Rejoice When You Die - New Orleans Jazz Funerals - Exhibit Catalog

Photography by Leo Touchet (Breaux Bridge, Louisiana)
Photo Circle Press, 2021. 44 Pages. $15.00. Paperback
Reviewed by John Zheng in Valley Voices - Volume 22.2

The photographs for the exhibit and catalog Rejoice When You Die - The New Orleans Jazz Funerals were selected from images that appeared in a book of the same title published by Louisiana State University Press in 1998. These black and white photographs, taken between 1968 and 1970 while the photographer lived in New Orleans' French Quarter, are displayed in three parts. Touchet says in his brief introduction that his photographs attempted to show the sadness, dignity, pride, stillness, motion, silence, and music of the jazz funerals.

Part 1 focuses on the spectators, who sit or stand before houses or buildings, wait in a cemetery, or watch behind a screen door. The photograph on page 9 frames four old black men sitting on the doorsteps waiting for the coming procession of Alcide "Slow Drag" Pavageau's jazz funeral: two on the lower steps--one with a walking cane in his left hand and one looking at the distance with his back turned at the other three; the two on the upper steps--one talking with his right hand pointing at the direction of the coming procession, and one listening. They must be Pavageau's jazz fans. The photo on page 13 again presents four old spectators in formal wear, two blacks and two whites. The stand in front of a paint-peeling building as if they are not spectators but friends to pay their last respect to the departed. The photo on page 14, on the contrary, catches two young people standing on the hood of a car: the man with arms akimbo gazing at the procession and the smiling woman holding her purse and shoes on her chest. All these spectators look silent, sad, or curious, waiting or watching the funeral procession.

Part 2 is about the funeral processions, which are "a communion of souls" and "open demonstrations of an abiding faith in God and his judgement," as explained by Touchet. The photograph in page 17 presents a dignified look of Anderson Minor, the grand marshal of Eureka Brass Band. The one on page 20 catches a moment of the pallbearers' sadness, and the ones on page 21 and page 22 show the crowds of people at burials in St. Louis Cemetery, some standing on the above-ground tombs, some talking while most simply witnessing the burials. In the second photograph on page 22, the band manages to move through the crowd with a member at the front holding a decorated double bass. page 25 shows a closeup of the double bass, which may symbolize Pavageau's jazz music since he was an American jazz musician who played a double bass.

If part 2 focuses on dignity and sadness, part 3, in contrast, focuses on the second line, the climax of the jazz parade which celebrates the beginning of a new life. It is a mood switch after the crowd leaves the cemetery. The parade follows everyone who follows the band. People dance free-style, with or without holding umbrellas, to express their emotions, as shown in photographs on pages 28 to 34. Different from the slow hymns and sad dirges played at the funeral procession, which is called the first line, music played in the second line is quicker, lively, and exciting and urges the crowd to express themselves freely as if it is a cathartic release of emotions. The final image page 35 focuses of the back of a tuba player walking away from a jazz funeral signifying the ending of the parade, the celebration, the dance, and the music.

Touchet's photographs offer a powerful insight into African American culture represented by the New Orleans jazz funerals and indicate dialectical thinking about life and death: you cry when you're born so rejoice when you die. As Touchet says in the introduction, "These photographs...form a unique historic document of the funerals" which are "a tribute to life rather than a consession to death". They also show his keen eye to use the amazing moments of the jazz funerals to form an eyescape of African American culture to enhance awareness of the cultural tradition and heighten our sense to see not just the emotional expressions but also the involvement of the people whether they are spectators, bands, or dancers. In a sense, Touchet provides a lasting record to maintain a cultural tradition of jazz funerals.

John Zheng

photo of second line

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