When I was in New Orleans I often heard “Did you read Rose today?” That would be Times Picayune and pulitzer Prize nominee columnist Chris Rose who has become a must read in post Katrina NOLA. If you aren’t familiar with his work he has a book entitled “1 Dead in Attic” and here is a post at Josh Britton.com that includes parts of an interview with Rose. In his column last Friday Rose writes of following his own advice that New Orleanians take out of town visitors on a “Misery Tour.” Rose took some of his visitors to see the lower 9th before going to Jazzfest. On the way they saw a jazz funeral in the 8th ward……
They’d already seen Lakeview and Mid-City the day before. More than anything else, the emptiness of it all is what stirs the soul. That’s what tells this story. Eight months later, the question still hammers home: Where the hell is everybody?
While we were tooling around the 8th Ward, we turned up St. Roch Avenue and got stalled behind a gathering in the street and, unaware of what was going on, I backed up and took a circuitous route around St. Roch Cemetery and then ended up in front of the crowd.
It was a funeral. A jazz funeral, of all things.
It was small. A hearse, one limo and maybe 40 people following. Several men with matching T-shirts followed close behind the hearse, with their hands on the back of it and their heads bowed. A ragtag band played a slow dirge.
Unlike the big and brassy processions that follow the passings of famous musicians around here, this one was off the radar. It was just some family and friends and none of the attendant video and camera crews that can turn these intimate gatherings into culture vulture documentaries rather than unique spiritual reckonings.
The St. Roch area is still so blown out and desolate that this pocket of humanity and color lent a haunting quality to the landscape. It looked like an apparition in the hushed grayness.
“Is this for real?” my guests asked me and I told them yes, this is what happens here.
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I felt intrusive — pulling over and opening the car doors for my guests — but how could you not stop and watch? I took off my hat, my one pathetic gesture of respect for those gathered, most of whom took no notice of us as they passed by.
As they turned a corner, the band shifted from mournful to mirthful — to that “Oh! Didn’t He Ramble” sort of street jig they play when a jazz funeral turns its party switch on. And we watched from behind as the men cut, shuffled and buck-jumped and took their brother home sweet home glory hallelujah.
“It’s like a movie,” someone in our group said and that is indeed what it felt like. But real movies make events like these look so contrived and clownish that I suspect most people outside of New Orleans don’t think there really are such things as jazz funerals but here it was, in its lonesome, wistful reality.
This spectacle told my guests so much more than my words ever could, so I turned on WWOZ and headed for the Fair Grounds and we set about the business of celebrating the life and survival — albeit somewhat tenuous — of this profoundly soulful city and its culture.
And then this week, in a moment of downtime, I rifled through some old papers stacked in my living room and found a death notice from last week announcing that a “Celebration of Life” would be held for Derrick Arthur Brown at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church on St. Roch Avenue last Saturday morning. And that’s what we witnessed: a celebration of life.
I read more of the death notice and found out that Derrick Arthur Brown had graduated from McDonogh 35 and played football at Jackson State and used to mask with the Cherokee Hunters Mardi Gras Indian tribe and was once employed by a place called B-Neat Cleaners.
He was 47, with two daughters and three grandkids, when he died.
And it said this: “Derrick Arthur Brown passed away on or about Aug. 29, 2005.”
Eight months later, to the date, he was sent to his final home and the measure of this information leaves me stupefied.
What to say? We’re still burying them. Still burying us.
I don’t have the words to comment on this, to lend any clarity or perspective. It just sits in your head with everything else.
Where was he all this time?
It fails to shock or stun because the bar on shock value around here has been raised so high. It just is what it is. And if nothing else, we find in a back-of-town street on a cloudy Saturday morning a small act of celebration, defiance and closure for one more death in our family.