Music here is as much a part of death as it is of life.

--Legendary New Orleans jazzman Sidney Bechet


The "Jazz Funeral" is a famous New Orleans tradition, in which a jazz band accompanies the funeral procession to the cemetery, playing "cold" hymns and mournful dirges on the way over, and then breaks out into surprisingly cheerful and upbeat "hot" music on the way back.

For many years, "jazz funeral" was a term primarily used by outside observers, as the actual residents of New Orleans preferred to use the term "funeral with music," although today even New Orleanians tend to call it a "jazz funeral." Indeed, the tradition began in New Orleans long before jazz was invented, and dates back to the late 1700s or even earlier. Way back in 1819, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe was already noting the funeral with music as a famous tradition "peculiar to New Orleans alone among all American cities."

The funeral with music had its origins in the cultures of West Africa, which saw death as an event to be celebrated as marking the transition to the world of the spirits. West African-born slaves carried this worldview with them to America, as well as the tradition for playing music of some kind to mark a person's passing.

The tradition also drew upon European influences, as the funeral procession itself was a traditional part of Christian funerary rites, and many of the the dirges were drawn from French military music.

Finally, the funeral with music also had origins in the African-American experience of enslavement. Faced with a life on Earth filled with injustice, hardship, and unending toil, death was indeed an event that deserved celebration in addition to mourning, as it represented a release from slavery, the triumph of spiritual redemption, and a passage to the sweet by and by.

As the 19th century progressed, and brass bands became increasingly popular, the funeral with music transitioned from a simple affair with amateur musicians and homemade instruments to increasingly elaborate processions. To pay for these sometimes costly affairs, African Americans in New Orleans set up cooperative mutual insurance schemes as part of the "social clubs" most of them joined, which paid collectively for the funerals of their members regardless of the deceased's economic status, such that even the poorest members could pass on to the next life in style.

By the early 20th century, the funeral with music had become a bi-racial tradition, with most of New Orleans's white residents also having music at their funerals. The tradition took on its present form once jazz arrived on the scene in the 1910s and 1920s, and this became the music most closely associated with it ever since.

In the classic jazz funeral, mourners proceed somberly to the cemetery in a procession headed by a brass band playing slow hymns to comfort the family of the deceased. This portion of the procession almost always features the old standard "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Once the procession reaches the cemetary and sees off the hearse (known as "cutting the body loose"), the band suddenly switches to upbeat marches and foot stomping rags as the procession jubilantly dances its way back to the lodge of the social club. This portion almost always features the old standard "When the Saints Go Marching In".

At this point, passersby often join in the dancing, attracted by the cheerful music and the procession swells into a huge moving block party. These late joiners are known as the "second line" (whereas the members of the actual funeral party are known as the "first line"), and over time their style of dancing, in which they walk and twirl parasols or handkerchiefs, became a traditional style of New Orleans dancing of its own, known as "second lining," and is now sometimes performed at other events unrelated to funerals.

Over the course of the 20th century, however, the jazz funeral went into decline. As jazz music moved away from its Dixieland roots and came to be viewed as increasingly "risque" and "indecent" many whites came to view it as no longer appropriate for funerals. Moreover, the Catholic Church, which claimed most New Orleans whites as members, forbade secular music at funerals for most of the 20th century, leaving Protestant blacks as the only people still practicing the tradition.

In addition, the decline of the social clubs as an institution and the feeling among younger generations that traditional jazz was too old-fashioned, meant that the jazz funeral seemed all but dead by the 1970s, with the exception of the passing of old jazz greats, when simply nothing else would do. But in the 1980s and 1990s, a new wave of younger bands helped revive the tradition, updating the music in ways that would connect with younger people, sometimes discarding jazz in favor of funk, rock, or even hip-hop.

Today the jazz funeral is still not the norm in New Orleans, but it is not nearly as rare as it was 30 years ago, and has also increasingly made appearances in other places around the US and the World, as old religious strictures which would have made such a "disrespectful" tradition unthinkable outside of New Orleans even a few decades ago have relaxed.

I witnessed my first jazz funeral in Cambridge, Massachusetts, of all places, as I was walking through Harvard Yard one afternoon. A somber group emerged from the church, dressed all in black and talking in hushed voices, clearly a funeral. But then some of the group started pulling trombones, trumpets, and clarinets out, and burst into a rousing chorus of "When the Saints".

People seemed a little awkward at first, but the music was just so peppy and upbeat that soon they started taking off their jackets and started shakin' it. Some women even kicked off their heels and danced in their stockinged feet. Before long everyone was laughing and had huge smiles on their faces. People started grabbing onlookers to join in as the procession proceeded across the zig-zaggy paths of the Yard.

I couldn't join in, because I had to go to class, but I was tapping my toes and humming through lectures all afternoon, and felt happy all day. When I go, I think I'll have me a jazz funeral - it's the perfect balance of first being sad that someone you loved has left you, and then being so glad, because you realize that life is amazing, and that person had an amazing life, and how lucky you are to be alive and to have known them.

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