"I'd rather play a funeral than eat a turkey dinner," declared William Pajaud's father, William Pajaud, Sr., referring to the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral. A turkey dinner was big deal to this struggling musician with a gambling habit. In 1960 he died lacing his shoes, preparing to play at a funeral.
The traditional jazz funeral, with its cultural roots in Africa1, is also important to William Pajaud, Jr. "Traditional jazz funerals are becoming obsolete, with few people left who understand it," he says. "The spiritual element has disappeared."
Ellis Marsalis makes the same point in the book titled Rejoice When You Die. The traditional funeral consists of two main elements: the somber march from the church to the gravesite where religious hymns are played by the band without improvisation, and the high-spirited procession from the burial where jazz music is played and a "second line" of cavorting spectators joins the parade. Marsalis points out the changes that separate today's jazz funeral from the tradition: The somber part has been mostly eliminated. The bands are not usually attached to social and pleasure clubs, as were the old bands. And the jazz funeral is no longer exclusively for jazz musicians and club members; now anyone who can pay for the rite can get it.
These changes are one reason Pajaud has created a significant body of work commemorating the tradition. In Eureka Funeral and Second Line we see the entire traditional funeral. In the foreground is the grand marshal holding an umbrella. He leads the funeral procession and sets the tone and tempo of the march.William Pajaud
Above the band are other musicians without any musical instruments who appear somewhat transparent. These ghosts from the past are symbols of the importance of tradition. Pajaud shows both sides of the funeral, sad and happy, by placing the burial in the upper right corner and the second line in the upper left corner.
Another reason Pajaud focuses on the jazz funeral is to honor his father, who was an accomplished cornet player and one of only a few of his contemporaries who could read music. In Requiem Reader William, Sr. is standing in a graveyard holding his cornet. The horn has a holder with sheet music in it, reinforcing the fact that he could read music. His belt buckle has his initials, W.E.P. The grave marker in the upper left portion of the painting has two names, Du Congé, William, Sr.'s wife's maiden name, and Pajaud. Carved on the grave marker in the upper right portion of the painting are the words "The Reader," William Sr.'s nickname, and "Eureka," one of the bands he played with. This seems to suggest that William, Sr. is not a live person in this picture but rather a spirit.William Pajaud
The jazz funeral paintings are also a tribute to the musicians who played, not for commercial reasons, but for the sheer love of playing and the utmost respect for the tradition. They were paid little or no money and yet they poured their souls into their music. Typically, the entire band would get $2.50 plus food and drink. Even in the old days that was not very much money.
The New Orleans jazz funeral was consummate experience because it combined two opposing and intense emotions: grief and ecstasy. In his memoir, jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton described the transition from the depths of sorrow to transcendent joy:
(After the burial) the band would get started and you could hear the drums, rolling a deep, slow rhythm. A few bars of that and then the snare drummer would make a hot roll on his drums and the boys in the band would just tear loose, while the second line swung down the street, singing...Didn't he ramble?2
Rambled all around,
In and out the town
Didn't he ramble
He rambled till the butchers cut him down
William Etienne (French for "Steven") Pajaud, Jr. was born August 3, 1925 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the only child of William Etienne Pajaud, Sr. and Audrey Du Congé.
His father played the cornet in various bands in New Orleans including the Tonic Triad Band, the Maple Leaf Orchestra, The Tuxedo Brass Band, The Olympia Brass Band and the Eureka Brass Band. For a time he was the leader of the Eureka and the Olympia bands.
William, Sr. had two nicknames, "Sweet Lips Willie" because he played the cornet so sweet that it sounded like a saxophone and "The Reader" because he was one of a few black musicians at the time who could read music.
During the 1920s he also owned a club called The Music Box on Canal and Prieur Streets in New Orleans. And at another time he co-owned a cigar factory with his father, Sidney. William, Jr. worked in that factory as a small boy stripping and cleaning tobacco and reading newspapers to the illiterate workers.
