Second to no other U.S. community New Orleans is steeped in it’s own set of cultural traditions. Every Sunday beginning around the end of April through years-end there’s a Second Line parade in town. Reading news of Brad Pitt’s well-publicized and strikingly sincere Lower Ninth Ward housing renewal project (go online to the Times Picayune archives and search through the week of December 3 for details) he remarked about why he and Angelina Jolie have purchased a house in the French Quarter and plan on spending significant time in the Crescent City. He spoke of the surprise joys of a parade going by his house one Sunday — for no apparent reason he knew of — and how such occurrences help sustain his love of the community and deepen his desire to do his part for the city’s post-Katrina renewal (including putting up $5M of his own money towards his current housing development project). This is one celebrity project that seems to be about more than self-aggrandizement. But I digress…
One well-chronicled parade tradition is the New Orleans jazz funeral, an especially rich tradition when it honors renowned local legends. Allow me to introduce you to Doc Paulin. Trumpeter Ernest "Doc" Paulin was born June 22, 1907 and passed on peacefully to ancestry 100 years, five months, and 28 days later. In between he left an indelible music legacy, which I unfortunately was only introduced to at his passing. Raised by Haitian grandparents in rural Louisiana, Doc’s trombone playing uncle introduced him to music at a young age and encouraged him towards the cornet because he evidenced such proficiency in the art of whistling. Young Ernest Paulin, who only later became known as "Doc", was hooked and soon became good enough to play around his area. At 21 Doc moved to New Orleans because that was the place for serious musicians.
He soon organized a band that performed at various haunts in the legendary Storyville District and joints on South Ramparts Street. Encouraged by his brother Doc moved to New York and once he learned the ropes he found himself on several famous bandstands, including Harlem’s Cotton Club and the Zanzibar. Following his discharge from the Army in 1945 Doc returned to his beloved New Orleans. Thereafter he ran numeroous brass and traditional jazz bands. Doc and his wife Betty grew a family that included six sons who matriculated to the Paulin Brothers Brass Band, which has paraded various New Orleans functions for over 40 years, including numerous performances at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Doc Paulin considered it his mission to keep the brass band traditions of New Orleans alive and functioning and was a mentor to numerous young musicians around the Crescent City in that signature idiom. He was also described as a community activist in his obituary, including voting rights activism. His last official gig came at the ripe young age of 96 at the 2003 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Given such a background it was no surprise that Doc Paulin’s funeral would represent the essence of New Orleans jazz funeral tradition.
I’ve never been one to attend funerals or memorial services of those I don’t know, but persistent email messages from well-respected New Orleanians like Don Marshall, executive director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, jazz writer Geraldine Wycoff, and through the encouragement of our friend Nancy Oscenslager who lives the most active retirement I know after 30 years at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and a nursing career, Suzan and I determined that this was a funeral parade not to be missed. We were also compelled by the Thanksgiving weekend visit of our daughters and our desire to give them some "real" New Orleans experiences on their visit. It seems that experiencing such an event is tantamount to becoming immersed in the cultural traditions of New Orleans. And besides that, every message we received about Doc Paulin made it clear that here was a truly important figure in 20th century New Orleans music.
When we arrived at the Holy Ghost Catholic Church on Louisiana Avenue in the Uptown area of the city it became clear immediately that we weren’t alone in the curious "interloper" category as numerous folks who apparently had no deeper ties to Doc or his family than we did had gathered in anticipation of the funeral parade — which incidentally was mapped out in several emails I received, as is the case with the weekly Sunday Second Line parades. Shortly after we arrived those who had celebrated Doc’s life at the funeral began pouring out of the church; numerous trumpets, cornets, trombones, tubas, clarinets, snare drums, and bass drums among the masses. The brass band musicians, including the Paulin Brothers Brass Band and members of the marching Men of Labor assembled at the front of the processional. Behind them were other gathered celebrants — later to become the Second Line — and behind the Second Line was a horse drawn hearse bearing Doc Paulin’s remains and a shiny limousine bearing Doc’s widow and some of his prodigious family (Doc and Betty gave the world 13 children).
