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Two Funerals in the Crescent City

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Jason Berry attended the march in New Orleans today. He also spent the last week attending two funerals for people he knew who died in New Orleans. For him, the homicides and funerals seem to emphasize the extreme devastation - both physical and emotional - that the city has to bear.

JASON BERRY: Today's march on city hall by protesters enraged about the crime wave in New Orleans was not a parade of joy. There was little music. But the crowd was a true mirror of the city's social mosaic, and we all knew what we wanted: to stop the violence and heal the wounds.

I was heartened as people cheered, music in the schools, music in the schools. Brass-band funerals are a life force here, a send off carrying the promise of a more lyrical world to come. Last week, I attended two jazz funerals, two lives to mourn in a city grieving over its own fate.

Tad Jones(ph), 54, died in an accident over New Year's. He was a writer working on a book about Louis Armstrong. About 150 of us sat with his parents, siblings, nieces and nephews. People cried quietly during the mass.

Then we went out into warm winter sunlight. A dozen musicians escorted the hearse down a lane of stately tombs, playing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," as slowly-rising rhythms coated the sorrow with tenderness. After final prayers at the crypt, the band let out a swinging version of "Didn't He Ramble," announcing the beauty of a life well lived.

The next day's service, at Fifth African Baptist, was for Dinerral Shavers, 25, a snare drummer with the Hot 8 brass band. He died of a bullet in the head while driving his family. Police arrested a high-school student who allegedly had had a beef with Shavers' stepson but shot the wrong guy. As he was led to jail, TV cameras showed the boy claiming innocence.

The overflow service ran long with cathartic wails of the young widow and sobbing kids from the school where Shavers was a band teacher. The suffering was as close as someone breathing. A larger sense of waste and anger coursed through the city, half the size since Hurricane Katrina. Everyone knows the police department is in disarray.

A young filmmaker, Helen Hill, was shot dead in her home by an intruder. Her husband, a doctor who worked with the poor, took three bullets, yet miraculously survived. Their 2-year-old was unharmed. The father left the city, vowing never to return. Who can blame him?

At the funeral for the Hot 8 drummer, the pallbearers put the casket into an ancient buggy hearse, led by a horse and driver as an army of musicians played "Lord, Lord, Lord," a thumping gospel song with roaring trumpets that galvanized the crowd.

About a thousand people swelled around the players, gyrating along scarred streets still lined with storm debris. As the band broke into a charging parade song, the dancers surged with throat-rattling cries that seemed as much a plea to heaven for a broken city and a people betrayed as for that young drummer whose photograph was emblazoned on T-shirts worn by many of the mourners as they danced.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Jason Berry is the author of the book "Last of the Red Hot Poppas." He lives and works in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Berry
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