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Cover story

He’s comin’ through

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
New Orleans

Dirges are the songs of sorrow a brass band plays in ushering a coffin to the cemetery. The tolling of the dirges has a solemn dignity, shaping the image most people have of a jazz funeral. Trailed by limousines and a crowd of mourners, the musicians in dark pants, white shirts, dark ties and caps, their instruments glinting silver and gold in the sun, move in a slow procession. They follow the grand marshal in tuxedo or tails who sets the pace with sculpted steps, one foot out, another pulling behind in a slow drag, a hand holding the top hat across the sash on his chest.

Like the chorus in a Greek drama, the musicians articulate the consciousness of a community when someone is laid to rest.

So has it been in the century since jazz arose from working-class neighborhoods at the bottom of America, a melding of the sacred and profane, of Catholicism and jazz, as music moves between streets and sacred spaces. So it was in early April, when Catholic bandleader Milton Batiste was laid to rest after a jazz sendoff that, more than most, held a mirror to the epic of the music and the spiritual sensibility out of which it arose.

As the procession moves on, the trumpeter lays out the melody, playing a slow tempo, tunes like “Old Rugged Cross,” a song carried out of slavery, or “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” now the most popular dirge, a hymn that found its way into the New Orleans street repertoire in the 1930s.

Just a closer walk with thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea …

With the trumpeter advancing the melodic line, the clarinet sings back an embroidered countermelody with the high pealing “widow’s wail,” a voice of lamentation and female woe. The bass drummer hits the hard, deep thuds of grief that anchor the backbeat; the trombone’s pulsations strengthen the rhythm; the tuba and other instruments fill in a melding of cross-rhythms.

The wailing of the dirges quickens excitement in the second line, the spontaneous street dancers (many of whom never knew the deceased) who shuffle alongside the band. Their numbers grow in anticipation of that sharp shift when burial is done and the band breaks into an up-tempo song like “Didn’t He Ramble?” that signals the “cutting loose” of the soul from earthly ties. When the band hits that up-tempo shift, hundreds of second liners explode into gyrations and a wave of high kicking prances, giving the dead a joyous sendoff. Bravura rhythms and irreverent dancing signal the soul’s release, no longer a time to mourn, rather to celebrate -- what Jelly Roll Morton called “the end of a perfect death.”

Milton Batiste played a river of dirges and second line anthems during his 66 years. As lead trumpet in the Olympia Brass Band for 39 years, the amiable Batiste, a dark, hefty, bearded man with an easy drawl and winning grin, was a beloved figure in the jazz community. From the mid-1970s into the 1990s, Olympia made 30 concert tours of Europe and a tour of Africa under State Department auspices. Olympia played for three presidents and Pope John Paul II on his 1987 visit to New Orleans.

Next door to Milton Batiste’s home in the leafy Gentilly Woods neighborhood, he turned a shotgun house into a ramshackle studio. There he produced a line of CDs on Olympia and a stream of gospel singers and younger musicians just starting out.

His funeral on April 6, with a requiem Mass at Corpus Christi Church and a rollicking burial parade, brought an illustrious career into high relief, his career, like that of many New Orleans musicians, ending where it began -- at a crossroads of jazz and the Catholic church.

* * *

New Orleans, now 62 percent African-American, has been a heavily Catholic city since its founding by the French in 1718. In recent years a quilt of black Protestant churches has drawn many worshipers. However, there is still a substantial black Catholic community, including many politicians. Corpus Christi was once the largest black parish in America. In the 1930s it had 18,000 members; today it’s closer to 5,000. The church is in the Seventh Ward, on the downtown or downriver side of the French Quarter. The three black men who have been elected mayor since the civil rights era -- Ernest “Dutch” Morial, Sidney Bartholomey and Marc Morial (Dutch’s son) -- grew up in the Seventh Ward, the hearth of Creole culture. The younger Morial is a graduate of Jesuit High School; Bartholomey was a seminarian in his youth.

