At 8 a.m. on Friday (Nov. 20), a ribbon of mourners made their way slowly down the right aisle of the Orpheum Theater. They were headed toward the glinting coffee-colored coffin at the edge of the stage to pay tribute to composer, producer and pianist extraordinaire Allen Toussaint, who died Nov. 10.
Atop the closed casket lay a treble clef composed of white flowers. Toussaint’s mellow singing voice wafted in the auditorium from speakers flanking the stage.
Mourners paused momentarily at the casket. Some crossed themselves; others bowed. A woman with a walking cane stumbled
slightly as she took her turn before the casket. Several mourners pressed their palms against the polished wood. A few cried. As Toussaint’s buoyant “Basic Lady” issued from the sound system, a young woman bounced from foot to foot despite the circumstances.
The early attendees wore an eclectic 21st century blend of costume: somber black gowns, silk ties and black jackets, blended with anachronistic hats, rock ‘n’ roll accessories and even backpacks.
A woman waiting at the theater entrance before the doors opened asked if she was adequately dressed in a black wrap over a green, patterned blouse. She had to go to work afterward she said, and feared she dressed too casually. Everyone agreed she looked perfectly respectful.
Having passed the casket, many in the line of mourners paused to pay respects to Allen Toussant’s son Clarence Reginald Toussaint, who shook hands and hugged each in turn.
Then, the quiet procession filed up the left aisle and out of the auditorium. Some took seats in the balcony above.
Musicians, including Joe Krown, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Big Sam Williams, Leo Nocentelli, Cyril Neville, Deacon John and Dr. John were in attendance by 9:30 a.m.
A slideshow of photos was projected above the stage. When images of Toussaint receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama appeared, the balcony crowd emitted a muffled cheer.
The café au lait and turquoise-colored Orpheum interior glowed in the dim, warm light. The splendid old hall was a poetic location for the occasion. For 10 years, New Orleanians had waited for the venue to reopen after Hurricane Katrina and the 2005 flood.
Meanwhile, Toussaint had become more open than ever, stepping into
the spotlight as a sort of musical ambassador of his recovering city.
By 10 a.m., the second balcony had begun to fill, the tone inside the concert hall was becoming higher keyed in anticipation of the service and memorial concert to come.
A tribute featuring, according to a program handed out at the Orpheum, Cyril Neville, Deacon John, Davell Crawford, Irma Thomas, Jimmy Buffett, Elvis Costello, John Boutte, Boz Scaggs, the Preservation Hall Brass Band and Troy “Tombone Shorty” Andrews, is set to begin around 11 a.m. It is slated to be broadcast live on WWOZ.org.