But William, Sr. also had other pursuits that sometimes got him into financial difficulty, raised the eyebrows of his in-laws, and strained his marriage . He gambled, ran numbers and chased women. Once he promised to take his wife and son to the Mardi Gras parade but had to cancel because he pawned his shoes to pay a gambling debt. William, Jr. recalls being told as a boy by his mother's relatives, "don't be like your father, you must become something." His mother told him, "your daddy wasn't worth a damn."
Pajaud's mother taught social work at the college level and also was a social worker. She earned a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from Xavier University in New Orleans but due to racial discrimination she wasn't able to land a job in the field. So, she went back to school and earned a masters degree in social work from Atlanta University. Pajaud describes her as "a very enlightened woman before the days of women's liberation."
Audrey Pajaud played the piano and three of her brothers, Albert, Adolph and Peter, also played musical instruments and are in the annals of New Orleans jazz history. But jazz wasn't what they were brought up on. European classical music was the preferred musical art form in the Du Congé household. Audrey's mother, Daniska St. Aurin, made sure of that. They were devout Catholics, upright and proper. Pajaud also describes as fiant and defines this Creole word as the attitude of a person who pretends, without justification, to be better than everybody else .
At age seven, Pajaud was bitten by a mosquito. He scratched the bite until it became infected. As a result, he developed osteomyeltis. He was hospitalized for three months and for two of those months he was close to death. He had three operations and four blood transfusions. Seven bones were removed from his foot. Despite all of that it looked as though his leg would have to be amputated. But two things happened that cured him, he says. St. Jude (the saint of the impossible) answered his mother's prayers and a Russian doctor gave him progressively larger doses of iodine over a period of time. As it turned out, though, another miracle of sorts also took place during his stay in the hospital. His path to becoming an artist was set.
The boy's roommate in the hospital, a dying elderly man who was a cartoonist, got him interested in drawing. He gave William materials and instructions and urged him, before he died, not to give up drawing. He told him, "you're the only thing I've got left." Pajaud never forgot that.
Shortly after Pajaud was released from the hospital, his parents divorced. He wouldn't see much of his father until some 40 years later. Audrey and William,Jr. moved to Nashville, Tennessee. When he was 12 he painted his first watercolor, a picture of the windmill that appeared on a Dutch Cleanser can. Watercolor became, and remains, his preferred medium.
After completing the ninth grade William moved with his mother to Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he completed his sophomore year of high school. A year later they moved again, this time to Tyler, Texas where Audrey joined the faculty of Texas College. Pajaud returned to New Orleans to attend Xavier University on a full academic scholarship, and, in 1946, earned a bachelors degree in fine arts with a minor in Romance languages.
A pivotal event in Pajaud's development as artist occurred while he was at Xavier.
Numa Rousseve, an art instructor and chair of the art department, whom Pajaud describes as a surrogate father, observed him creating a watercolor painting. He noticed that Pajaud was drawing images in pencil on the watercolor paper as a guide for how and where to apply the paint. Rousseve took the paper and marked it with a big red X, saying, "now, that's a watercolor". His message was, let go of the fear of making a bad watercolor painting and allow spontaneity to be a part of the work. Otherwise, he told Pajaud, his work is only a rendering or an illustration.
"It was like dawn breaking," Pajaud says of the experience. "I've never been afraid of a piece of watercolor paper since." Now, he describes a watercolor as a sneeze. If it takes longer than 45 minutes to paint, he says, he tears it up.
This freedom of expression is seen in White Gloves . Paint is applied rapidly with a broad brush. No pencil guides are present. Not long ago he even achieved a similar freedom and spontaneity in other media. In Cornet Man (this is not his father) he used a two-inch foam brush, the kind typically found in hardware stores, to apply the paint.William Pajaud, 1989
One day after he turned 21 years old, Pajaud married his first wife, Harriet Craft and moved to her hometown, Chicago. In 1948 they had their first of three children, William III (his other children with Harriet are Ernest and Joseph, both deceased)3, and moved to Los Angeles. They picked Los Angeles because he saw the Rose Parade on television during a typical Chicago winter and became attracted to Los Angeles's warm climate.
