The tradition of the New Orleans jazz funeral has fallen away somewhat in the wake of Hurricane Katrina but has not been forgotten. Although the wild music and dancing have, historically, flown in the face of prevailing sentiments about the required solemnity of the traditional memorial service, the New Orleans jazz funeral grew throughout the 20th century to achieve its own respected standing among the many ways to commemorate the passage of a loved one. The music and dancing of the jazz funeral were intended to both help the deceased find their way to heaven and to celebrate the final release from the bounds of earthly life, which had, in the past, included the release from slavery. The call-and-response style of music and chant, coupled with tambourines, drums, music, and dancing were elements of African funeral ceremonies which crossed the seas with captive slaves. In American culture, this type of funeral caught on among the African- American population of the deep south, but, as the tradition was not welcomed by the Catholic church, was restricted largely to the black Protestants of New Orleans and came to be the funeral of choice particularly among impoverished people and musicians. Towards the middle of the 20th century, as the movement caught on more, social clubs and insurance policies arose to help the underprivileged afford these funerals, giving rise to the most celebrated of funerary jazz bands, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Historically, the New Orleans jazz funeral could last up to a week and sometimes even included a parade. A typical funeral began with a slow march from the home of the deceased to the church or funeral home. During the march, the coffin may have been carried by a horse-drawn hearse and was accompanied by a brass band playing somber dirges and hymns.
The meaning of a monument
Subscribe today to support our mission and contributors. A color reproduction of a photograph by Syndey Byrd of a second line parade. N ew Orleans is a city of parades, most famously the Mardi Gras processions that roll down the wide boulevards of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street during Carnival season, but in all the seasons and in every neighborhood there are jazz funerals and parades known as second lines that fill the backstreets with a joyful noise. On Sunday afternoons from September through May, African American forms of music, dance, and dress are put on display in parades that have become symbolic of New Orleans and its association with festivity and pleasure. The upbeat tone of second line parades originates in the distinctive local tradition of jazz funerals.
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If the Louisiana city of New Orleans is the body then jazz is its beating heart. You hear it on every street corner and it has been exported around the world. In New Orleans, jazz is a part of everyday life, so it stands to reason that it would also be an important part of death. If you have never witnessed a New Orleans jazz funeral, Google it now. Better yet, buy a plane ticket.