The solemnity of the jazz funeral procession held in honor of Jerome "Jerry" Greene on Aug. 25 reflected the esteem with which he was regarded and mirrored the dignity of the man himself. Greene -- a noted New Orleans tuba player, bassist and banjo player -- died on Aug. 18 at the age of 98.
"He was a person that you would call 'Mr. Greene' because he was always a gentleman and the ultimate nice guy," says saxophonist Doc Watson, who performed alongside Greene with the Tuxedo and Olympia brass bands.
Trumpeter Gregg Stafford expresses similar sentiments. "He was one of the last of the real pioneer musicians who believed in fraternity amongst musicians," Stafford says. "When Jerry Greene was in his 80s -- even when he was sick -- if a musician died, he'd sneak off and be in that line-up [for the jazz funeral] because he felt strongly about the tradition."
Greene's life paralleled much of the development of jazz in New Orleans. Until the 1940s, he primarily played the upright bass with a list of local luminaries, including Papa Celestin, the Humphrey Brothers, Louis Nelson, Louis Cottrell, Danny Barker, and Teddy Riley. On the national front, Greene performed with bandleaders Cab Calloway, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. When he picked up the tuba, it was to perform with the great brass bands of the day including the Onward, Olympia, Imperial, Eureka, and the Original Tuxedo. In fact, Greene made his last musical appearance at the 1998 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, appearing with the all-star Onward Brass Band led by drummer Placide Adams.
At the St. Peter Claver Catholic Church funeral service, a photographic tribute was accompanied by a recording of Narvin Kimball singing "Memories," backed by a combo that included Greene. The photographs depicted Greene's life as a family man and musician and also included several clips of films and TV movies in which Greene appeared: Freedom Road with Muhammad Ali, The Drowning Pool with Paul Newman, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and Mandingo.
Brass band members lined up on North Claiborne Avenue to form a path for the last goodbye to Greene. The ensemble played "Old Wooden Cross" as the white hearse passed by. In salute, Stafford put his Tuxedo Brass Band cap on top of the vehicle, while Kirk Joseph bent to sadly touch his tuba to its roof.
Both of these next-generation musicians were particularly indebted to Greene for the special help that he gave them as young artists. Not only did he offer guidance, but he loaned his tuba to them as well. "The first horn I ever had at my house was Jerry Greene's tuba," remembers Joseph. "I guess it had a lot to do with the real old musicians in New Orleans -- they looked out for one another."
Similarly, Greene offered Stafford, who is now a renowned trumpeter, the use of his instrument to pick up extra cash. "He knew I was working my way through college and said, 'Whenever you need my horn, just come and get it.' So Jerry Greene helped me earn a lot of my tuition money."
There was barely a whisper as the crowd stepped slowly to the dirge rhythm of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." As the jazz funeral procession moved down St. Philip Street, it was as if those assembled recalled those quieter times when Jerry Greene stepped on the streets with great dignity.