The downtown Creole culture has its origins in the French-speaking free persons of color, many of them mulattoes or fair-skinned blacks, who came to New Orleans in the early 1800s following the war of liberation on the island of Haiti. In 1809, the city’s population of 10,000 nearly doubled with the arrival of some 10,000 émigrés from Haiti who came via Cuba. A third were French, a third free persons of color, a third slaves belonging to both groups.

New Orleans was a crossroads of humanity, a melting pot before the term was coined. The Spanish acquired the colony from the French in the late 1700s, only to return it in time for Napoleon to sell it as part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Waves of Irish immigrants came in the 1820s and ’30s, followed by a surge of Sicilians in the latter decades of the 19th century. As the Creole poet Marcus Christian wrote in 1968:

I am America epitomized
A blending of everything
Latin, Nordic and Negro …

Music was central to the urban character. In 1810 the city had three opera companies when New York had but one. As dance halls proliferated, so did the open-air Sunday gatherings of slaves at a park called Place Du Congo, or, as English supplanted French as the local language, Congo Square. There, on a grassy commons behind the city proper, hundreds of slaves formed concentric circles -- rings within rings -- and danced to the rhythms of conga drums, stringed instruments and panpipes made of wood.

“Wherever in Africa the counterclockwise dance ceremony was performed,” writes Sterling Stuckey in Slave Culture (1987), “the dancing and singing were directed to the ancestors and gods.” Ring dances were burial ceremonies in the mother culture. As this ritual psyche took root in New Orleans it spawned a tradition of public dancing that honored the dead.

Brass bands were a European tradition that flourished in the raucous port. Military bands have played funeral marches in many cultures stretching back across time. By the 1880s, with blacks forming their own brass bands, waves of street dancers -- spiritual descendants of the long-since dormant ring dancers of Congo Square -- began following burial marches and parades for other occasions. Jazz arose in the early 1900s as the African genius for polyrhythm merged with European instrumentation and melody.

Most of the darker blacks, who lived uptown, were descendants of slaves. The downtown Creoles came out of a tighter family structure and a tradition of self-reliance: Families of carpenters, brick masons, cigar makers and music teachers, among other artisans, created a sturdy economy of scale.

Most of the downtown Creoles were classically trained. The uptown blacks for the most part learned to play by ear, improvising on what they heard. Louis Armstrong, a grandson of slaves, learned to play by ear. Jelly Roll Morton, born into a comfortable Creole home, took music instruction.

“There was a caste system within the Negroes themselves,” the late Danny Barker, a musician and author, explained. “The Catholics liked Creole music, which was refined, and the Protestants were closer to the blues shouting and the spirituals and screaming to the skies and the Lord. All the bands had a particular section of society where they entertained … and particular halls where they played.”

A Creole bandmaster named James Brown Humphrey was a key figure in the development of jazz. In the 1890s he boarded the train each week, traveling to the outlying plantation areas where he gave music lessons to field workers and descendants of slaves. In time, some of his pupils moved to New Orleans, filling the ranks of brass bands in the early 1900s.

The music had a rougher side in the quasi-legal red light district known as Storyville, which operated from 1897 until 1917. Many musicians who played funerals or at church wakes found venues in the Storyville speakeasies with sawdust-spattered floors. Pianists played in the opulent bordellos in Victorian mansions. “One thing that always puzzled me,” the trumpeter Lee Collins recalled in a memoir, “was that the prostitutes from the district would go to church and take flowers to put on the altar; they would never miss Mass. Maybe they had not altogether forgot the way they were brought up. Some of the girls that worked in the district came from fine old Creole families. Lots of them never went back home again … as they had brought great disgrace to their families.”

Sorrowful hymns, sung in pews of Catholic as well as Protestant churches, worked their way into the repertoire of brass bands at the funerals. This gave the early jazz idiom a pronounced religious coloring. “When the Saints Go Marching In” was one of the most popular hymns, sung in slow tempo in the churches. In 1938 Louis Armstrong recorded the song at a parade beat, anchoring it forever as an anthem of the second liners.

