Funerals in New Orleans are an art form, a mirror of the mind of the town.
The Nov. 20 sendoff for the late Allen Toussaint, the peerless rhythm-and-blues composer, producer, and performer, was an affair of state that filled the downtown Orpheum Theatre, reopened only since August but now elegantly restored a decade after hard damage from Hurricane Katrina.
An elegant man in his own right, the 77-year-old Toussaint died of heart failure last week, hours after a performance in Madrid.
His illustrious career as a songwriter and studio maestro took a sharp—and surprising—turn after the 2005 hurricane flooding, in which he lost a grand piano and most of his belongings: He landed in New York, where he plunged into public appearances, raising funds for New Orleans relief, and remaking himself as a concert performer and recording artist. He released Bright Mississippi, an album of jazz standards performed with a top-notch band, and Songbook, a superb solo live CD done at Joe’s Pub, among other works.
As Toussaint resettled in New Orleans, the cool, graying hipster who coasted through town in a Rolls-Royce lent his time and talent to a range of civic and charitable events.
The funeral ceremony captured both the breadth of his fertile career, and the breadth of his generosity. Several speakers praised his work with Aaron Neville, with whom he co-founded New Orleans Artists against Hunger and Homelessness.
But the praise came mingled with controversy: In the week since his death, Toussaint’s name has become embroiled in a controversial campaign to remove the statue of Robert E. Lee atop a white Doric column looming 60 feet above the St. Charles Avenue streetcar tracks. A petition drive with more than 8,000 signatures and a social media campaign are both aimed at supplanting the Lee statue with a new one of Toussaint.
The Lee statue, erected in 1883, is a local flashpoint in the national debate over historical memory. After the Charleston, South Carolina, church killings in June, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu ordered the removal of Lee and three other Confederate monuments, entrusting a public landmarks committee to find a solution.
Four days before Toussaint’s funeral, Glen David Andrews, a trombonist and high-octane vocalist, sent out a tweet: Rename Lee Circle after Allen Toussaint. Perfect place to honor our hero.
Andrews’s suggestion is one more sonic boom in America’s frenetic reaction to police violence against African-Americans, the Black Lives Matter agenda, and more broadly, a history of racially schematized economics. The debate over appropriate ways to honor the nation’s past has erupted anew with protests by Princeton students over the racist policies of university alumnus and former president, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, while demonstrations at Yale and other campuses have focused on racial splits in a society that we have discovered is very far from colorblind.
As the line of mourners stretched on and on at Toussaint’s wake, Deacon John Moore, a popular bandleader at debutante parties and society weddings since the ’60s, pondered the social media buzz.
“Allen clearly deserves his statue. That would be something to heal the racial discord that’s been lingering in this community too long,” reflected Deacon John, who is also the president of the musicians’ local.
“I’m more in favor of his having his own place rather than Lee Circle. Right away that’s going to cause more discord. Putting someone else in Robert E. Lee’s place is another question. I’m open to that, but who’s going to decide? We shouldn’t have constant reminders of the Lost Cause and paying homage to what those people did. They went against the federal government.”
The statue of Lee was raised 18 years after the Civil War, in 1883, in the twilight of a postwar era that saw former Rebel soldiers pour into New Orleans from across the South. Ironically, one reason so many ex-Confederates converged on post-war New Orleans is that it fell early to the Union, in 1862, and was well preserved by Northern generals. The occupation saw cleaner streets and better infrastructure.
But the war was hardly over when New Orleanians rioted in protest against Reconstruction, and the decades following the war were marred by several attacks on blacks by white supremacists, many of them from elite social clubs still active today. Carnival balls began ennobling the Civil War as the Myth of the Lost Cause (and while Robert E. Lee himself never lived in New Orleans, his daughter Mildred was queen of the Mystick Krewe of Comus at its Mardi Gras ball in 1884, the year after her father’s statue was erected in the city).
“I am loath to sweep the Civil War into the dustbin of history,” said historian Howard Hunter, academic dean at Metairie Park Country Day School. “While the Lee monument was a symbol of the Lost Cause and all that it represents, it also stands as a memorial for the loss of 750,000 Americans—a reminder of our Iliad. Lee was also a symbol of reconciliation, unlike Jefferson Davis. The memorializing of Toussaint is important and requires serious thought. To simply replace Lee with a beloved personage may be a feel-good solution, but in the process, do we lose our most important history lesson, one that defined America?”
