May 1, 2003



Blues Giant Leaves the Stage in a Grand Old Jazz Funeral

By STEPHEN KINZERNEW ORLEANS, April 30 Outrageously feathered dancers twirled along Canal Street today, and somber dirges alternated with jubilant Dixieland stomps as New Orleans staged an old-style jazz funeral on a grand scale.

The body of rhythm-and-blues titan Earl King, who died on April 17 at 69, was pulled along the streets at midday in a horse-drawn hearse. A throng of marchers followed the coffin, among them fans, local musical heroes and delighted tourists with video cameras.

"Earl is the only one who could get a crowd out at this time of morning," the trumpeter and songwriter Dave Bartholomew said as he surveyed the parade.

Jazz funerals have been part of this city's cultural heritage for more than a century, but they are rarely celebrated on this scale anymore. Motorcycle police escorted today's procession, stopping traffic for mourners who carried traditionally decorated parasols and pictures of the flamboyant Mr. King on stage.

The parade was led by the Young Men's Olympian Junior Benevolent Society, a brass band preceded by 10 mournful-looking men in formal dress who swayed and half-stepped their way down the sun-drenched streets. Behind them came rows of mourners, followed by another band and then wildly costumed members of African-American societies known as "tribes" that have thrived here since the 1880's.

Wearing densely embroidered vests and towering headdresses of pink, red and blue plumes, these dancers allowed themselves to be caught up in the traditional jazz rhythms that surrounded them. Swaying in unison, with each adding his special twist or shake, they gave Mr. King a send-off of rare passion and exuberance.

The day's events began as white limousines arrived at regal Gallier Hall, just a few blocks from the French Quarter, for the funeral service. About 200 people attended, most of them either musicians or Mr. King's friends. Many were both. Almost everyone seemed to know each other, and the service had the aspect of a tribe gathering to dispatch one of its revered elders.

"One of the things we have to do is find a better way to give the flowers to our legends before they pass," the pianist Willie Tee said in his homage to much applause.

The two-hour ceremony was punctuated by many cries of "Amen!" and "Yes, indeed!" Aaron Neville sang "Ave Maria," and Irma Thomas led the congregation in a house-shaking rendition of "Oh Happy Day." Dr. John peered down into the open coffin and then, with a twinkling smile, looked up and warned, "He's plotting a way to come back and do whatever it is he wants to do next."

Mourners eulogized Mr. King as a creative pioneer who refused to be held back by musical boundaries, and a philosopher with a wide-ranging mind that led him to spirituality and fascination with musicians like Ravi Shankar. Several speakers also recalled his role in shaping a music-based culture in New Orleans that changed America.

When the service ended, mourners filed out to face a crowd of hundreds that had gathered outside.

Those who witnessed today's procession were able to glimpse a tradition that has remained remarkably authentic since the late 19th century, when New Orleans was in some ways freer than any other place in the United States. The mixture of European, American Indian and African influences created a culture here that has survived and thrived as local traditions in many other parts of the country have faded or died out.

"The idea of celebrating a funeral with music, and the particular way in which one addresses the body and gets intimately involved with the deceased, is very West African, along with certain paraphernalia like the umbrellas," said Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University. "That became mixed with the Irish wake, with Italian religious rituals that used brass bands and with a whole range of other influences that came out of this overlap of ethnic traditions that we had in New Orleans."

Among the most elaborately dressed participants in today's procession was Ervin Bannister, a 37-year-old carpenter who served as "spy boy" for the one of the outlandish tribes.

He was wearing brightly decorated leather pants and a multicolored jacket and carrying a five-foot-long mock rifle covered with colored beads. His traditional job is to march in the vanguard and warn of dangers ahead.

"They hardly do this anymore," Mr. Bannister said wistfully as he surveyed the ritual unfolding around him. "I'm here to keep it going. It will keep going