Louis Prima may have made his name on New York’s 52nd Street Jazz Alley and on the Vegas strip, but he was born and raised in New Orleans and always considered it home.
From Saturday, July 12, through July 27, New Orleans will once again be home to the music of the King of Swing when “Jump, Jive & Wail,” named for one of his biggest hits, pays tribute to Prima and his band, The Wildest, in the Stage Door Canteen at the National World War II Museum.
The show, starring an all-local, 10-person ensemble with Tom Hook in the Prima role, will showcase a wide array of favorites from the extensive Prima songbook.
Among them are the show’s title song, plus “Just a Gigolo,” “Sleepy Time Down South,” “Basin Street Blues” and the high-energy show closer “Sing Sing Sing.”
In between is a medley of some of Prima’s Italian-flavored songs (including “Che Le Luna,” “Angelina” and “Oh Marie”), as well as some duets he sang with his wives, Keeley Smith and Gia Maione.
Two “swing dancers” will perform behind Hook and the band on half a dozen numbers, including “When the Saints Go Marching In,” during which they and the horn section second-line through the audience like Prima and his horn players used to do.
With a neatly trimmed beard and mustache, Hook bears no physical resemblance to Prima, but that is not his intent, he maintains.
“I don’t look like Louis Prima, and I don’t play the trumpet,” Hook said. “I play the piano, and I can emulate his voice, but I don’t try to duplicate his nuances. We jump around a lot but our main intent is to do his music as close to the recordings as we can.”
Hook also explained that the show will move chronologically through Prima’s career, with narrative connecting the songs and the various eras his career spanned. “What I like about his music is that it transitions from jump swing to rock ’n’ roll,” Hook said. “He was kind of a rocker in his own way.”
Prima’s career stretched from the 1930s to 1975, when he was felled by a stroke that took his life three years later.
During its inception, “Jump, Jive & Wail” had help from members of Prima’s family and former band members, Hook said. Among them were Prima’s daughter Lena, who performs regularly at the Hotel Monteleone; Maione, Prima’s recently deceased fifth wife who sang with him during the latter stages of his career; Paul Ferrara, Prima’s drummer; and Joe Segreto, Prima’s longtime manager.
Other members of the ensemble are Jay Hagen, trumpet and vocals; Geoff Clapp, drums; Adam Bock, guitar; David Phy, trombone and vocals; Eric Bernhardt, saxophone and vocals; Pete Roze, bass; and Chance Bushman and Lisa Casper as the swing dancers.
Cristina Perez shares the vocals with Hook on the duets, as well as singing a few solo numbers.
With short, dark hair and a pert, 1950s retro look, Perez shares similar physical traits with Smith and Maione. Among the duets on which she will be singing are “That Old Black Magic,” the Grammy Award-winning 1958 Prima-Smith hit; plus “Hey Boy, Hey Girl,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and a solo on “A Sunday Kind of Love.” In tribute to Maione she sings, “I Want You to be My Baby.”
“When I first heard about this show, I was excited that it was being done,” said Perez, who studied voice, piano and guitar at Loyola University. “I auditioned for it and found out, on my birthday, that I got the role.
“I think we’ve kind of hit a sweet spot, as far as timing and being in the right place at the right time with this show. A lot of the people who come to the show knew Prima or (his sax player) Sam Butera personally and are big fans.
“They not only connect to the music but to the actual people the show is about. So we’ve been very warmly received.”