A local group called Save Our Circle (SOC), which claims 7,000 members on Facebook, accuses Mayor Landrieu of “an attempt to ‘hide’ history from plain site [sic] ... On the same day he made his intentions clear at the New Orleans City Council meeting, the city reached its 100th murder. Shouldn’t the ‘monumental’ expenses to relocate, rename, or remove any of these monuments or street names, or any symbol deemed offensive, be spent more effectively?”
“We have almost 27,000 signatures,” said SOC founder Tim Shea Carroll. “Instead of tearing down these monuments, let’s add to them and make New Orleans a bigger museum than it already is. The statue never bothered anybody for the 48 years I’ve been in New Orleans, until this tragic event in South Carolina, and anything related to it became a pariah. Let’s not tear down for political correctness. If you start this, where will it end?”
Yet for more than a few others, supplanting Toussaint for Robert E. Lee would mark a vanquishing of the power of white supremacy.
“If you want to honor Robert E. Lee, go to the Confederate Museum,” said Stanley Taylor, a retired union official and African-American activist. “But in the public sphere, no. It’s an insult to all the values we hold as Americans to honor Robert E. Lee.”
“The Lee statue represents an effort by vanquished white supremacists to restore some perverse sense of dignity to their lost cause,” said Kingdom of Zydeco author Michael Tisserand.
“No amount of new signage can overcome its visual statement: Lee on a hero's pedestal, standing proud even in defeat,” Tisserand added. “To remove this monument would not remove our history, but speak volumes about the lessons we have learned from that history. To rebuild that civic space as Toussaint Circle would be a celebration of what unites New Orleanians: our joyful, funky, soulful, deep-rooted, and supremely intelligent music.”
Toussaint’s wake was all of that and ran two hours as entertainers, politicians, media figures, and middle-aged music mavens filed past the flower-draped closed casket, greeting Allen’s son, producer Reggie Toussaint, and daughters Allison and Naomi and other family members.
The Nov. 20 ceremony at the Orpheum featured reflections and musical selections by artists close to Toussaint, including Cyril Neville, Boz Scaggs, John Boutté, Elvis Costello, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, Davell Crawford, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, all celebrating the man who wrote and sang “Yes We Can-Can” and “Southern Nights.”
“We haven’t had a greater godfather than Allen,” Landrieu said during the ceremony. “We will think of you on those Southern nights, and the tunes you gave us really were the soundtrack of our lives.”
Aaron Neville, on the road, sent a message read by WWL-TV anchorman Eric Paulsen: “I know in my heart he’ll make God shed a tear ... Lay down my dear brother and take your rest. I bid you good night.”
A guitar-draped Jimmy Buffett, looking way older than the sunny rocker who sang of Margaritaville, recalled his childhood in Mobile, glued to WTIX-AM radio out of New Orleans, thrilled by “Fortune Teller,” an early Toussaint composition for Benny Spellman who sang about going to the fortune teller, falling in love “and now I get my fortune told for free.”
After the musical selections, drummers for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band began the solemn tolling of the dirges. People in the packed theatre watched in silence as the musicians and pallbearers ushered the coffin slowly up the aisle and out into the sunlight where several thousand people surrounded the white hearses idling opposite the Roosevelt Hotel.
Landrieu had his arm around a visibly choked up John Boutté, the singer whose career soared thanks to the HBO series, Tremé.
Vocalist Cyril Neville and A.J. Loria, a singer and pianist close to Toussaint, were among the pallbearers who hoisted the coffin into the hearse.
Ironically, Toussaint lived on Robert E. Lee Boulevard in a home near Lake Pontchartrain. Others who revered him, echoing Deacon John, were uneasy about installing a statue in his memory to replace that of Lee. Said Ben Sandmel, author of Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans: “A guy of his magnitude might deserve something that doesn’t have the stain of controversy.”
Several years ago, a Toussaint statue was placed in a cluster of statues honoring local musicians, including Al Hirt and Louis Armstrong, in a Bourbon Street public patio. The New Orleans airport bears Armstrong’s name, and a second statue of Satchmo, by the esteemed Elizabeth Catlett, stands in Louis Armstrong Park, in the heart of the Tremé neighborhood.
