They buried Papa Celestin on a raw winter day. It was early in the morning
when the mourners started arriving at the funeral home on Louisiana Avenue.
By noon, five thousand people and two brass bands jammed the broad two-lane
thoroughfare outside, waiting to take the great trumpeter on his last ride. Two
dozen motorcycle cops revved their engines, preparing to escort the cortege—
and ready to deal with any violence if things got out of hand.
Inside the crowded funeral parlor, black friends and relatives of the fallen
jazzman mingled with his many white admirers—among them, the mayor, a
congressman, prominent businessmen, lawyers, university professors, socialites,
writers, journalists. There were few places in New Orleans where the races could
gather under one roof in those Jim Crow days: segregation was the law of the
land in Louisiana. But they made an exception for Papa Celestin. Apart from
Louis Armstrong, perhaps, he was the closest thing to a local hero that the city
could claim. President Eisenhower had even honored him at the White House
and told him he was “a credit to his race.”
I was five years old and knew nothing about Papa Celestin. But there I was in
the middle of the pressing crowd, bundled up against the December wind and
clutching my mother’s hand. Nearby, my father hovered protectively over my
sisters, Wendy, nine, and Beth, eight. Mother had questioned the wisdom of
bringing us here, but my father had insisted. “In New Orleans,” he said, “a jazz
funeral is a cultural event. These kids will be telling their grandchildren about
the day they buried the great Papa Celestin.”
Excerpted from Song for my Fathers by Tom Sancton. Copyright © 2010 by Tom Sancton. Excerpted by permission of Other Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.