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A funeral is supposed to comfort the living. It's a time when friends and family can bond together in their pain and sadness, and resolve anew to live their lives to the fullest. We acknowledge death in this ceremony, but we do so by celebrating the life of the deceased. You never feel so keenly aware of being alive than at a funeral, and you should never leave one sadder about someone dying than you are happy that the person lived at all.
The last thing you expect to happen at a funeral is for somebody to die on the premises. Tragically, that's just what happened at Houston guitarist Kinney Abair's jazz funeral at the SHAPE Community Center in the Third Ward on February 19.
During the service, friends and family were invited to give three-minute eulogies, and a number of them gave speeches in Abair's honor. Then saxophonist A.J. Murphy had his turn. "He got up and he was talking about how he and Kinney were like brothers," says local blues/soul singer Sandy Hickey, "and how they were in this comedy group together called Ebony Lunatics that they claimed the Wayans brothers stole from them and went to Hollywood and made In Living Color out of. Anyway, before he started talking, Gloria Edwards got up and left the room."
Murphy said his piece -- something to the effect that life should be lived to the fullest while you still have time -- and then walked to the back of the room, where he remained standing. "Then all of a sudden you hear this thump and all of this commotion -- 'Is there a doctor in the house?' -- and all this," says Hickey. "This pastor was talking at the lectern and he kinda stopped, and everybody's crowding around Murphy and doing CPR and then they're calling the paramedics. When they got there, this other guy -- this promoter guy -- was trying to save him. The paramedics said, 'Hey, we got a man dying here, we need some space,' but this guy wouldn't do it. So the paramedic finally just said, 'All right, we'll just have to throw you off.' So he grabs him. This guy's dying and they were trying to revive him, and this guy's just being a dick. Anyway, next thing you know the paramedics are shocking the guy and sticking needles in his chest. He was not getting revived. I just knew he was gone. I guarantee you he was dead in the ambulance."
About an hour later the funeral continued. "What else can you do?" Hickey wonders. "A lot of people" -- Joe Hughes and Trudy Lynn, who attended Phyllis Wheatley High School with Murphy 40 years ago, among them -- "left because they were freaked out."
Local singer Gloria Edwards, whose mother also died at a funeral, had an eerie premonition as Murphy walked to the podium. "I felt the presence of what happened before it happened," she says. "I was sitting right on the end when A.J. walked past me. It was as if the presence walked right along beside him. It was not a friendly presence -- it was a fearful presence. I caught the fear of it and I jumped up and ran out to the restaurant area and I started praying. I just prayed and prayed and then all of a sudden I heard all of this noise and [my husband] Nelson [Mills] came to the doorway of where I was praying and said, 'Call 911! A.J. just passed out.' "
Friend Maria Williams told Edwards she had a similar feeling of foreboding. "She was all the way across the room and she said she felt the same thing when she saw me spring up," Edwards says. "She said she felt the hair just rise up on her arms, and she didn't know what was wrong with her. And then she came to me later outside and asked me if I felt that presence and I said, 'Yes, I did.' "
Edwards survived one of the worst disasters in the history of American nightlife, and she says this reminded her of that awful night in 1981. "I have viewed death before," she says. "I was in Kansas City at the Hyatt when that walkway crashed down on all those people. We were sitting across the lobby, but I had a view, like a movie. This was like a repeat of that to me."
Rumor has it that there had been bad blood between Murphy and Abair. "I didn't get a chance to hear what [Murphy] had to say, because I had to exit before he started talking," says Edwards. "I don't understand why I did that, but this friend of mine called me last night and said, 'I know the reason that you got up and left. What you felt was Kinney's spirit telling you that A.J. was up there lying about his relationship with Kinney, when he knew he'd done him wrong ' I tell you that was just the scariest thing. I went home and went to bed and stayed there the remainder of the day. It was just unbelievable."
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