In December 2011, drummer, WWOZ-FM disc jockey and great New Orleans character Bob French passed the reins of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band to his nephew, Gerald French.
It was the start of a new era for the band, formed 103 years ago by Oscar “Papa” Celestin.
Gerald French, 41 when he assumed leadership of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, was a natural choice to replace his ailing uncle. The son of bassist and singer George French and grandson of banjoist Albert “Papa” French, he’d grown up in a world of traditional New Orleans jazz, second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indians. He’d also idolized his Uncle Bob.
“When I was a kid, my grandfather had the club Tradition Hall,” French said. “I remember being there, sitting on the floor next to Bob, watching his every move. And he was comfortable with that. It was like him teaching me without actually having to teach me.”
French loved his uncle’s drumming but also tried other instruments.
“In school band I tried trumpet, trombone, tuba,” he said. “But all of that stuff hurts your mouth. I don’t understand how horn players do it. So then I tried the guitar and the bass. That hurts your fingers. The piano and the drums were the only two, to me, that didn’t have any pain involved.”
French was thrilled when he got to travel to Europe at 19 as a member of the Young Olympia Brass Band. At 21 he was performing at Preservation Hall with a band featuring musicians in their 80s and 90s. The group included Percy and Willie Humphrey, Narvin Kimball and Frank Fields.
“Those old men kicked my butt,” French said.
Percy Humphrey wasted no time in giving the young drummer a lesson in New Orleans music.
“Mr. Percy said, ‘Let that bass drum ring like we’re outside in the parade. Hit the bass drum. Don’t be scared to hit it. Stop choking it.’ And when I started playing like that, Mr. Percy was like, ‘This is my drummer.’ ”
French got a radiological technology certificate from Delgago Community College and later worked as assistant band director at St. Mary’s Academy in eastern New Orleans. A mid-’90s invitation from a singing, trumpet-playing friend, Leroy Jones, to tour with Jones and Harry Connick Jr. brought French into full-time musicianship.
“I have not been in a hospital or classroom since,” he said.
French’s work through the years includes his long-standing membership in Charmaine Neville’s band and his own Original Déjà Vu Brass Band. He’s a busy session musician, too. But despite his years of experience and musical heritage, the invitation to assume leadership of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band shocked him.
“My uncle never said anything to me about taking over the band, but he did say things to his friends and people who were close to him,” French said.
Irvin Mayfield, proprietor of Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, proposed the succession to French. “Irvin was like, ‘Yeah, man. This is what your uncle had in mind. So take the reins, do what you need to do and welcome aboard.’ And it’s been that way ever since.”
The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band plays every Monday night at the Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. French also recorded the band’s new album, “A Tribute to Bob French,” at the Bourbon Street club.
“With studio recording you get a great sound and all of that other stuff, but that magic that happens when people are clapping and dancing and having a good time, you can’t get that in the studio,” he said.
Reflecting the jazz tradition adhered to by his grandfather, French returned a clarinetist to the group’s five-piece lineup. Banjoist Detroit Brooks joins the band when it expands to seven pieces. French also wants the band to tour, just as the tradition-based Preservation Hall Jazz Band does.
“My mission is to get the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band band back to the majesty that it had when my grandfather had the band,” he said.
Not far behind the release of the “A Tribute to Bob French” CD, History Press, of Charleston, S.C., published “The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band: More Than a Century of a New Orleans Icon.”
Sally Newhart, a friend of Bob French’s who moved to the city from Massachusetts after Hurricane Katrina, based the book on interviews with French and oral histories at Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive. The book’s epilogue tells of the transition from Bob French, who died at 74 in November, to his nephew.
Newhart’s interviews with Bob French were not so much interviews as lectures, albeit delightful lectures, she said.
“I have two-hour-long tapes where I’ll ask one question and don’t get to say another word,” she said. “Bob had so much history and he was so happy to talk about it. He was so proud of the city, so proud of the music and so happy to be doing what he did.”
John Wirt is a music writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.