The funeral processions of New Orleans are accompanied by a jazz band that usually consists of a couple of saxophones, perhaps a clarinet, a trumpet, a trombone, a sousaphone, and snare and bass drums. On the outward journey, these musicians render slow and mournful Dixieland versions of traditional hymns like Amazing Grace. But on the return journey, sorrow is left behind and the band strikes a celebratory note, picking up the tempo and kicking in syncopations in an affirmation of life, and of the Afterlife. The true Christian belief is that death is merely a journey to heaven, and so rather than grieving over our loss, we should celebrate the eternal happiness of the deceased, who is released from worldly woes and is sitting with Jesus in God's eternal love. In A Jazz Funeral I've tried to capture this spirit. The opening trumpet solo is based on a slave song from the sea islands of my home state of Georgia. Byum By-E, was recorded by Lydia Parrish in the early 1900's with no accompaniment or harmonization provided. It is an extraordinarily touching lament for Shisha Shalum, in which at one point all rhythmic and melodic motion ceases entirely to the words "Lord, Shisha"--the grief of loss completely overwhelms the song. My original idea was to present the song without ornamentation, strictly as Parrish recorded it but with my own accompaniment. As I worked on the piece, I realised that Parrish's notation was surely influenced by her Classical training, and that she'd notated only what she knew how to notate. I came to believe that treating the song much more freely was completely within the tradition from which it came. Other melodies in the piece are inspired by the New Orleans tradition, but are of my own composition. I've tried to do more than just compose my own piece in the New Orleans style by adding a little extra flavor, as though the procession passes rooms where other bands are playing, where doors open and close and music floats in unexpectedly. The procession might even be visited by the spirits of past musicians, who improvise from another, unworldly plane.
A Jazz Funeral was commissioned by the Hong Kong Wind Philharmonia for their 2005 concert at the World Association of Symphonic Bands and Ensembles (WASBE) conference in Singapore, and was premiered under the direction of Jerry Junkin by that group on July 7, 2005, in Hong Kong.