Every year for the past 20, locals have given summer a proper send-off on Labor Day, with the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral (Monday, Sept. 5 this year).
The jazz funeral is a tradition born somewhere in the vicinity of that most mysterious southern city, New Orleans. And it’s a bad time for folks along the Gulf Coast — it’ll likely be some time before those waters recede.
But the jazz funeral embodies a uniquely human facility, or perhaps survival trait — the ability to transition from grief, back into joy, at the turn of a corner.
This year more than ever, the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral may feel very like the real thing.
The brass band’s dirge and mourning shuffle turning to cheerful hymn and reinvigorated skip, as participants move through natural grief into glad remembrance — in Bethany, it’s merely summer’s end, but still, it’s a tradition.
The event in Bethany is an adaptation of the original, as envisioned by one of Bethany’s original characters of exceptional uniqueness, Moss Wagner. His foil in civic involvement, Patsy Rankin (chef at her namesake restaurant on Campbell Place) remembered the early days. (She formed the Fourth of July Parade Committee, Wagner decided to pursue something a little less mainstream.)
In the beginning, Rankin said the event consisted of basically a three-piece band, with Wagner and associates taking the walk through town, down the boardwalk to the bandstand, and winding things up with a champagne toast and eulogy.
“The Jazz Funeral was much more low-key,” she pointed out. “It was more like, ‘Hey, it’s Labor Day, let’s have a few cocktails.’”
The Fourth of July Parade started strong, and has stayed strong. The jazz funeral has developed more slowly over the same period, Rankin noted. However, she said more and more people were getting involved.
They’d secured a larger brass band for last year’s Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral (seven pieces), and event organizer Paul Jankovic said they’d probably be up to nearly 10 this year.
“They’re the greatest part of this event,” he pointed out. “These guys are extremely talented.” Arriving at the north end of the boardwalk, at approximately 5:30 p.m., Jankovic said they typically picked up additional participants along the way, but it was a rather brief affair — best to be prepared (costumes optional) and on the lookout.
According to Jankovic, Wagner now lives in Crested Butte, Colo. — but he might just fly in for this year’s event.
Jankovic said he intended to prepare him a warm welcome, and treat him as the guest of honor. “Holding a jazz funeral here was his concept, and I think towns should try to recognize people who have ideas, and are trying to make a positive difference where they live,” he said.
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