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THE Shakespeare Celebrations look set to be something extra special this year with the performance of a New Orleans Jazz Funeral for William Shakespeare.

Guest musicians from the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University in Louisiana will bring their unique cultural contribution to the 400th Anniversary Celebrations in Stratford-upon-Avon today, Saturday.

Members of The Wendell Brunious Band will join the annual procession of dignitaries, VIPs, school students and marching bands in Shakespeare’s Birthday Parade to his grave at Holy Trinity Church.

Directed by Wendell Brunious, one of New Orleans’ pre-eminent jazz trumpeters, the band will consist of five professionals, assisted by two student musicians.

Dressed in black, they will be led in the procession through the streets to Holy Trinity Church in traditional jazz funeral fashion by the Grand Marshal who will wear a sash naming the honoree, Shakespeare.

Behind the band comes the traditional second-line, sporting small umbrellas and handkerchiefs which they twirl and wave as they dance a two-step in the band’s wake.

Brass dominates the band’s performance, as well as snare and bass drum and, on this trip, a banjo.

Professor Mike Kuczynski, chair of English at Tulane University and organiser of the Tulane Jazz Funeral Project.
Professor Mike Kuczynski, chair of English at Tulane University and organiser of the Tulane Jazz Funeral Project.

It promises to be quite a party atmosphere on the streets of Stratford as Professor Mike Kuczynski, chair of English at Tulane University and organiser of the Tulane Jazz Funeral Project, explains: “It’s really going to be fantastic. We are all going to be celebrating a great life and there will be lots of swag — which means we’ll be carrying umbrellas, handkerchiefs, beads and singing our hearts’ out. The people on the streets can join in as well if they want to and follow the procession.

“It may sound melancholic at times maybe even a bit of a dirge to some, but this is what a jazz funeral is all about — celebrating a person’s life and spirit. We’re really excited about being in Stratford.”

Stratford Town Clerk, Sarah Summers, was inspired to find someone who could deliver a jazz funeral after recalling the opening sequence of a James Bond film! As she explains: “The jazz funeral has a clear change of tempo from sombre remembrance to lively celebration, full of music, dancing and expression. That contrast seemed exactly right for our parade which marks both Shakespeare’s birthday and his death, aged 52, on the same day, so we are delighted to welcome our visitors from Louisiana.

“Their presence is especially appropriate here in Stratford, given the university’s emphasis on the study of Shakespeare.

“We have a great event planned and I’m sure the crowds lining the route will be drawn into the carnival atmosphere as the procession moves along.”

Jazz funerals are rooted in West African and European burial traditions and are, according to Bruce Raeburn, director of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane, “probably the most appropriate way that New Orleans musicians can honour a person of value. They are alternately slow and dirge-like yet energetic and celebratory of life.”

The tradition of the New Orleans jazz funeral grew throughout the 20th century to achieve its own respected standing as a way to commemorate the passage of a loved one. Musicians, police officers and African-Americans and most notably the many victims of Hurricane Katrina have been remembered by this style of funeral. Shakespeare’s legacy as a playwright and poet reaches around the world.

According to Professor Michael Kuczynski, the trip to Stratford is “a kind of pilgrimage that is especially appropriate for New Orleans as a city that since the 18th century has had a special love affair with Shakespeare and his works. It is reflected, for instance in the city’s Shakespeare Club, the long artistic influence of Shakespeare on Mardi Gras in the form of elaborate float designs, the performances of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane and the popularity of courses in Shakespeare at the university.”

In May, once they return home the School of Liberal Arts will host a reprise of the jazz funeral in celebration of the opening at Tulane’s Newcomb Art Museum of ‘First Folio! The Book that Gave Us Shakespeare’.

One of many international events to mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, this touring exhibition from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC will feature a copy of the First Folio open to the famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy in Hamlet and exclusively at Tulane, a rare quarto of Hamlet on loan from Tulane parent and bibliophile, Stuart Rose, will be on display.

Accepting the exciting invitation from Stratford to take part in Shakespeare’s Celebrations was made possible for the School of Liberal Arts by a generous gift from Stuart and Mimi Rose and the Stuart Rose Family Foundation.

The School of Liberal Arts at Tulane, like Mr Rose, promotes the study of humanities and of Shakespeare in particular.



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