Daniel “Weenie” Farrow may be 83, but Friday’s Jazz Fest set with the Pres Hall Brass Band proved — yet again — that he and his trusty tenor sax can keep up with a band of guys half his age.
With Farrow setting the tone on the saxophone he’s played for 66 years, the band quipped and laughed while delivering on-the-mark rhythms and rich tones.
“I call them ‘my good time gang,’ ” said Farrow, who leads the band every Friday at Preservation Hall. “Every time we play, people be so happy.”
There can be no other mood with Farrow, said bandmates drummer Kerry Hunter, bass drummer Tanio Hingle and sousaphonist Jeffrey Hills Sr.
“I love Weenie because of who he is — for his spirit, his aura or maybe his ‘chi,’ ” said Hills, who described Farrow’s playing as “a tone like no other, the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard coming from a tenor.”
Clarinetist Dr. Michael White, who has played with Farrow for 40 years, was in the audience for Friday’s set at the Peoples Health Economy Hall Tent.
“He makes beautiful phrases that have meaning. He lets the music breathe,” White said.
The oldest of 12 children, Farrow was born in 1932 in Algiers Point, where his dad worked at a drugstore and his mother raised the kids and played a mean harmonica.
He was surrounded by music, he said, including Algiers legends like clarinetist George Lewis and drummer Freddie Coleman and brass band concerts most Sundays in a nearby park.
When his hair needed a trim, his mom sent him to the Algiers barbershop run by brass band leader Red Allen Sr., who cut his hair with old-time hand clippers. About once a year, Allen’s son, star trumpeter Red Allen Jr. would visit from New York and ride around Algiers in his Cadillac, visiting neighbors.
“Everybody knew he was famous,” Farrow said.
When Farrow was 13, he joined the band at L.B. Landry High School. “Baby, play the saxophone — it’s sweet,” his mother said.
He caught on quickly.
By the time he was 18, piano player Eddie Bo had hired him to play four-hour sets, from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m., with Bo and drummer Jessie “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” Hill at the Gunga Din burlesque club on Bourbon Street, known for its “horizontal” dancers.
Because of Jim Crow segregation laws, black musicians couldn’t simply walk into a club.
“We had to go through the side door. And we were told to look the other way when the ladies were dancing, doing their thing,” said Farrow, whose brother-in-law dubbed him Weenie because he was so skinny at the time, about 140 pounds.
In 1957, he married an Algiers girl born a block away from him on Vallette Street, named Deborah. Until D.H. Holmes Co. closed, Farrow worked almost nonstop, driving 18-wheelers for the department store by day and playing gigs in the French Quarter by night, with a little sleep in between.
Since he “retired” 20 years ago, his steady gigs have always included Preservation Hall. In addition to Fridays, he also plays the Hall on Mondays with trumpeter Leroy Jones.
His grandson, Michael Powell, 32, known locally as DJ Mike Swift, grew up in the Vallette Street house spinning records in his room, though his grandpa gave young Michael a clarinet at 5 and often took him to gigs in the French Quarter or on the steamboat Natchez.
Now the two are on parallel tracks of sorts, said Powell, recalling how, after he DJ’d at a recent Buku Music + Art Fest show, he ran into his grandpa in the VIP room.
“It took me a while to realize how famous my grandpa is. And he still doesn’t realize how famous he is,” Powell said.
Farrow apologizes for walking slowly, noting that he injured the tendons in both knees about eight years ago, in an incident that his grandson remembers having something to do with a broom and some squirrels and the backyard pecan tree.
“Since then, I have been walking like somebody 80 years old,” Farrow said.
When a bandmate reminded him that he is, indeed, 83, he laughed. “I guess I am,” he said. “I don’t feel it, though.”