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Sendoff for Alvin Batiste 

Funerals have a pronounced tendency to mirror the lives of those we bury. The symbolic language of a sendoff registers the career that was, the memory that lives. The setting of a funeral carries its own vocabulary, too.

In the case of Alvin Batiste, a jazz clarinetist and educator whose career spanned half a century at Southern University in Baton Rouge and later at NOCCA, the orchestration of performers at the wake on the night of May 11 and at the final service the next morning, both of which were held at Gallier Hall, was a narrative surpassing the second line that halted traffic briefly on St. Charles Avenue as the procession with limousines moved along Poydras Street for several blocks.

Clouds of irony hovered over Batiste's farewell. In the reception hall to the left of the great entrance, tall paintings of George Washington and Andrew Jackson, generals and slave owners, surrounded the casket of a jazz educator who began his career in the last decade of legal segregation. Batiste rested in an open casket with a U.S. flag in a triangular fold nestled at one shoulder, a sign of his military service.

At 8 p.m. on the night of the wake, pallbearers ushered Batiste across the hallway -- past life-sized portraits of former Mayors Morial, Barthelemey, Landrieu, Morial pere, Schiro, Morrison, Maestri and others stretching back through time -- to the main reception room. A dramatic triptych by local artist George Dureau covered the main wall, three scenes of a Dionysian carnival with centaurs and dancers, some in chains, streaked with gray and pink tones -- a blowout scene. One of the figures played a clarinet, an ironic backdrop to the dignity of so many musicians, particularly the students and young proteges of "Mr. Bat" -- polished professionals all -- in suits and fine dresses, bearing an ease in their decorum and a seamless quality of musicianship from one generation to the next.

Batiste's widow, Edith, his sons and daughters, grandchildren, nieces and nephews sat facing the casket as master of ceremonies Bob French called Batiste "a friend of mine and a family man ... who was finally responsible for a lot of people in this room working. He educated more musicians than I could think of."

After a choking tribute from Gary Woods, president of NOCCA, a classical ensemble from the school performed. Then R&B singer and composer Willie Tee moved to the stool, telling the audience of 300: "I climbed up on a piano when I was 3 and I never came down. I've known Alvin over 50 years. He used to take me to school." He launched into a jazz song with Baroque overtones.

"He was a great role model," announced clarinetist Michael White, as his turn came. "I had some questions for him, based on a final conversation we had about Pharoah Sanders." White paused. The room rolled with murmurs: obviously there was no conclusion to that conversation. White: "Just now I said a prayer: 'Batiste, I'm going to miss you.' And he said, 'Oh, I'll still be giving you pointers, just from a better place.'"

White sent up a powerful call on his reed with Detroit Brooks on guitar and Batiste's longtime accompanist, Herman Jackson, on drums.

"Deep in his heart, he was a drum," said another acolyte, Jonathan Bloom.

As the tributes continued, the essence of Batiste was played and replayed by friends articulating the principles of his aesthetics, particularly the idea of jazz as a continuum. In a brief tribute, Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie said: "We are part of the continuum."

Los Hombres Calientes percussionist Bill Summers capped the evening with a series of dirges on tribal drums from Yoruba and Kongo traditions.

The waves of music and memory continued the next morning in a service that ran three hours before the burial parade. Lady B. J., who began as a gospel singer and shifted to popular songs, did a rousing version of "God Bless the Child."

"He changed the face of jazz in New Orleans and Louisiana -- he was our teacher and our mentor," intoned Deacon John, guitar in hand. "There'll be no more sorrows," sang Deacon. "No sadness ... I'm going home ... any day now, I know I'm going home." A river of applause rolled through the room.

Then came Kidd Jordan, Alvin's brother-in-law and fellow jazz educator. The room fell silent as the man with gray curls gripped the golden saxophone. "This is a hard day for me," he said in a wavering voice. "He was the brother I never had. ... He called me when Coltrane died. I went down to the basement and came up with this."

In the audience sat saxophonist Tony Dagradi, with melancholy eyes, near guitarist Steve Masakowski, looking just as sad. James Rivers gazed at the dais from another corner as Jordan issued a long, mournful wail, dirge-like. He walked around to the open casket, leaning toward the deceased, the notes roaming in an Eastern tint, reaching up the register, pinching a moan at the cap note, and the flowing pathos left ripples of Alvin in its wake.

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