Room at the Tomb for Musician
New Orleans Blues Project
Wed Sep 8 22:33:57 EDT 2004
"some people asked: 'What are those white women doing with those bodies?' I
promise you, no one is collecting dead, black musicians. It was just the right
thing to do."
Room at the Tomb for Musicians
A family's crypt is opened to local artists who need a final place to rest.
By Lianne Hart
Times Staff Writer
September 7, 2004
NEW ORLEANSÊ --Ê She rode to the lounge in a pink limousine, cradling the box
that held her husband's ashes. Inside the bar, under a ceiling of paper stars,
she placed the box on a table that would serve as a shrine: There were candles,
ceramic angels and an album cover showing the Ink Spots, the fabled quartet he
had toured with for 20 years. Overseeing the tableau was a pink-suited
mannequin arranged on a rattan throne draped with Christmas tinsel.
Here at the Ernie K-Doe Mother-in-Law Lounge lie the ashes of vocalist Lloyd
Washington, who was 83 when he died of cancer in June. His shrine, a tribute by
friends and fans, is a makeshift response to a sad and familiar problem: How to
bury with dignity the artists who have enriched the musical legacy of this city
but not themselves.
Like Washington, many of New Orleans' musicians never have seen a royalty
check. Some are buried in a paupers' cemetery that is pocked with trash and
crumbling, homemade tombstones.
Washington's widow, Hazel, wouldn't hear of such a thing. She'd sooner cast his
ashes to the wind, and might have if friends hadn't talked her out of it. So,
Hazel brought his ashes to the shrine, then went home to grieve and await some
sort of resolution.
It came in the form of Paul Barbarin, heir to a large family tomb and part of a
New Orleans musical dynasty. In a room at the Mother-in-Law lounge, with a bust
of rumba-boogie pianist Professor Longhair nearby, Barbarin recently signed
documents to grant use of his family's tomb to local musicians, rich or poor,
who register to be buried there.
The Barbarins' musical roots in New Orleans date to the 1800s, when patriarch
Isidore Barbarin played alto-horn and mellophone in the Excelsior Brass Band.
Paul Barbarin, 73, is named after an uncle who died while leading a brass band
in a Mardi Gras parade. More recently, his nephew, jazz trombonist Lucien
Barbarin, has worked with Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr.
"People just want to do something for musicians who have done so much for this
city," said Rob Florence, president of the preservation group Friends of New
Orleans Cemeteries. Paul Barbarin, who lives in Los Angeles, declined to be
Six of the eighteen vaults in the 20-foot-high Barbarin family tomb will be
reserved for musicians, Florence said. Most crypts here are built above ground
because the water table is so high. And with space at a premium, they often are
reused. By law and tradition, a casket can be reopened a year and a day after
interment. The remains may be removed and placed in a bag, which goes in a
common area inside the tomb. This makes room for a new coffin.
Under this system, the musicians' tomb will be almost eternal, said Anna Ross,
a member of the Friends of New Orleans Cemeteries. Ross is more than familiar
with the city's pragmatic approach to death: In 2001, her daughter, a
classically trained harpist, donated a vault in her family tomb for rhythm and
blues man Ernie K-Doe. Last year, she reopened the tomb for musician Earl King.
K-Doe, known for the 1961 No. 1 hit "Mother-in-Law,"could have been buried in a
family plot in the countryside, but he wanted to stay in the city. "If you're
from New Orleans, you want to be buried in New Orleans," said his widow,
Antoinette, who operates K-Doe's namesake bar. "It's good to have the musicians
buried in one place so people don't have to go all over to look for them."
She fusses with the life-size mannequin at the club, meant to resemble her
eccentric late husband. It's currently dressed in a Pepto-Bis- mol-pink suit.
"See, our manicures are the same," she said, wriggling her fingers next to the
mannequin's long, pink-and-white nails. "Sometimes, I take the hands off to get
them manicured across the street."
She recalls when K-Doe, who was black, was buried in the tomb belonging to a
white family. "We took a lot of heat for that," she said. Ross said that "some
people asked: 'What are those white women doing with those bodies?' I promise
you, no one is collecting dead, black musicians. It was just the right thing to
Washington will be the first to be interred in the musicians' tomb after it is
dedicated in October. He was an early supporter of the idea, performing at a
benefit last year where revelers tossed cash into a velvet and sequined coffin
that half a dozen "pallbearers" paraded across the dance floor. Similar
fundraisers will help pay for a $20,000 renovation of the Barbarin tomb's brick
and plaster interior, Florence said.
On Nov. 2, All Saints' Day, set aside for paying respects to the dead,
Washington's friends plan to meet at the Mother-in-Law lounge. A brass band is
scheduled to lead a jazz procession to the historic St. Louis Cemetery No. 1,
not far from the French Quarter. As Hazel Washington raises an index finger and
drops it down, signifying the release of her late husband's spirit, the
high-stepping, umbrella-twirling celebration will at last begin.
"My husband gave his voice and service to the world by singing and making many
people happy," Washington said. "With the musicians' tomb, now people will know
where to find him."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
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