William Pajaud's first job in Los Angeles was hand-painting men's neckties and women's lingerie. Later he held various jobs including janitor, sign painter, sewing machine repairman and postal clerk. He always had a job, since he had to support his family, but he never gave up his art.
In the early 1950s Pajaud met Charles T. Coiner, art director at N. W. Ayer, a large advertising agency in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Coiner offered him a job with his agency. He wanted to accept the offer but only after he had a chance to study commercial art. Coiner thought that was a bad idea and warned Pajaud that he could lose his spontaneity and the "charm" he wanted.
Pajaud ignored the warning and in 1952 attempted to enroll as a full-time student at Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles but was turned away because he was black. It took threats by Coiner of not hiring any Chouinard graduates to force the school to accept Pajaud. He was the first African American to be admitted in the day school and complete the program. He accomplished this while working full time as a postal clerk. His admission to the school, however, was done grudgingly.
Mrs. Chouinard, the wife of the school's founder, Nelbert, (Note: At the time this article was written, it was not known that Mrs. Chouinard's first name is Nelbert and that she founded the school.) conducted an introductory interview in which she told him, in the presence of his children, not to look up the dresses of the female students. Then she said, referring to Pajaud's children, "It's sure going to be interesting seeing all these little pickannies around here."
Pajaud struck a balance between his study of commercial art and his desire to do fine art by taking some fine arts classes at Chouinard and painting in his spare time. During this time and until the early-to-mid 1960s he painted mostly landscapes, marine scenes, Siamese cats, and so on, in a style that reflected his love of Asian art. The Oriental influence is present in an untitled piece depicting a bull.William Pajaud
Nevertheless, the artist describes these works as "soulless" and "brush exercises". At that time, he says, he was primarily interested in displaying his technical proficiency and developing craftsmanship. Dealing with meaningful subject matter and making statements with his work had not yet entered his consciousness, although the desire to do so existed somewhere inside of him.
Perhaps it was his mother's admonition about never letting anyone know that you're suffering or hungry that prevented him from baring his soul. Hold in your true feelings, she advised, especially if they cast you in a negative light. In opposition to that was his impulse as an artist to "bring it down front." Today, he says that that is the prerequisite to becoming a serious artist. He still believes, however, that an artist must also be technically proficient.
Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s three things happened that unblocked him and allowed his artistic impulse to triumph over his mother's advice.
First, on May 1,1957 he started working as an art director and artist for Golden State Mutual Insurance Company, an African American-owned company based in Los Angeles. He was thrilled to work for an African American owned company and he took a $50 per month cut in pay to work there. "Oh, I was so happy, I didn't know what to do," he says. "Everywhere you looked , everybody was black." It was a great source of pride.
Pajaud designed advertisements and produced and distributed the company's publications. Later, he became curator of the company's art collection. On a limited budget he organized a body of work that became known as a major collection of African American art. Pajaud rose to vice president of public relations and advertising of the company and retired on August 31, 1987.
Second, in May 1960 Pajaud's father died. Days before he learned of his father's death he finished an almost completely abstract piece that is shown above. But shortly after the death, Pajaud began focusing, for the first time, on the traditional New Orleans jazz funerals and began seeing the positive side to his father's character. He says he became a serious artist at this time. In 1992 he created a painting titled Parade Rest depicting his father's funeral procession.William Pajaud
Third, John Riddle, an artist and the current curator at the California African American Museum, helped to turn his attention to black themes for his art. In the mid-1960s he invited Pajaud to join him on a tour of Watts after the riots. They mined the area for subject matter. In Someday I'll Be a Woman, for example, we see a young girl who wants to be a prostitute when she grows up because that is the role model for success in her community. It is a commentary on the political, economic and social conditions created by racism.William Pajaud
Pajaud, however, felt that superficial treatments of the black subject often resulted in empty rhetoric. "The Huey Newton black fist and all that kind of stuff was never my cup of tea," he says. "It's too damned obvious and it becomes propaganda."
"I've always painted Black subjects and themes," he explains, "even without realizing it, because that was and is me, my experiences." During the 1960s the artist became a serious painter because he began to discover himself and feel more comfortable "bringing it down front."