That neighborhood made famous by the HBO series is named for Claude Tremé, an antebellum French Creole who spent several years in jail for killing a slave with a shot to the back. After doing his time, Tremé sold off plantation lands for housing lots from which the faubourg, or suburb beyond the French Quarter, acquired its shape. By the 20th century, when “Tremé” became the name associated with the enclave, the grim facts of the slave-killer were lost in the wash of time.
As opinions on the Toussaint tribute and iconography of Robert E. Lee volleyed back and forth on social media, the lines from the title cut of Toussaint’s 1996 CD, Connected, had resonance:
We are all connected
Like the links in an unbroken chain
Each time we hurt someone for something
There’s a part of us that feels the pain.
Toussaint the celebrant of connectivity came to my house on a spring afternoon in 1996 to promote Connected and the new label, NYNO, he had founded with Josh Feigenbaum, a New Yorker and one of his closest friends.
I had offered to meet Toussaint wherever he wished.
“Your place does fine,” replied the silken voice on the phone. And then the coda: “If you don’t mind.”
When the Rolls-Royce pulled up that day, a few neighbors came onto their porches, and gawked. The postman reached the steps with his mailbag just as I opened the door to greet Toussaint. “You the man!” chirped the letter carrier.
“No—you,” riffed Toussaint with a gleaming grin.
“Go ’head on!” sang the mailman.
Once inside, Toussaint sat on the couch, gazed at the bookshelf, sized up several pictures on the wall and began talking about gospel music, namely Raymond Myles, who was working on his first album, for NYNO, and the venerable Zion Harmonizers, a group that had been singing together for decades.
I asked about his best time to compose. Starting after dinner, he explained. Sitting at the piano until 4 a.m.
“The nighttime is my very best time to work. Because it’s so quiet. The night air, for one thing—even if you’re inside, the hum of the city is down to a minimum, whereas in daytime you can hear that between B-and-B-Flat hum of the city. The electrical hum of the cities in England is different—the power source, the amount of voltage is different.”
“New Orleans has a B-flat hum,” I repeated to him, in love with the idea.
“Oh, absolutely.” He spoke of driving in from the airport, heading down the overpass on Earhart Boulevard and into the hum of the city as it welled around him. “The city is B-flat all the way.”
I thought back to something Aaron Neville said in an interview years earlier: “Me and Toussaint would ride around with a tape recorder and one day we pulled up next to a big semi-truck. The motor was going ‘rumble rum rumble’ with a nice beat, you know, and Toussaint recorded that beat.’”
The man who drove around tape-recording the mechanized phrasings of an urban infrastructure knew the human heart just as well.
On a cigarette
Every memory of you
I’ve got it bad
Like I told you before
I’m so in love with you
Don’t leave me no more!
As he left that afternoon, I walked Toussaint to his car. Two black kids heading home from Lafayette School, two blocks down, stopped in their tracks, riveted by the majestic Rolls. You could tell Toussaint was used to this, and despite his reserve, enjoyed the attention. He threw a grin at me, winked at the boys, squared himself behind the wheel and drove off to his next engagement like a prince of the realm.
I thought of that moment 19 years later as the white hearse bearing his coffin pulled away from people dancing in the street between the Roosevelt Hotel and Orpheum Theatre. It is tempting to assume that such a modest, polished gentleman would abhor a controversy surrounding his likeness uprooting the totemic General Lee. But Toussaint had a large, healthy ego, as most artists do, and replacing the general of the Confederacy who had no roots in New Orleans would surely appeal to him—how could it not?
Toussaint personified a city that grew out of its segregationist torpor in the last seven decades, the years of his life, a time in which its true identity as a crossroads of humanity captured a vast audience for the tidal flow of its music and culture. Lee stands above the city, symbolizing a Confederate culture manufactured after the Civil War to lionize those who fought. The Civil War was indeed an America Iliad; yet to the descendants of enslaved Africans, the symbols of racial supremacy stand unchanged.
Put General Lee in City Park with the other Confederate monuments, call it Forest of the Ancients and populate it with statues honoring freedom fighters among the African-American dead. Let the ghosts of our violent past surround one another in bronze.
Toussaint would do well above the St. Charles neutral ground where the streetcar makes it turn, but lower down, perhaps, closer to the flow of daily life. Where ever his bronze embodiment comes to stand, the lyrics will carry long in memory by the artist who found deep truth in the B-flat hum of the city.
Jason Berry’s books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II.