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Mortuary Band

Julie Caine

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A Mortuary Band Trumpeter
(Julie Caine)
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Even in the best of times, it's hard to make it as a working musician. Gigs can be few and far between, and often either don't pay well, or don't pay at all. In San Francisco, Julie Caine met up with some of the best musicians in the city who pay their rent by scaring off ghosts.

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It's a cold, foggy morning in San Francisco, and we're in the basement of a funeral home, right next to where they store the urns. The room is crowded, bustling with activity. But instead of mourners, we're surrounded by trombones, trumpets, and a pale green bass drum, painted with pink flowers.

Bleary-eyed jazz players, up much earlier than they're used to, mingle with musicians who normally play for the symphony and the ballet

"This is a double B-flat sousaphone," says Zacariah Spellman, a tuba player with the San Francisco Opera. "It weighs about 32 pounds."

Meet the Green Street Mortuary Band. Every weekend, rain or shine, they march in military formation through the streets of San Francisco, playing dirge-like Christian hymns for Chinese funerals. The set list can include songs like: Abide with Me, Amazing Grace, Eternal Father, Eternal Peace, Fairest Lord Jesus, and Onward Christian Soldiers.

I'm sitting with band member John Coppola, who turns 80 this year. He's a jazz trumpeter who's played with the best of them. We're directly across from the mortuary in an Irish pub, at the intersection between the Italian neighborhood and Chinatown, and it's exactly this patchwork of cultures that has made the Green Street Band such a San Francisco institution.

It all began in the early 1900s, when a group of young Chinese immigrants first heard an Italian marching band parading through their neighborhood. They wanted to learn to play, too, and formed their own band. By the 1960s, the band expanded to include professional musicians from all backgrounds. It had become a steady-paying gig that everybody wanted in on.

Today's funeral is starting, and the Green Street Band lines up in front of the mortuary, getting their sheet music ready and pulling on their trademark gold-braided, white ship captains' hats - relics from China's history of British colonial rule. None of the members is Chinese.

A hearse is backed up to the door of the mortuary, and a group of saffron robed monks emerge from the chapel, ringing bells and chanting. It's the cue the band has been waiting for. The coffin is carried outside and loaded into the back of the hearse. Big sticks of incense burn, and the mourners take their final bows honoring the deceased.

The tuba player turns to me. "This is a sacred thing that we're doing here," he says. "Trying to offer some comfort, something to the families who are suffering right now. But we also recognize that this is a natural process to the community. A lot of these people they see this band going up and down the streets all the time. They know what's going on."

It's an ancient tradition. The music keeps the spirit of the newly deceased close to the body until burial. Hiring a band is also a way for the family to show their status, and to announce the passing of a member of the community.

Family members in a waiting black convertible hold up a large photo of the deceased, framed with brightly colored flowers. Although the band members don't know who has died, when they see that picture, they know it's time to get to work.

The tuba player hefts his instrument onto his shoulders, and mortuary workers on motorcycles rev up to guide the procession through traffic. The band begins their solemn march, playing the song Amazing Grace, as the picture car drives slowly behind them, followed by the hearse, and long lines of mourners in their cars.

For musicians, the Green Street Mortuary Band is one of the most coveted gigs in town - it's on the weekends, and it's during the day, so it doesn't conflict with nighttime jobs. And it's steady work. There are usually at least two or three funerals every week.

Darren Johnston, a jazz trumpet player and band leader, says the funeral band helps him survive as a working musician. "It's a substantial percentage of my income," he tells me, as we march through Chinatown. "There's months where work is really slow, and then there's a bunch of funerals, and I'm very thankful for them."

The procession moves through densely packed streets. Tourists take pictures. People peer out the windows of city buses. Some men remove their baseball caps.

Cindy Collins, a trumpeter who plays classical music with the Oakland Civic Orchestra, leans over and whispers to me. "They get excited," she says. "They think, oh my gosh we're in Chinatown, and here comes a parade!"

We round a corner, getting ready to climb one of San Francisco's famously steep hills. Collins turns to me and laughs. "You'll be a full-fledged band member once we get up there," she says, and we start our ascent.

We've changed direction slightly so we can pass by the house of the deceased. It's a common ritual, a last visit meant to help the spirit transition from this world and into the next. The procession comes to a halt, and a drumroll begins. "They're going to throw the paper money in the air," Collins tells me. "It's just a beautiful sight."

It's called "buying the road," and serves as a diversion for unfriendly ghosts and a way for the family to provide for the material needs of their dead ancestor in the spirit world.

At the end of gig, some of the musicians sip beers back at the Irish bar. Collins tells me the job gives the band members a sense of camaraderie that is hard to beat.

"I never thought I'd say that I prefer a funeral band to a symphony orchestra," she says, sipping a Guinness. "But there's something about this band. Even though it comes from a sad moment, it's this triumphant moment for the person who's going on and we're sharing that with the community. What gets better than that?"

Comments

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  • By Bob White

    From Manhattan Beach, CA, 05/12/2012

    I discovered the GSMB in 2002 while touring North Beach. (And had my pictue taken with them.)Are they still carrying on in 2012? I want to visit again.

    By Colin Scott

    From Nottingham UK, 05/06/2009

    Thanks for a great tale, really enjoyed hearing all about it, its a shame we haven't got a local band like that to play folks out, maybe I will start one.

    By Charra DeMarco

    From San Francisco, CA, 01/27/2009

    How lucky I am to live in a city where there are so many "out of the ordinary" things to see and do. I have had the extreme pleasure of seeing and hearing this band participate in a Chinese funeral procession....What a treat!!!

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