One of Pajaud's recurring themes is the Black woman.4 Pajaud says that black women have been essential to the survival of the race from slavery to the present, and he admires their timeless beauty. "I'm not talking about the beauty which dictates you need 50,000 braids but the beauty that comes from the people who have virtually kept the black community on course since the time of slavery."
Take Swamp Woman for example. A large, round woman is sitting with her hands inside of a bowl of shrimp. She is preparing a meal. Her size is more symbolic than representational; he's showing her capacity to bear enormous responsibilities. "She's carrying the house and community and still finds time to cook," he says.William Pajaud
But not all of his black women are paragons of strength. He also likes to point out in his work the existence of opposites in virtually everything, like sadness and joy in the traditional New Orleans funerals or good and bad in human nature. Sometimes he uses women to like the Church Sister and the New Concubine to do this.
In Church Sister, the woman is not large and round like the woman in Swamp Woman. Instead, her relatively thin body is dressed for church. The hat recalls Pajaud's mother; she always wore beautiful hats to church. They were so beautiful, in fact, that the minister at her funeral wanted to know if he could auction them.William Pajaud
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the church sisters are the women in New Concubine. The piece shows several nude women plus the "new" woman who still has her bra and panties on. The large man is about to "break her in."
Pajaud also uses The Old Testament as a Black theme in his work. He says, "If you want a feeling of Black life and history, read the Old Testament." One way he connects the Old Testament with Black culture is through Negro spirituals, many of which are based on stories in that part of the bible. In Let Us Gather at the River a black choir is singing some of those spirituals at a communal baptism at the river.William Pajaud
The African locale of many Old Testament stories and Moses's African wife (depicted in Moses and his Cushite Wife; not pictured here) are other reasons why Pajaud makes the connection. Cush or Kush approximately covers the area of present-day Ethiopia.
Pajaud also cites the parallel of Jewish slavery in ancient Egypt and the enslavement of Africans in the Americas as a reason many African Americans, including himself, are attracted to the Old Testament.
Like his father, Pajaud creates his art for humanistic reasons and not for commercial reasons. "I refuse to paint pictures just to sell," he says. "My primary concern is not money." On the contrary, his primary concern is probing the depths of his own experiences and sharing what he finds with the viewing public. No longer under pressure of supporting a family, Pajaud is now able to fully devote his energies to his art. That's why he retired when he did. "I wanted to retire when I was young enough to still effectively produce," he says.
William Pajaud plans to continue exploring the New Orleans jazz funerals as well as new themes. His excitement about what he plans to do is almost without limits: "If I work for another 20 years I won't paint 1/10 of the things I want to paint before I die."
When asked what he wants people to walk away with from his work he says, " I would like to have them stirred, to feel something within themselves, because this is where I paint from. I give you my heart and soul when I paint a picture."
Eric Hanks is director of M. Hanks Gallery at 3008 Main Street in Santa Monica, California.
1. The black secret societies of New Orleans, which helped with burial rites and expenses, had a counterpart in similar groups in West Africa. The Africans believed teh spirit of the departed is still active and must be appeased. This custom, coupled with the belief that people should "rejoice at teh death and cry at the birth," contributed to very powerful, death-related feelings and rites that continued in teh experience of southern African Americans.
Excerpt from Alan Lomax, Mister Jelly Roll, republished in Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps (eds.), The Book of Negro Folklore (New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1958), p. 441.
3. William Pajaud, Jr. has two other children by a former wife, Donlapy Wangcharoensuk--Gayle and Anne.
4. With exception of his work on the traditional jazz funerals, men usually appear in his paintings as animals. Bulls and roosters are typical examples. The rooster, however, is his favorite. He considers it one of the most beautiful forms in nature. He also likes the fact that it can lie as quietly as a hen or be as wild as a bull. It also is a "take-charge" animal. In Good Friday Rooster, the bird is crowing on the day Jesus was crucified. Three crosses appear in the lower right portion of the painting. The cloaked figure to the left is Peter running away in fear after he has denied Jesus. Jesus said, "Before the cock crows twice, thy will deny me thrice."William Pajaud
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