Armstrong, though raised a Protestant, was baptized a Catholic. Paul Barbarin, a drummer from one of the most illustrious musical families (his sister was Danny Barker’s mother) grew up on the edges of Storyville. So did the boisterous bandleader Louis Prima, whose family home lay just outside a Sicilian enclave in the rear of the French Quarter. George Lewis, the clarinetist whose tours of Japan in the 1960s exposed a vast new audience to traditional jazz, was a Catholic who imbued his reed with the beauty of the spirituals.

Aaron Neville, the Grammy-winning vocalist with huge biceps and a dagger tattooed on his cheek, is a gentle soul behind that menacing façade. He has publicly credited St. Jude, the patron of hopeless cases, for helping him overcome a heroin addiction. Jazz educator Ellis Marsalis is a lifelong Catholic whose sons Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason have national careers. The singer and film star Harry Connick Jr. graduated from Jesuit High School. The list goes on.

* * *

Milton Batiste was a driving force in the rise of Olympia, the oldest of the city’s marching bands. The group formed in the 1880s to perform for the Young Men Olympian, TK a black benevolent society that assured each member of a proper burial. The Olympia band underwent many changes, becoming an orchestra and a brass band again until World War II, when the group faded from the scene. In 1958 the saxophonist Harold “Duke” Dejan resurrected Olympia as a brass band.

Dejan, one of 10 children from a Creole family, took lessons as a child from Lorenzo Tio Jr., a legendary clarinetist with the Onward Brass Band. Dejan’s first exposure to brass bands came as a teenager in the 1920s in a group affiliated with Holy Ghost Catholic Church, which is located in a central city ward. “We played up there where the organ sits, played the hymns for religions concerts,” Dejan has recalled.

There is no written account of the church’s role in the development of jazz. However, oral traditions suggest ambivalence if not downright opposition by church officials to the burial parades, which often turned flamboyant.

“At one time the Catholics didn’t want no band for jazz funerals,” Harold Dejan explained. “Then they thought of letting the band play, and changed it [for the] better.”

The dramatic orations of pulpit preachers and surging choral singing of black Protestant churches were similar to the call-and-response pattern of early jazz ensembles. Although the early brass band funerals shared such dynamics, there was a spiritual idea as central to Catholicism as the African vision of many deities -- the idea of a soul sent into the afterlife.

“I was an altar boy, and we had to read Latin,” Batiste recalled in a 1997 interview. “It was a [different] type of music played in our churches than in the Baptist church or Lutheran church.”

When Batiste was growing up in the 1940s, “it was unheard of to have a band in the Catholic church. This was blasphemy. As a matter of fact, when I was in grammar school [at] Corpus Christi -- the teachers were sisters and the priest -- they explicitly told us in more ways than one that we shouldn’t attend these kinds of services.”

Whether church officials issued some formal prohibition on brass band funerals in those years is unclear, but Batiste stressed that more than a few black Protestant preachers took a dim view of brass band funerals. “They didn’t want that rowdy music that those guys were playing in the club in their church because it would tear down the significance of religious services. Which was wrong, because in the Bible it states, ‘Let the trumpets blow, let the angels sing.’ Well, how are the trumpets going to blow and the angels sing if we are not in church? ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord’ ” [Psalm 98].

Resistance to the musical sendoffs began melting in the 1950s. Musicians had long referred to the rites as “a funeral with music.” As film and TV cameramen began following the parades, a new term arose -- jazz funerals.

* * *

“Duke” Dejan, a crusty chap with a gift for organization, recognized a burgeoning market for street jazz in the post-war years. Eureka, the dominant mid-century marching band, was cutting back on parades because the leader, trumpeter Percy Humphrey -- a grandson of the influential early professor, James Brown Humphrey -- had grown tired of marching. In 1961, a club called Preservation Hall opened in the French Quarter, providing a venue for the small community of traditional jazzmen.

