The trumpet-playing coroner of New Orleans, Dr. Frank “Jazz” Minyard, talks with host Steve Curwood about how he’s faring during this holiday season. He plays his rendition of The Christmas Song.
CURWOOD: Now if New Orleans has more than its share of ghosts, the city’s coroner, Frank Minyard, would have likely run in to some of them. For the past thirty years the trumpet-playing coroner, as he’s called, has seen his share of tragedies in a city with one of the nation’s worst murder rates. But nothing prepared him for the carnage of Hurricane Katrina. Over a thousand bodies were processed by his morgue in the aftermath of the storm.
Frank joins us now. Hey, Frank, thanks for coming on the program.
MINYARD: Thank you for having me, Steve, it’s a pleasure.
CURWOOD: Now, you were born and raised in New Orleans, and I understand you just moved back into your home in the French Quarter. What’s it been like for the past few months?
MINYARD: Well I’ve been living up at St. Gabriel, where we were doing the processing of the remains. In a FEMA trailer, I might add. You know, it’s been okay. I mean, the living conditions were good, but I can’t say how happy I am. I’m very happy to be home again.
CURWOOD: I want to take you back now to the end of August. Katrina is coming, it hits. How soon did you know that things were going to be very different for you?
MINYARD: Well I rode the storm out across Lake Pontchartrain from the city – I have a small farm over there – like I do every hurricane. I go there in case my fences get down, you know, and my animals get out. I was over there Sunday night and Monday. Tuesday morning, the worst happened – my fences were down, my animals were out.
But I left to come back to the city to the office, coroner’s office. That was a nightmare for me because the roads were all flooded. My truck drowned. I had to get out of the truck and start walking in chest-high water, and then I started swimming, and I spent four and a half hours in the water on Canal Street, which is our main thoroughfare.
A boat picked me up when it got dark Monday afternoon and took me to the coroner’s office. And that’s when it dawned on me that this was not an ordinary situation that we’d been through so many times before. That we had a catastrophe here, and it was going to be a human catastrophe. And of course, you know, we’ve lost a thousand bodies. A lot of people.
CURWOOD: You get to the office, what do you find?
MINYARD: Well, the building, no electricity. And I had a few of my employees who rode out the storm there. And we stayed at the office four days before we were rescued by helicopter. That time was very tough, there was no food, no water. Of course, no electricity. And we were surviving…the little water we could get from other people in the building, and some of the food. It was a tough four days, you know, just being stranded and knowing there was going to be lots of people dying. And we were worried about ourselves, really, whether we were going to die. And then you start hallucinating about food.
CURWOOD: What did you dream about for food? Or hallucinate?
MINYARD: My food dream at the time was just Cornflakes and milk. (Laughs) Just anything, you know?
CURWOOD: Now your mother, who was also born in New Orleans, and died I guess a number of years ago, was a noted Ragtime pianist.
MINYARD: Yeah, she died two years ago at the age of 99. And she gave concerts with me – we’ve been doing them 30 years – charity concerts, raised money for different charities in the city.
CURWOOD: You know, by the way, you’re a coroner and a jazz trumpeter, so give us some insight into this New Orleans tradition of jazz music at the funeral procession and everything.
MINYARD: Well, it started a long, long time ago. I think it has African origins. And the whole idea is to have a group of guys get together who want to play at a funeral of someone who they think is worthwhile. You cannot purchase a jazz funeral, you can’t buy it. Just when somebody, you know, who has done a great service to mankind and lived in this city and promoted this city, when he passes on they get together and they play.
What they do is they use an old gospel number from Protestant churches, “Old Ragged Cross,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” numbers like that. And they play behind the hearse, walk very slowly and very solemn, and then at some point when they get to the graveyard somebody in the band says, “Cut him loose.” So we cut him loose, and with that he severs all of his worldly ties and he’s gone on to a more grand and glorious world than he could ever have here on earth.
And we turn around and take that same old gospel number and we jazz it up, and it really ignites the people. Everybody starts dancing. So now we are celebrating our dearly departed friend’s life. I mean, I was raised doing that, my family all did that. And when my mother died two years ago we had one for her.
CURWOOD: Now, how often are you getting together with your band to play?
MINYARD: Well, we don’t know where they are. I use mostly the Preservation Hall band when I play, but the band is spread around. I haven’t played in three months.
CURWOOD: You haven’t played in three months?
MINYARD: No, I haven’t played since the, you know, since the tragedy. I picked it up, oh, about six weeks ago, and I started playing “Do You Know What It Means” and I started crying. So I put it down.
CURWOOD: How does one cope? I mean, usually when disaster strikes a person or a household, their network of support, their friends, the rest of their family, they’re in relatively good shape. But here you have whole families, whole neighborhoods, a whole city that’s lost everything almost all at once. How do you cope?
MINYARD: Pretty hard to kill off the spirit of New Orleans. It’s in every one of our hearts and souls. Everyone not only who was born here, but who has lived here any amount of time, I think that spirit that we have to carry on is like no other place in the whole world. That spirit is going to get us through it, and we just got to keep relying on our natural instincts to get back to what we had. We’ve lost almost an entire city here, but it’s going to come back. I can’t tell you the way, or who’s going to live in it, but it will be back.
CURWOOD: So how are people you know, and how are you, gonna bring yourself into the holiday this year?
MINYARD: Well I’m going to start playing my horn again, that’s the main thing.
CURWOOD: Was there a lot of music in your house around holiday time?
MINYARD: Mm-hm. Between my mother and my grandmother, they both played the piano, there was music all the time. Not just holiday, all the time.
CURWOOD: Your favorite holiday tune from that? You close your eyes and you can hear your grandmother and your mother, what would you be listening to?
MINYARD: “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire.” And I learned to play it when I was, oh, twelve, 13 years old, just from hearing grandma play it. Grandma played it really well.
CURWOOD: Can I hear it now?
MINYARD: I would love to do that.
CURWOOD: With me has been Frank Minyard, who for the last 30 years has been coroner of New Orleans Parish in New Orleans. Thank you, sir, so very much.
MINYARD: Thank you for having me, Steve, it’s a pleasure. And merry Christmas from New Orleans to everybody listening. Merry, merry Christmas.
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