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Doc Paulin's Long Goodbye

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The third in a periodic series on the state of jazz in the city

Ernest 'Doc" Paulin, who died Nov. 20 at 100 years and four months, was a jazz patriarch in the most literal sense. Paulin had 13 children with his wife, Betty White, whom he married at the advanced age of 42 and sustained a 58-year marriage. Six of his sons became musicians and joined the brass band he led until the early '90s " Rickey on clarinet and sometimes drums, Roderick on tenor sax, Dwayne and Scott on trombones, Philip on trumpet, and Aaron, a drummer. The music-making family, relatives and friends gathered for a Nov. 24 funeral Mass at Holy Ghost Church. Then the pallbearers wheeled the coffin outside and hoisted it into a glass-encased buggy hearse, pulled by a horse with a driver in a top hat " an image out of the age before cars. Six grand marshals in tuxedos, including Bruce 'Sunpie" Barns, began the procession in slow, sculpted steps, while a seventh, Jennifer Jones, twirling a gilded parasol, sashayed along in front of the men. Some 300 people walked respectfully around a brass band led by the Paulin brothers with other musicians joining in, 25 in all, playing 'Lawd, Lawd, Lawd" in slow tempo with a tender lyricism rarely seen in second lines today. The parade rolled up Louisiana Avenue, turning right at LaSalle, past the shuddered Flint-Goodrich hospital complex and the shuttered C.J. Peete housing project " cold symbols of a city's rotten politics, a muted contrast to the life force of Paulin's burial parade as the band played 'I'll Fly Away."

Born in New Roads in 1907, Paulin was raised by his grandparents, who had come from Haiti, on a farm near the town of Wallace in St. John the Baptist Parish. An uncle who played trombone, Edgard Peters, gave him his musical start. 'People had dances, picnics, all through the week sometimes when people got married," Paulin told me in a rare interview, to which he begrudgingly consented in 1996 to promote a CD, The Tradition Continues The Paulin Brothers Jazz Band Along with Ernest 'Doc" Paulin.

'In the country, we didn't play funerals," he said that afternoon in Hanville, during a break from the annual Mother's Day parade for a Masonic lodge. He was sitting under a tree in scorching heat as the band waited outside a church " inside choirs were singing to the sky. 'If you didn't play [jazz], you didn't get the job."

Caring for his grandparents until they died, Paulin moved to New Orleans in 1928. Funerals helped establish his reputation. 'You'd have to hustle "em up," he told me. 'It was a job to play the funeral. You have to play that trumpet, representing it like a preacher The trumpet's gonna talk that funeral talk."

I was lucky to have gotten the interview, abbreviated though it was. In his long career, Paulin never did an oral history for Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archive, the major source of information on early jazzmen. 'We approached him, but he declined," Hogan curator Bruce Raeburn told Gambit Weekly. In 1998, as a jazz consultant at The Historic New Orleans Collection, I arranged an offer to Mr. Paulin of $1000 for a formal interview; he was unwilling. Perhaps at 91 he did not feel comfortable with his memory. It's just as possible he didn't want to do an interview with anyone, period. But imagine that life! " seven decades of brass-band musical marches for churches, social aid and pleasure clubs, funerals and parades for carnival clubs (minus a stint in New York in the 1930s, and military service in World War II).

In later years his band became a launch for young jazzmen like clarinetist Michael White and trumpeter Gregg Stafford, who played for his funeral.

Everyone who played for Doc Paulin had to arrive in black pants, a clean white shirt, black tie, black shoes, a black coat if it was cool and a clean black cap. They reported to his house in Central City where he inspected everyone's dress; those with scuffed shoes ran the risk of being sent home. 'In this organization," he was known to growl, 'you got to be on time." Those who came late lost the job. The players also knew that if a job called for a smaller band, his music-making sons stood first in line. He was willing to carry two clarinetists, recalls Michael White, 'He sometimes sent two bands to different parades on the same day."

From that house on Seventh Street, Doc and Betty Paulin ran the Property Owners Voters League, a get-out-the-vote organization that worked for candidates he favored during elections. 'He was a one-man neighborhood watch," intoned Deacon Irvin Stewart in the funeral homily. 'Doc Paulin drank well from the fountain of life. He knew how to live in the 100 plus years he was within the body. Number one, always, was his family."

He was idiosyncratic. He loathed the musicians' union, to which most of the artists belonged; he would surrender no dues for work done on his own. Long after 'Dixieland" became freighted with negative racial and cultural meanings for African Americans, he maintained a drum emblazoned Doc Paulin's Dixieland Jazz Band. I suspect it was a business decision; other people liked the term.

In 1949, the year he married Betty, he began playing the Mardi Gras parade for the Corner Club in the Irish Channel. Paulin marched for them from the presidency of Truman through that of Clinton, from the dawn of TV to iPods. Dewy-eyed Corner Club members lined the pews at Holy Ghost. 'Doc was good people," murmured Tony Spano, now retired, who ran a garage on South Claiborne for years. 'He used to bring his car by and I took care of him."

The Original West Side Marching Club hired the band when they formed in 1968 to march with the Grela parade on Saturday during carnival as it passed City Hall in Gretna. 'I had some influence with the chief of police," recalled Phil Loyocano, who was at the funeral with his daughter. 'The chief said: "If y'all keep it clean, son, you can have the parade.'" Outside of West Jefferson football stadium, Loyocano met Doc Paulin to negotiate the fee. 'We paraded about 20 years. His kids came up in the band. Years later I was watching the LSU band march and this guy starts waving at me: "Hey, I'm one of Doc's sons " we paraded with you.' I went to [the rest home] for his 100th birthday. Doc Paulin was a fine man."

Doc Paulin paraded in the Irish Channel with The Corner Club on Mardi Gras 1976. - MATT ANDERSON
  • Matt Anderson
  • Doc Paulin paraded in the Irish Channel with The Corner Club on Mardi Gras 1976.

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