections arranged throughout the program, jazz artists sat in the chairs to the left of the casket. Waiting his turn in the program, Jamil Sharif, in a handsome suit and tie, had his trumpet case resting on his lap. Sharif is a fourth-generation descendant of James Brown Humphrey, a music professor and bandmaster who rode the train to outlying plantation towns in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, teaching musicians who eventually migrated to the city and joined the early brass bands.
When the time came, Sharif unpacked his horn and climbed onto the bandstand. The man whose father had changed the family name in assuming the faith of Islam uncorked a slow, mournful version of the hymn-as-dirge, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” as if he had sung it the day before. Sharif is a mainstay of New Orleans-style, with a signature as polished as fine poetry.
As the song settled over the crowd, I wondered how much of a tradition is taught and how much absorbed in subtler, often indescribable ways as a culture articulates its memory.
A few minutes later, the mourners and musicians filed out into the sunny afternoon. Ruddley Thibodeaux, veteran leader of the Algiers Brass Band, sent up the same song as pallbearers placed the casket in the hearse. With the boom of the drum and two men on tuba deepening the rhythm base, Thibodeaux led his men into the street, extending a tradition of “the trumpeter talkin’ that preacher talk” as the timeless Doc Paulin told me 12 years ago – I believe Paulin is 100 now; he came to the city from the country in the 1920s and led his own band for more than 50 years.
The line of trumpeters that shaped the early jazz sound walked a line between the street parades, which carried songs of the churches, and the sawdust-spattered floors of Storyville cabarets – sacred and profane, all of a piece. Joe Oliver, Freddie Keppard and Louis Armstrong were the most famous of the early generation; Creole talents like Manuel Perez exerted considerable influence of their own.
By the late 1940s – after the Depression and World War II – when the producer William Russell began recording local jazzmen for his American Music label, brass bands were struggling to exist. Russell rehabilitated the career of Bunk Johnson – a sterling trumpeter of the early years – and in the process ignited what became known as the New Orleans Revival.
Trumpeters like Percy Humphrey (Jamil Sharif’s uncle), Kid Howard, Kids Shots Madison, Papa French and Papa Celestin kept the early idiom alive and driving in clubs, parades and society functions during those otherwise fallow years. Beyond “the preacher talk” that Doc Paulin ascribed to the trumpeter for funerals, the man with the horn was charged with melody, laying out a thematic line from which his colleagues would improvise.
The intricacy of that relationship between the trumpeter and his crew, either an ensemble on stage or a brass band in a parade, carried down the years as the younger men took up the processionals and second-lines as the older guys passed away. The beauty of that tradition – with the stately procession of marchers performing dirges giving away to the joyous streams of second-liners dancing in the street – carried its own set of lessons.
Irvin Mayfield, the trumpeter who leads the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, got his start in the Algiers Brass Band. Ruddley Thibodeaux gave him recordings of an older trumpeter – Wallace Davenport. Davenport’s version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” had a particular resonance for Mayfield, who was exposed to the tradition at age 10. “I listened to those records and played them and transcribed them in my head. We learned those things and played them in rehearsal,” recalls Mayfield.
The regeneration of that line of trumpeters from the earliest stirrings of jazz was nurtured by the association of churches, benevolent societies and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs – the groups that sponsored the parades that provided a livelihood to musicians and the countless moments that allowed the tradition to find new thresholds for the younger players on the way up. Only about a third of the 70 parade clubs have returned since Katrina but as the city goes, so goes the second-line.