As Eureka withdrew from the scene, a rare, beautiful expression of dirge-playing went with it. The overpowering eloquence and stately sadness is best heard on a famous 1951 recording Eureka Brass Band. New Orleans Funeral and Parade (American Music CD-70, 1992 reissue.) The crafted military beat, the high, ethereal cries of the legendary clarinetists George Lewis and Willie Humphrey, Percy’s brother, the tightly structured cadences represent a pure form of the early brass music as rarely heard today.

Olympia’s new leader stamped the group with his own name -- Dejan’s Olympia -- and in 1962 enlisted a young Milton Batiste as trumpeter. Milton became Duke’s musical alter ego, getting the band into concert halls, nightclubs, festival grounds, parades and convention venues. In the 1980s, when Dejan suffered a stroke, Batiste assumed leadership of the group but in honor of his friend never made a move to change the name.

Dejan discarded certain of the old military marches, like “Washington Post” and “Under the Double Eagle,” and added pop songs to the repertoire like “The New Second Line” and “Come on Baby, Let the Good Times Roll.” Jazz purists who viewed the Eureka as a living link to the dawn of jazz were appalled. “We still play the old marches when they are occasionally requested,” Batiste reflected with a tone of pragmatism in 1987. “Sousa marches were played in the 1930s for cornerstone layings, and naturally the clientele was different, mostly white people. Our repertoire had to change for the simple reason that the people we were playing for wanted to hear songs that were popular on the radio.”

Olympia’s following became as strong among whites as blacks. “To keep the music going and also to quote with our inner selves, we spruce up the old tunes,” Batiste continued. “We like rhythm and blues so we put R&B and jazz together.”

In addition to his many recording projects, Batiste loved to videotape parades and funerals in which he was not performing. He played the role of on-air host in a documentary by David Jones for WYES TV New Orleans, “Jazz Funerals.” The film included a segment in Wales, where Olympia played the funeral of an industrialist who had made provisions in his will for the New Orleans band to perform at his burial.

As Edgar Smith, the band’s tuba player, puts it: “I’ll almost classify the Olympia Brass Band as a minor religion.”

Olympia’s looser rhythms infused the New Orleans style with a sound tapping into gospel and rhythm and blues. In gathering these musical strands, Olympia fashioned a sound that was still traditional jazz, but with a little more sway and roll like the pop music sounds of the day.

For years, Olympia’s distinctive style was well displayed at Preservation Hall.

As late as 1997, an 87-year-old “Duke” Dejan, slowed by a stroke, was still performing on Sunday nights as people crowded in like pilgrims at a shrine. Shoulder tight on the creaky benches, they watched with a reverence for the authentic item -- jazz as it had come down across a century in the city where it all began.

The musicians sat on chairs spanning the French windows, the guys so close to the front benches that you could touch their knees. Preservation Hall has no sound system; overhead lights illuminate the band; the house itself is dark. No beverages are sold, not even Coke. A sign says, “No Smoking.” A $5 cover charge buys a ringside seat to history.

The stout and sturdy drummer, Nowell Glass, wearing sunglasses and a dark baseball cap, pounded the bass drum, launching “When the Saints Go Marching In” on an up-tempo drive. Milton Batiste raised his silver trumpet, pealed out the melody and rocked back in his seat, tilting the horn skyward, as a bygone trumpeter once advised him, “so the sound will bounce off the walls and not get lost.” As clarinet notes soared like birdsong in counter melody, the old bandleader, Dejan, rose to his feet, one hand resting on the walking cane, and stood like at the rock of ages, his right fist raised and voice in clarion song: “Oh when the sun/ Refuse to shine/ Yes I want to be in that number/ When the saints go marching in!”

* * *

In February of this year, Dejan turned 92. By then Milton Batiste was battling for his life, having gone into the hospital last summer with shortness of breath and circulation problems caused by diabetes. When he went home months later, his left leg had been amputated below the knee. Still, he kept his solid front, breathing hard, ever cheerful when visitors came around.

On March 29 he died.

