Singing to the Jazz Angels

Rating: NNNNNnew orleans -- i'm at the bestparty in the city where les bons temps rouler. The guest of honour.

Rating: NNNNN

new orleans — i’m at the bestparty in the city where les bons temps rouler. The guest of honour lies in a box at the front of the room, a silver crown atop his unmoving head, a steady stream of admirers passing by.He’s Ernie Kador, a saucy soul singer known to friends and fans as Ernie K-Doe. He’s dead, and the party’s just getting started. It’s a seven-hour wake for a man I confess I’ve barely heard of. Tomorrow will see a full-on New Orleans jazz funeral for the self-proclaimed Emperor of the World, who declared, “I’m cocky but I’m good.”

Antoinette, his puffy-eyed widow, sits directly across from him in a white dress with a silver sash. She’s got a silver crown, too. The sleep-deprived drunken energy of mourning fuels her as she greets well-wishers from her chair at the front of the grand hall, where 300 mourners sit and thousands move through in a steady stream. Sometimes she dances in her seat to the music, almost always playing live by an all-star band that includes New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, who wrote K-Doe’s first hit, Mother-In-Law, back in 1961.

It’s a mixed crowd at a black event where whites are welcome.

Jazz funerals happen regularly in this violent city with no shortage of dead, but K-Doe’s proves to be the biggest in a long time. Not limited to wakes for musicians, grand parties are held for many, including members of the network of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, African-American support organizations that originated in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

We’ve squeezed into Gallier Hall, a typical southern architectural stab at Roman grandeur, with white walls and columns, a one-time city hall. It’s been turned into a Kador tribute, the smaller rooms filled with flowers (James Brown sends a bouquet), photos and video clips showing him in his soul pimp outfits.

Behind K-Doe, gospel singer Marva Wright, a regular at these stellar send-offs, sways, a microphone in her hand. She assures us that today is a celebration and “Ernie will cry no more,” while the band lays down a few chords.

Irma Thomas starts the singing with an a cappella spiritual that she bends over the body to sing. And now Davell Crawford sings gospel to K-Doe as the band kicks it up, breaking mid-song to declare,”I have to preach for a minute” to cries of “Amen” and “Oh, yeah.” He speaks of God and the Bible, and while any spiritual feelings tugging at me are far from orthodox, I can feel the love and faith in the room.

Moving with the line, I stop and bend in front of Antoinette to pay my respects. The exhausted-looking woman sang in K-Doe’s band and is credited with helping the singer get off the streets and behind the bar of his legendary Mother-in-Law Lounge. I turn to face K-Doe’s corpse. Lying there in a damn fine white suit, looking peaceful and less in- your-face than in life, light animating his silver crown, K-Doe looks pretty good and pretty content for a dead man.

Brassy blues singer Jean Knight steps up and grabs the microphone like an old friend. Like all the speakers and singers tonight, she addresses K-Doe as if he’s listening. “You’re special stuff, you’re Mr. Big Stuff,” she tells him. Then, seamlessly, the band nails the note and she launches into her hit song Mr. Big Stuff. It’s a soul extravaganza that pulls the people around me up onto their feet, paper fans waving and faces ablaze with smiles. A sax punches out the beat, and a skinny senior in his best suit dances in slow motion on the outside edges of his shoes. Two large ladies in floral dresses dance on their heels behind him, legs slightly apart, humping him as he goes.

“Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think you are?” booms White, as tears and sweat, smiles and hoots blend with the messy imprecision of life. People drop back into their seats and compose themselves only to pop back up, laughing and dancing again, as she rips into another hit, My Toot-Toot, a song K-Doe played 15 times in a row on his local radio show the day it was released.

The joyful chaos repeats itself the next day as we gather for the funeral. A white, glass-walled hearse pulled by two horses waits with members of the Tuxedo Marching Band, who sport matching five-cornered caps and carry the most beat-up horns I’ve ever seen.

Pallbearers struggle down the steps carrying Ernie’s coffin as the horns start to moan, and two ladies behind me shout, “Show some respect! Get those caps off until he’s in the hearse.”

“Show some respect!” they continue to bark as the caps fall lazily away like spent blooms on a magnolia tree. As the coffin is loaded, an honour guard takes its place at the head of the procession. The rest of us fall in behind, shuffling along as one, then another band joins the blocks-long parade. It’s hot as hell and as sticky as any Tennessee Williams night. The Tuxedo Band are the most spiritual throughout the many-hour march, but the younger band behind don’t take long to move from gospel to good times, racing through a jazzy version of Mother-In-Law that might cause Ernie to stir in his ringside seat.

I fall in beside stately sax player Harold Battiste, who plays his horn as if it’s releasing someone’s soul. Wearing African hat and fabrics, the white-haired musical veteran was Sonny and Cher’s musical director but now teaches and plays jazz.

Like other older people today, he never wavers in his walk. The streets are lined with people, some of whom jump away from their jobs long enough to dance for a few blocks before falling back to work. Players join, pulling horns out of cloth bags and picking up the melody.

I’m not prepared for my raging emotions. I understand the joy, but I’m surprised each time I’m overwhelmed by a cloudburst of tears. I can’t claim to be heartbroken about Ernie’s passing, but the reaper seems a little more present on this day of the dead. It’s not for me that I’m sad, but for all of us.

We finally head for the cemetery, our music reverberating powerfully off an overhead expressway. The band plays When The Saints, and it doesn’t sound corny. Twelve-foot-high white walls surround the above-ground crypts that receive the dead. A young, shirtless black guy skips ahead and climbs up the cemetery wall. His jeans hang low, ready to release his boxers. He dances madly on top of the wall, our own angel of death welcoming us all to the end of Ernie’s life and the rest of ours. There may be a lot of ways to live, but after New Orleans I’m sure there’s only one way to die.

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