Driven by assorted traditional dirges the likes of "The Old Rugged Cross", the musicians and traditional marchers led the police-escorted Second Line down Louisiana Avenue to St. Joseph Cemetary No. 1 at Washington Avenue and South Liberty Street. All this transpired while numerous video cameras whirred, and assorted newspaper & art still photographers captured the moments. Though any funeral is a somber occasion, when one lives as long and rich a life as did Doc Paulin one’s passing on to ancestry is cause to celebrate a life well-led. New Orleans is one of the few cities in the world where cemetaries are tourist attractions, primarily because due to it’s below sea level existence those deceased who are buried in New Orleans proper are buried in crypts above ground. This tradition gives New Orleans cemetaries a look like none other; rather than assorted low-lying plots and headstones marking below ground burials as one might see in most other locales, a New Orleans cemetary is one of vividly visible mausoleums and assorted above grounds structures marking final resting places.
Once at St. Joseph Cemetary No. 1 the processional halted as the horse drawn hearse arrived at Doc’s designated mausoleum. The Rev. David Thereaux further eulogized Doc and a rather stentorian younger man gave remarks relative to his life well-led, including a remarkable breakdown of Doc’s life from years to months to weeks all the way down to the many million seconds of life Doc Paulin enjoyed on this plain. The sheer mathematics of this breakdown was impressive, not to mention the breadth and depth of Doc Paulin’s life. That was followed by a young woman facing west and delivering a beautiful muted taps, not like what one might experience at Arlington Cemetary, more Crescent City-style and quite moving. Her performance elicited several "that girl sure can play that horn" asides from assorted celebrants within earshot.
The time had arrived to truly celebrate Doc Paulin’s life New Orleans-style. The assembled brass and drums struck up a joyous processional that included numerous old standbys of joy mixed with some decidedly non-traditional (but perhaps soon to enter the lexicon) numbers such as strains of Herbie Hancock’s 70s hit "Chameleon", several umbrellas danced in the arms of participants, including a traditionally-garbed woman who seemed to serve as parade marshall, and steps lightened in Second Line tradition as we made our way joyously back up to Louisiana Avenue and a restaurant repast destination. This was truly a moment to be experienced only in the Crescent City.
In what was characterized as an unusually early press conference, the New Orleans jazz & Heritage Festival held one on November 15 to announce what was obviously big festival news: the return of the Neville Brothers. Anyone who has experienced Jazz Fest, particularly the closing weekend, knows that traditionally the Neville Brothers have delivered the Fest benediction on the fairgrounds’ big stage. That tradition, along with so many others, was disrupted by the catharsis of the dreaded Hurricane Katrina. Spread far and wide — as far away as Massachusetts — by Katrina evacuations, the Nevilles have missed the last two Jazz Fests. Invited to return in ’07 Aaron Neville, the heavenly falsetto voice and for many the signature voice of the crew, who had relocated to Nashville, angered some locals and Fest goers with his refusal to return to NOLA due to what he feared were the environmental dangers to his asthmatic conditions. That prompted a certain curious backlash from emailers who were greeted with the news of the Neville Brothers return to the Fest in the Times Picayune. But for most what some considered an affront to their city, the news was yet another joyous symbol of a fervently hoped-for return to normalcy for the Crescent City. Older brother Art Neville, on the cusp of his 70th birthday, was on hand to lend some funky keyboard to a performance by the Neville youngsters, including Aaron’s guitar playing son, who comprise the burgeoning offspring unit known as Dumstaphunk.
Art later surprised and delighted Suzan by telling her that he was eager to come by the Monk Institute’s Loyola classrooms to experience the classroom science dropped by the auspicious crew of jazz masters who are imported to teach the Monk graduate studies students. So far those master teachers have included Ron Carter, Lewis Nash, Danilo Perez, Nnenna Freelon, and Benny Golson, with John Scofield, Jimmy Heath and Kenny Barron soon to follow. Art Neville was particularly eager to experience the teachings of Kenny Barron, proving once again that one is always a student of one’s craft.