The next day Olympia’s drummer, Nowell “Pa-pa” Glass, died of heart complications at age 72.

Although Dejan was mentally alert, he did not attend the funerals.

* * *

The oldest of eight children, Milton Batiste had gone to Corpus Christi grammar school, which is staffed by Josephite sisters and priests.

“We were a wealthy family, not in material but in love,” his sister, Mercedes, said in a eulogy at the requiem Mass. “Every time we split something, we split it eight ways. The Batiste family [members] are a strong bunch of people. If one ate, all ate. Now Milton, he was beautiful -- but he ate more than we did.”

As laughter washed across the pews, she continued: “Milton ate with the trumpet, walked with the trumpet, slept with the trumpet.”

Ruby, his wife of 47 years, sat stoically in the front pew, a slender woman who spoke the same easy drawl as Milton. When they married, each had a child by a previous marriage. Sheila was Milton’s daughter. Richard Matthews was Ruby’s son.

Matthews, a tall man with a long beard beginning to gray, is widely known as “King Richard” -- Olympia’s grand marshal, the figure in formal attire, his umbrella aloft, whose marching steps set the pace for a parade. Sitting in the pew with his own wife and children, staying close to Ruby through Milton’s decline, Richard had assumed the role of Olympia’s business manager with his mother.

Grandchildren, nieces, nephews and siblings filled a dozen pews.

Outside the church on the sidewalk and grassy neutral ground of St. Bernard Avenue, three thousand people waited for the coffin to come into the sun-splashed morning. On many a day like this, Milton had played, “King Richard” had marched and Ruby had watched.

* * *

The pallbearers in flowing white robes with golden trim were members of the Young Men of Labor, a black organization dedicated to preserving the tradition of brass band burials. Trumpeter Gregg Stafford, a member of the organization and leader of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, played a majestic version of “Flee as a Bird,” TK one of the oldest dirges, as the religious service concluded. Then he took his place with the pallbearers as they carried the casket out of the church. A gauntlet of horns and reed instruments on either side of the steps formed an arch, playing “Old Rugged Cross.”

The pallbearers lifted the coffin into a white 19th-century horse-drawn hearse with glass panels. Just ahead, on the flatbed of a second buggy, his trumpet rested on a hill of flowers, a silver vessel shrouded by red, yellow and green. Now the drivers coaxed the horses, and the parade began.

People were holding photographs of Milton as the crowd strutted down St. Bernard Avenue, following the band of 30 musicians drawn from a range of local brass bands. Schoolchildren from Corpus Christi stood on the sidewalk, some no doubt seeing their first jazz funeral.

Kid Merv Campbell, a trumpeter who had made his first recordings under Milton Batiste, wept as he walked, playing his horn, moving the melody.

Brightly colored umbrellas began opening as the band broke into “Just A Little While to Stay Here.” Umbrellas were an icon of royalty transposed from Africa to the street parades of New Orleans.

The band and waves of people coursed along beneath warm, sunny skies, stopping traffic at intersections and magnetizing people from the steps and stoops and bars as the flow of people turned onto North Claiborne Avenue.

Then the band broke into one of Milton’s compositions, “No, It Ain’t My Fault,” with a rolling tuba line simulating the call “Nooooo” and the horns blasting back the response. The crowd was surging now, people whooping and clapping as they reached the funeral home where the wake had been held. From here the cortege would head to a distant cemetery.

Second liners were jumping for a last look as the pallbearers hoisted the casket out of the buggy and into a limousine for the final ride.

“Yes, sir!” cried a man. “Send him on!”

“It’s all right!” cried another. “Don’t hold him! He’s comin’ through! Let him go!”

“I’ll meet you later on!” cried a third. “Well done, well done.”

Three thousand people were dancing under the overpass of the interstate that traverses North Claiborne as the limousines with the family members and closest friends drove away.

* * *

“Milton did everything he could to make sure traditional jazz was preserved,” his sister, Mercedes, said in the eulogy. “Milton’s music will live on and play on. Olympia will live with us forever.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 18, 2001