The jazz funeral is a tradition based on a centuries-old African ideology that has, in modern times, become a sacred experience, unique to Louisiana, which began as early as the evolution of jazz itself. When a "jazz man" leaves the earth, there is first a viewing and service at the church followed by a march to the final resting place. En route to the cemetery, slow mournful dirges comfort the family, and once out of earshot, the elegies turn into a festive celebration of the recently departed. The Jazz Funeral is such an important cornerstone of life in New Orleans that an entire business model was established based on this tradition. Fraternal organizations known as social and pleasure clubs arose to provide burial insurance for the lower and middle class Black citizens who wanted to guarantee an appropriate send off to their loved ones.
By the mid 1970s, the jazz funeral and the clubs that kept them going were in steep decline. The elder statesmen of New Orleans Jazz were starting to fade away, and most of the younger generation were looking to forge ahead with their own musical tastes. But not all of the kids were turning a deaf ear to the old school. "In the 70s, disco was king and we didn't have anywhere to play", recalled Gregory Davis, the original and current trumpet player in the Dozen. "We weren't purists, but we just wanted to play". Balancing an exploratory nature with a deep respect for their upbringing, the Dirty Dozen found themselves as the house band at the social and pleasure club bearing the same name (the Dirty Dozen Social Club) and soon became the first group called to lead Jazz Funerals for the last of the old guard. It was here that they began their iconoclastic history. It is now that they come full circle.
TUBA FATS IS DEAD:
The horse-drawn carriage gradually made its way through the narrow cobblestone streets. Flanked on either side by a swarm of revelers, their handkerchiefs and umbrellas were swaying in spontaneous unison to the rhythms of the spirituals erupting from the brass instruments leading the procession. In New Orleans, there is only one proper way to say goodbye to a legend. Such was the case on January 18th, 2004, as the city bid a joyous fair well to Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen and his old brothers in the Dirty Dozen led the way in a celebration that lasted over four hours. It was a fitting tribute for a man many considered to be one of the iconic faces of New Orleans musical heritage, and an artist who helped to preserve the very tradition that was now paying homage to him.
As a founding member of The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tuba Fats was an integral player in a movement aimed at keeping not only the sacred institution of the "Jazz Funeral" alive, but maintaining a connection to the musical roots of the Crescent City. "Tuba should be honored", Baritone sax player and fellow founding member of the Dirty Dozen Roger Lewis mournfully stated a short while after the procession, adding "he's responsible for a lot of young guys getting to play, and he always shared his knowledge, love and spirit". It was that love and spirit that fueled the music from his former band as they made their way from Poydras and St. Charles to the famed St. Louis Cemetery #1. The irony was thick as the band had just completed their 10th studio album in 27 years, Funeral For A Friend (ropeadope, release date May 4th, 2004).
A PERFECT DOZEN:
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band did not need to exhaustively research the subject of the Jazz Funeral, they were born with it. For nearing thirty years, they have been one of the preeminent musical exports of New Orleans, with a relentless touring schedule that has brought them to more than thirty countries. From David Bowie and Elvis Costello to Modest Mouse, Dave Matthews and Widespread Panic, the Dirty Dozen have been unflinching in their desire to push the limits of what a brass band can do. Despite a mélange of styles that draw from the traditional brass band canon as well as funk, r & b, bop, gospel and rock, the Dozen have always kept one foot firmly planted in the music from which they were born. "Everybody in the band has a voice, and that's what has kept the music fresh and interesting" says Lewis, quickly adding "though it's important to never forget your roots and where you came up from".
FUNERAL FOR A FRIEND:
It was a return to those roots that inspired their 10th album, Funeral For A Friend, a breathtaking and deeply spiritual neo-traditional homage to the jazz funeral. Comprised solely of traditional gospel and spiritual songs, Funeral For A Friend is a moving sonic experience that mines the sounds and memories that have made the Dozen the preeminent musical export of New Orleans. From the somber "Amazing Grace" to the joyous and uplifting renditions of "I Shall Not Be Moved" and "Jesus is on the Mainline", the band, joined by the Davell Crawford Singers, have preserved the spirit of New Orleans and of the jazz funeral for future generations. "There is a spiritual side to music and life," says Gregory Davis, "and whatever you believe in, this album is about music as a universal form of communication". Much like an actual jazz funeral, the sessions for the album evoked a whirlwind of emotions for the band. "Even though I'm never satisfied in the studio, the spirit of the music really grabbed us. You can't help but think about a lot of the stuff that's happened in your life", recalled Lewis.
Shortly after the completion of the album, Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen died of a heart attack, leaving a hole in the tapestry of New Orleans music that he had helped to weave. The heartbroken Dirty Dozen decided to name the album "Funeral For A Friend" as a way to honor the man they learned so much from. Without hesitation the Dirty Dozen picked up their horns to march in the second line as the city of New Orleans said one final goodbye to Tuba Fats. Though physically departed, his legacy has been left in some of the most able-bodied, brass playing hands. The path ahead for the Dirty Dozen is certainly less predictable than the funeral route down which they've traveled. Joked Lewis, "We might just go rock and roll, we've already played everything else there is to play". Regardless of what the Dozen decides to explore next, "Funeral For A Friend" is as clear a sign as any that they will never abandon from where it is they came.
"Music in New Orleans is as much a part of death as it is of life." - Sidney Bechet, Musician
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photos on this page by Dino Perrucci