Pete Fountain rode in his final parade through the French Quarter on Wednesday.

For years, the iconic New Orleans jazz clarinetist and his Half-Fast Walking Club concluded their annual Mardi Gras morning stroll at the Hotel Monteleone.

And that’s where Fountain’s jazzy second-line procession, complete with horse-drawn hearse, ended up after his funeral Mass at St. Louis Cathedral.

Fountain, an unofficial ambassador for New Orleans music, Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street for more than half a century, died Aug. 6 after a decade of declining health. He was 86.

Despite his status as one of the city’s best-known and most successful musicians, his family shied away from turning his funeral, led by Archbishop Gregory Aymond, into an all-star concert.

“We wanted it to be a traditional Mass,” said Benny Harrell, Fountain’s son-in-law and longtime manager. “The archbishop graciously offered to preside over the Mass. That was very important for Pete and the family.”

 

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During the eulogies that preceded the Mass, Mayor Mitch Landrieu recalled going to see the Half-Fast Walking Club as a boy. With apologies to the cathedral, he recalled thinking the name was "Half-Assed." He said his mother explained that its members were fine musicians, "they just walk slow."

Lawrence Welk Jr., the son of the famed bandleader whose weekly TV show brought Fountain to national attention in the late 1950s, remembered introducing himself to the New Orleanian. Fountain replied, "Kid, if you're Lawrence Welk, I'm Abraham Lincoln."

Fountain, Welk said, "became like an older brother. He taught me the in's and out's of how to stay out of trouble, or largely stay out of trouble, in New Orleans."

Welk closed his remarks with, "Say hello to Dad, Pete."

Harrell, who worked with his father-in-law for more than 40 years, mentioned the time Fountain escorted two of his grandsons to the Playboy Mansion, making him "the best grandpa ever."

Harrell described the star's down-to-earth nature: "He'd say, 'I never aspired to be at anyone's level. I just dragged them down to mine.'" Fountain "was just a boy from New Orleans. He wanted to enjoy life and play his music," Harrell said. 

The Rev. Byron Miller, who served for a time as the Half-Fast Walking Club's unofficial chaplain, delivered a playful and poignant homily. "Those poor souls needed a chaplain a whole lot more than the Catholic Daughters," he said of the Half-Fast club, to appreciative laughs. 

His duties as chaplain included praying for favorable weather on Mardi Gras. In the event of cold or rain, Miller said, "they'd threaten to replace me with a Jewish rabbi."

Fountain, Miller continued, was "the most extraordinary ordinary New Orleanian." He imagined Fountain in a better place "of milk punch and honey," a reference to the Commander's Palace alcoholic beverage that often fueled Half-Fast strolls.

The Mass was not without music. Jimmy Weber, the trumpeter in Fountain’s band from 1978 to his final performance at the 2013 Jazz Fest, played “Amazing Grace” as the casket was closed following morning visitation at the cathedral.

Cathedral cantor Sarah Jane McMahon Briscoe lofted several hymns and liturgical passages.

Irma Thomas caressed the gospel standard "Precious Lord" during the offertory. Her somber rendition, with only piano accompaniment, earned a round of applause.

And clarinetist Tim Laughlin, Fountain’s protégé and friend, reprised “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” one of Fountain’s signature songs, during the recessional at the conclusion of the Mass. "I may never play it in the key of F again," Laughlin said before the service. That was Fountain's preferred key: "He owns it."

The subsequent funeral procession along St. Peter and Royal streets was far more musical, and raucous.

Trombonist Mike Genevay, a Fountain sideman since 1978 and the unofficial music director of the Half-Fast Walking Club, assembled the band for the march. Featuring at least a half-dozen tubas, it included members of Fountain's own band, the Storyville Stompers, the Gentilly Brass Band and the Dukes of Dixieland, the long-running traditional jazz band that decades ago briefly featured a young Pete Fountain. Laughlin, trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and James Andrews and trombonist Mark Mullins also joined in.

The clarinet section from the Warren Easton High School band also took part. Fountain quit Warren Easton during his senior year in the late 1940s to work as a full-time musician in the “conservatory of Bourbon Street.” Many years later, the school awarded him a diploma and class ring. 

Outside the church, the casket -- each corner featuring a brass plaque bearing a treble clef -- was placed in a glass-sided hearse carriage pulled by two white horses. A throng of mourners, tourists and French Quarter characters, including a guy painted silver, crowded in close as the assembled musicians played a slow, dirge-like "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

"Rest in peace, Pete, baby!" shouted a young man passing by.

Under the hot sun, umbrellas took on a practical, as well as a second-line, purpose.

As the procession turned onto St. Peter Street, the celebration was on. "When the Saints Go Marching In" picked up the tempo, as did "I'll Fly Away." Within the surging crowd on Royal Street, Landrieu danced alongside Harrell and Fountain's granddaughter, Danielle Harrell Scheib.

The hearse brought up the rear of the procession, followed by a carriage in which Fountain's wife of 64 years, Beverly, rode with other relatives and friends.

The French Quarter setting was appropriate. From 1960 to 1977, Fountain presided over Bourbon Street clubs that bore his name.

He and some friends founded the Half-Fast Walking Club in 1960. For decades, they made the Monteleone one of many requisite stops for “refreshments” along the way. In the early 2000s, he started staying at the Monteleone the night before the parade. The hotel then became the final destination for Fountain and his Half-Fast friends.

It served that role once again on Wednesday. In front of the hotel's main entrance, the musicians and crowd cleared the street to allow the body to pass. The band played on as the horses turned onto Iberville Street, where Fountain's casket was quietly transferred to an automotive hearse.

It sped away under police escort, as a final "I'll Fly Away" echoed along Royal Street. 

Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.

Keith Spera writes about music, culture and his kids.