The annual Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral is a time-honored Labor Day tradition, but its significance depends on your point of view.
A tongue-in-cheek “celebration” of the end of summer, it was started by local business owner Moss Wagner as a way for businesspeople to blow off steam at the end of the hectic summer season.
For many spectators, it’s a bittersweet goodbye to summer fun — and the traffic that goes with it. Parents standing along the boardwalk with their kids are most likely thinking about last-minute back-to-school preparations while straining to hear the first somber notes of “Amazing Grace.”
By the time the band swings into “When the Saints Go Marching In,” the party mood has set in and spectators have often joined the throng of mourners making its way to the Bethany Beach bandstand.
The Jazz Funeral will once again begin its quirky procession on the boardwalk at 2nd Street about 5:30 p.m. and will proceed at a respectfully mournful pace toward the bandstand, where the casket bearing the faux-corpse of Summer 2015 will be briefly eulogized and the musicians will lead the assembled mourners in a heartfelt rendition of “God Bless America” before disbanding for another year.
Three bands — the Dixie Cats, the Downtown Dixieland Band and the Jazz Funeral Irregulars — combine each year to bring the musical tribute to life.
One musician — clarinet player Joe Strawley, 60, of Dagsboro — described the event as “unique” and added that he has been a participant for at least 20 years, since being asked to join by business owner Wagner, who now lives in Colorado.
“It’s the last blowout before the season ends,” Strawley said.
While the Jazz Funeral takes its cue from those colorful New Orleans celebrations of late loved-ones lives, the marchers take it to its campy extremes, donning costumes and weeping and wailing up a storm.
“We try to be entertaining,” Strawley said.
The former Navy musician said the band is often graced with members who are professional musicians, including his brother, Richard Strawley, a member of the Richmond Symphony in Virginia.
In recent years, the Jazz Funeral has expanded its scope to include a fundraiser for local charities. For the 10th year in a row, Bethany Blues restaurant at 6 N. Pennsylvania Avenue will host the Jazz Funeral Silent Auction. This year’s auction will be held from 3:15 to 4:45 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 4, kicking off the Labor Day weekend festivities.
The silent auction features an array of goods and services from local businesses, according to Marie Wright, co-assistant chairperson of this year’s Jazz Funeral events, along with Carolyn Bacon.
“Just to name a few, there are gift certificates from some of the finest local restaurants, various bottles of wine contributed by local wine shops, hard-to-find toys and games, beautiful home accessories, very trendy clothing, exciting gift baskets and lots more,” Wright said.
“Absolutely all funds raised by the Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral Silent Auction will go directly to the American Red Cross of Delmarva to help support local initiatives,” said Wright. “We want to help improve the health and wellbeing of families in the greater coastal areas by supporting the American Red Cross.”
One program benefitting local families seeks to reduce the number of house fires in high-risk areas. The Red Cross has held a number of related events, including distribution of smoke alarms and informative programs aimed at increasing education about fire hazards, according to Red Cross of Delmarva Executive Director Patrick K. Delaney.
The official Jazz Funeral host for 2015 is Liane Hansen, a broadcast professional who is known to many as a radio host for National Public Radio (NPR). Hansen will introduce guest speakers, including a representative from the American Red Cross of Delmarva.
Art Antal, the late Bethany Beach business owner and longtime Jazz Funeral chairperson, seemed to understand the diverse appeal of Bethany’s end-of-summer tradition. He not only encouraged all tourists and vacationers to stay around to witness the end of the traditional summer season by attending the Funeral, he also realized that locals would breathe a sigh of relief that the summer season had finally drawn to a close and they could have their town back once again.
“The Bethany Beach Jazz Funeral is a fitting event where both locals and tourists alike can celebrate the end of another summer season,” Antal once said. “However, both groups celebrate for entirely different reasons.”
While Labor Day might be the end of the not-so-lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer for local businesspeople, it’s not the “roll-up the sidewalks” kind of day it used to be, according to one longtime Jazz Funeral participant. Patsy Rankin of Patsy’s restaurant in Bethany Beach said she can’t even find the time to participate these days.
“I don’t even walk anymore. I’m too busy!” Rankin said. She recalled one recent year when she got back to her restaurant after the festivities to find “people were banging on the door,” waiting for her to reopen.
So long, Summer 2015 — bring on the “shoulder season.”