The powerful story behind the jazz funerals of New Orleans

Mildred Europa Taylor June 03, 2022
A Jazz Funeral for Michael P. Smith, New Orleans. (Wikimedia Commons)

New Orleans is the jazz mecca of the world. Since the 1800s when jazz music originated in gatherings by enslaved Blacks in Congo Square, an outdoor space in New Orleans, the art form has spread through every aspect of culture in the city. When people die in New Orleans, the streets are filled with jazz music to honor and celebrate their lives. Truly, jazz funerals or jazz funeral processions have been a New Orleans tradition since the late 1800s.

Not every funeral held in New Orleans comes with a jazz band procession. Usually, high-profile men and women including musicians are honored in this unique way, however, others may also have a jazz funeral upon request.

Jazz funerals are typically marching band-led funeral processions that lead mourners toward the gravesite following a funeral service. Besides the church, a jazz funeral procession can also begin at the home of the deceased or the family home, leading mourners and the body to the church or funeral home before heading to the gravesite. 

The jazz funeral procession begins immediately after the formal memorial service or wake for the deceased. As mourners exit the service, they are joined by a brass band that plays music that starts off sad like “Nearer My God to Thee”. Family and friends cry during this somber march to the cemetery but once the deceased is buried, the band starts playing joyful jazz music to symbolize that the deceased has gone to a better place. 

In The Music of Black American, Eileen Southern describes the ceremony: “On the way to the cemetery it was customary to play very slowly and mournfully a dirge, or an old Negro spiritual such as ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ but on the return from the cemetery, the band would strike up a rousing, ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ or a ragtime song such as ‘Didn’t He Ramble.’ When the deceased is laid to rest – or they “cut the body loose”– the mourners “cut loose” as well.”

So who can participate in a jazz funeral procession?

On the way to the cemetery, the band always leads the way for the hearse or mule-drawn carriage carrying the coffin, followed by the mourners who attended the memorial service. They walk behind the vehicle carrying the deceased. Onlookers who did not attend the service can also join the procession, dancing and singing in the street. However, they are required to march behind the band and mourners in the “second line”. People in the second line are often seen with photos of the deceased, whistles, hats, umbrellas, and so on. From the gravesite, the procession may go back to where it started, or to where a reception will take place.

Metro writes: “One of the earliest accounts of what we now consider a New Orleans jazz funeral came from architect Benjamin Latrobe. He recalled a funeral that began with mourners wailing loudly and ended with calamitous laughter. By the start of the 20th century a new style of music – jazz – was also starting to emerge and was quickly adopted by the funeral bands. New Orleans jazz funerals had arrived.”

In recent times, jazz funerals have been held for young people who died during tragic events.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: June 3, 2022


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