Saturday, April 2, 2011

Cry At The Birth, Rejoice At The Death—or—Laughter And Reverence, Together Again

Yesterday, a few Southside Aces were present to musically help send a recently deceased man, beloved by family and friends, into the hereafter. We played a few songs that lean more toward the contemplative side of the repertoire as preludes, and let loose a little at the end of the funeral to help the people walk outside with a little more spring in their step. New Orleans jazz is no stranger to funerals at the bottom of the Great Mississip’. As the saying goes, “Cry at the birth, rejoice at the death.” For most of you reading this, perhaps it seems perfectly natural to think of the rollicking nature of much of this music as being appropriate at such a somber affair. To be sure, people who would say, “That’s the way I want to go”, surround me in my life. It comes with my carved out little territory. I think it’s safe to assume, however, that generally in my Minnesota, a New Orleans jazz band is not the first thought people have when planning the celebration of their own or a loved one’s demise. This is not a complaint. I just want you to feel a bit of the swell of surprise and gratitude I feel when I get a call like this. Erik Jacobson, playing tuba on the job (for those of you paying attention, that’s right. I said “tuba.” It seems he misplaced his sousaphone. How does a man go about misplacing a sousaphone?), said it best. “Think about how intimate it is to come into a room full of grieving strangers and share our music. How amazing that we were with this man at the very end like that. What an honor.” An honor indeed. 

It is remarkable how the context of the music and the intention of the musicians can change how a song is played and how it’s heard. There is certainly an imbued reverence in the observation of the life and death of a person. Some of the same music at a club, swing dance, or even burlesque show, however, takes on whole new meanings. A lot more of the humor inherent in these tunes can come out. But as we all know, humor and even irreverence at a funeral or memorial will rear its beautiful head too, whether or not a jazz musician is around. In the story that follows, jazz musicians were around. I didn’t change the names, because there are no innocents to protect.

A call out of the blue a couple years ago (we still don’t know how the man found out about us) led the Aces to a funeral and luncheon up in a northern suburb. Besides me, we had Erik on sousaphone, Robert on guitar, and Zack on trumpet. The four of us sat down about to start playing prelude music out near the entrance of the church as a greeting to arrivals. Our mystery man walked up and the first thing he said after hellos and handshakes was, “I want this to be a surprise for people.” This made the band arch an eyebrow or two. We were unanimously of the opinion that a person should never spring a jazz band unsuspectingly on a group of mourners. When the man walked away Zack said, “Well, guys, this might be a short one.” 

We fortunately received a minimum of puzzled or hostile looks, and avoided any unpleasant altercations. Eventually we led a processional into the sanctuary, played during the service, and then moved to the social hall of the church to provide music for the luncheon. In this situation, musicians move from a more reverent treatment of the music to that rollicking nature of which I spoke earlier. People asked us about the music, “Do you play for occasions other than funerals?” I envisioned The Undertaker Jazz Band.

Our benefactor, grateful and emotional, approached to thank us. He apologized for the program listing us as “Southside Acres.” No wonder people thought we specialized in funerals. Erik said, “I’m sorry for your loss.” The man handed me our payment and walked away before he started new tears. Zack was sitting, shaking his head. “I’m such an idiot. I was this close to saying ‘Congratulations!’” When the same sanctuaries and reception halls are used for both weddings and funerals, and you’re a discombobulated musician playing at the ungodly hour of 10:00 a.m., it’s easy to see how such a mistake could be made. I’m glad his filters went up in time, though. Otherwise it would have been like an uncomfortable scene from “Southside Acres,” the funeral jazz band sitcom. In real life it’s sometimes better if the line between laughter and reverence remains uncrossed. 

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