The Sound That Follows Death
The weather was fair, at last, though still somewhat unfair. But fairer, anyway. As I pedaled near sunset over the train-tracks into the Marigny of New Orleans, an unmistakable sound came marching in. I followed the plodding, woozy jazz to the source.
A Jazz Funeral Practice
At the corner of Press and Dauphine, I often see a vacant lot in front of a warehouse being occupied by 15 brass musicians. These are not same as the high-energy brass-bands as the ones that you might find associated with Frenchman Street, or the Maple Leaf, like the Rebirth Brass band. These are Bywater denizens: motley, mismatched, vaguely unkempt with an exceptionally high probability of tattoos. A brassy, jazzy version of “I’ll Fly Away” drapes over the surrounding blocks like a blanket. Thank god for the high-hat holding it down as various instruments jockey playfully for solo-dom, cutting and splicing melodic fragments and passing them around.
This particular outfit congregates here sporadically. They gather in a large ring they toss music phrases around like a hot potato. Presumably they also chose a ring formation so that I would be enticed to breakdance in the middle of it, but I do not. The choice to have outdoor practice is simply a matter of the form following the function. 15 people do not easily have band practice in one’s living room, and I imagine the sound inside a confined space is terrible. The squelching and crooning solos need some fresh air to run around in, they can’t stay cooped up all day.
Whether they are playing purely for pleasure, or to keep their skills sharp for the always-dawning festival season, I can’t say*. But as a person riding their bicycle through a city, it’s a rare and exciting blip on the radar. There are no crowds, there is no entry to the venue. There is just a bunch of weirdos making really nice music, sparingly unremarked-upon by cyclists and pedestrians. It’s not music they’re playing for “us”, per se, but they can’t really help but offer it up for free, given the venue. Some people stroll by and stop or take a picture, many people do not stop at all.
The Sound of Place
While this recording is musical in nature, the existence of this song in a public space also acts as a significant feature of the auditory landscape beyond just being music. It offers a much more distinct locator both geographically and socially than hearing punk bands behind garage doors, or 808’s rumbling out of cars. It’s a sound that is unlikely to be found anywhere else. It’s a style that, to my ears, sounds like a reflection of the pace and form of the Mississippi, just two blocks away: fluid, unhurried, and always shifting it’s contours over time.
*UPDATE: I can now say. I knew one of the guys playing in the band so I cornered him one day at a business in town he owns. Apparently, they were just having a few pick-up practices for a jazz funeral.