The New Orleans Musicians Tomb

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NEW ORLEANS— The Historic New Orleans Collection has launched The New Orleans Cemetery Database. Included in the database is St. Louis Cemetery Number One, the oldest cemetery in the city of New Orleans.

Heather Veneziano is the Director of Public Engagement and Development for New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries and spends much of her time with the past of New Orleans, walking inside the “city of the dead.”

“There are many notable individuals interred here, including the likes of chess player Paul Morphy, civil rights pioneer Homer Plessy, and Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau. In any part of New Orleans history, you can probably find somebody related within a tomb in this cemetery.  It’s a really special place in the city. Knowing that a neighbor might have lived next to somebody in life and their tomb is next to them in death is unique. Our cemeteries represent the greater New Orleans community in a way that nothing else really does.”

St. Louis Cemetery Number One holds the bodies of many of New Orleans’ historic figures. Walking up along the sidewalk of the cemetery, you notice a large 20-foot tall tomb with a blue music note at the top. It’s the Barbarin family’s tomb. Interred in the tomb is the patriarch of the Barbarin family, Isadore Barbarin.

Eric Seiferth is a curator and historian at The Historic New Orleans Collection and says, “the Barbarins are one of these musical families that go back so far, that you can really track them along with the development of jazz music.

“In the time of Isadore Barbarin, brass bands are widely popular across the United States, especially in Louisiana.  Most of them would have had a military heir and wear military jackets.  A lot of this is coming out of the civil war when brass bands reached the zenith of popularity.  It’s around the same time that ragtime is coming out and players around New Orleans are starting to add syncopation, improvisation, and blue notes.  These elements would become the bedrock of jazz performance.”

Isadore played alto horn and cornet and was the grandfather of the late great Danny Barker, who played with the likes of Dexter Gorden, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Danny Barker also freshened up the traditional New Orleans jazz sound, his family was known for.

The Barbarins have had many members musicians in their family tree, like the legendary, Lucien Barbarin, who played with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Harry Connick Jr.

Along with Isadore Barbarin are laid to rest musicians outside of the Barbarin family tree. Since 2004, the Barbarin family tomb has interred culture bearers in six of the 18 reusable vaults. It is dubbed the “musicians tomb;” and is a popular attraction on New Orleans history tours.

The late Sylvester Francis is also interred at the cemetery although he has no Barbarin blood. Francis passed away in 2020 and was the founder and curator of the Backstreet Cultural Museum in Treme. Francis also worked extensively with the Historic New Orleans Collection on their current exhibition, “Dancing in the Streets.” The exhibition is dedicated in part, to his memory and influence.

Both the music and burial culture of New Orleans is like no other and often go hand in hand. It’s proper to have a brass band second line with traditional jazz to lead the caskets to the cemetery. This makes the musicians tomb special, because it honors in death, those who normally honor others. It’s a reflecting mirror casting light on one of the brightest gifts to the world that New Orleans could offer: musicians.

To see Dancing in the Streets at the Historic New Orleans Collection, click here.

If you know a musician that would like to be interred in the historic musician’s tomb, contact Robert Florence at Robfl@tourneworleans.com.

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