Southern Cultures 11.2 (2005) 86-92
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A Living Tradition
Angelo P. Coclanis
Peter A. Coclanis
No southern city—indeed, few cities anywhere—can touch New Orleans when it comes to civic ritual, spectacle, and pageantry. Most readers of Southern Cultures are aware of the performative dimensions of Carnival season in the Crescent City, which culminates, of course, in Mardi Gras. Fewer are probably familiar with another venerable New Orleans performance ritual: the jazz funeral. Generally speaking, the modern script for such funerals calls for brass bands, as well as "second-line" parades of well wishers and revelers, to accompany the deceased from the church where the service is held to the cemetery where he or she is to be interred. These funerals typically honor notable local musicians, and "second liners" are often in costume.
The roots of this musical mortuary tradition go way back, originating early in the city's history within the African American community. Funerals involving parades and bands of one type or another became more frequent in the decades after the Civil War as the growing number of black benevolent and burial societies in New Orleans honored deceased members—musicians or otherwise—with properly rousing send offs into the hereafter. With the formalization and institutionalization of the African American music-scene in New Orleans, such "jazz" funerals became highly stylized. Bands got bigger, and marchers often began appearing in costumes inspired by iconic figures in African American Carnival life. Most notably, perhaps, some women marchers began wearing the "Baby Doll" garb worn originally by "uptown" African American prostitutes at Mardi Gras parades in the early twentieth century. In recent times, the death of a celebrated local musician—that of local R & B legend Ernie K-Doe in 2001, for example—could turn into a huge civic spectacle, the ritualistic aspects of which [End Page 86]
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| Figure 1 |
On a sweaty Saturday morning in late October 2004, a jazz funeral was held in New Orleans. Unlike the funeral for Ernie K-Doe or the grand funerals of other New Orleans musical greats, this one—honoring a former Tulane University groundskeeper named Lloyd Washington, who died in June 2004 at the age of eighty-three—was modest. Mourners, a Baby Doll, and a picture of Lloyd Washington. All photographs courtesy of Angelo P. Coclanis.
would include numerous brass bands, thousands of exuberant marchers, and Baby Dolls galore.
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| Figure 2 |
The pick-up truck bearing Lloyd Washington's remains.
On a sweaty Saturday morning in late October 2004, a jazz funeral was held in New Orleans. Unlike the funeral for Ernie K-Doe or the grand funerals of other New Orleans musical greats, this one—honoring a former Tulane University groundskeeper named Lloyd Washington, who died in June 2004 at the age of eighty-three—was modest to say the least. Washington had also been a singer. He had performed off and on in the postwar period in one of the many groups known as the Ink Spots that grew out of the original 1930s group of that name and had remained active in the musical life of the city almost to the time of his death.
Because his family couldn't afford a burial plot, Washington had been cremated, and his ashes had been kept since June in a box at the late Ernie K-Doe's Mother-in-Law Lounge, now run by K-Doe's widow, Antoinette. After some months, a local family had generously offered to provide space for Washington's remains in its family tomb. Washington's family decided to accept the offer, which meant removing Lloyd's ashes from the lounge and placing them instead in this tomb, located in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery on Basin Street. Because Lloyd Washington had been a musician—and an Ink Spot of sorts—his family wanted a proper send off, however, which is to say, it wanted a jazz funeral. It got one. [End Page 88] They couldn't afford a brass...