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Joyous Funeral Marches a Highlight of New Orleans Festival

  • Associated Press

FILE - Musicians are seen participating in a traditional jazz funeral in New Orleans, Louisiana.

FILE - Musicians are seen participating in a traditional jazz funeral in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Amid the music, food and fanfare of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a sight some may find surprising: a funeral procession.

Fest-goers hold up cameras and iPhones as a brass band leads a procession of mourners holding photographs of their beloved departed. The group includes dancers with feather-fans strutting and swaying, hoisting umbrellas and waving handkerchiefs.

While typically only seen on city streets, the uniquely New Orleans tradition known as a jazz funeral has become common at Jazz Fest, the annual celebration of music and culture that takes place over two weekends every spring.

Two funerals were held last weekend.

The second weekend gets an early start Thursday, when headliners among the dozens of acts include the rock band Widespread Panic and the country and bluegrass band Alison Krauss and Union Station.

Highlights Friday include Chicago, Galactic, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band - and another of the funeral processions.

“It starts out seeming like it's a sad thing, which it is a sad occasion, but a sad occasion turning into a joyous one,” said Oscar Washington, the drummer and bandleader for the New Wave Brass Band, which led the procession last Friday honoring the late Bruce Brice.

Brice, who died in September, was the New Orleans artist who created the first official Jazz Fest poster in 1970.

‘Smiling down’

Brice's son, Eben Brice, held a picture of his dad as he danced through the crowd. The procession ended with the unveiling of a painted cutout in the artist's likeness, which will be displayed at the festival for years to come.

“I know he's smiling down,” Brice said.

Another funeral procession was held Saturday for Big Chief Bo Dollis, the leader of the Wild Magnolias, one of the groups of African-American men who, in a century-old tradition, dress in colorful handmade costumes reminiscent of American Indian garb.

This Friday, a jazz funeral is set for John Dallas “JT” Tamberella, the longtime supervisor of the Jazz Fest plumbing crew.

Washington, who has led countless jazz funeral processions, said the tradition is an engrained part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans.

“It's what we do,” he said. “It was always said to be that you cry when you're born into this world, and then it's a joyous occasion when you leave out.”

Drumbeats and horns drive the procession and set it apart from traditional funeral processions, he said.

Traditional jazz funerals start slow and solemn with a dirge, usually “A Closer Walk With Thee,” and then build to a celebratory street party honoring the departed. Observers of the parade fall in behind the procession, forming a traditional “second line” of marchers.

“People will start doing the traditional second-line, with the stepping across and over, jumping in the air,” he said. “That says here another soldier has gone on home, let's celebrate.”