Nattily dressed, like the traditional jazzman he is, trumpeter Gregg Stafford stepped onto the stage of the Economy Hall tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday afternoon and launched into “Milenberg Joys,” an old standard co-written by Jelly Roll Morton.
Stafford’s version was driven by his band’s tight rhythm section, which included Detroit Brooks on guitar and Seva Venet on banjo, on top of string bass, piano and drums.
When the band kicked off “Louisian-i-ay,” a tune that doesn’t get much play anymore, Stafford stood up and delivered the vocal with his somewhat husky voice and careful diction. “Red beans and rice," he sang. "I’m in paradise."
Clarinetist and bandleader Dr. Michael White finds Stafford’s voice reminiscent of Avery “Kid” Howard and other musicians who were part of the revival of New Orleans jazz that gained steam in the 1940s and was in full swing by the 1950s. The style is a cross between blues and old Baptist church singing, White said.
The reference makes sense for Stafford, one of the city's last traditional jazz players, who performed with some of the revival's key musicians he first saw as a young man.
“Authentic New Orleans jazz is like a language. Not many speak that language anymore," said White, leader of the Original Liberty Jazz Band, who will feature Stafford during his Sunday afternoon gig in the Economy Hall tent. "But Gregg does. He captures the spirit and the feeling of traditional jazz.”
A graduate of Walter L. Cohen High School and Southern University at New Orleans, Stafford grew up not far from A.L. Davis Park — then called Shakspeare Park — which was the starting point for many Masonic, club and church parades.
Part of Central City, it is part of uptown New Orleans for those who view Canal Street as the dividing line between a two-part city, uptown and downtown.
And it’s that uptown, the part above Canal Street, that Stafford, 64, believes has been overlooked. “Everyone talks about Treme being the cradle of jazz, but before white flight, Uptown was home to so many white social clubs who hired black bands for their parades," he said. "There were the Elks, the Odd Fellows, Masons, the Delachaise Marching Club, the Buzzards.
"King Oliver’s house is here. Kid Ory’s house is on Jackson Avenue,” he said, referring to the seminal early jazz bandleaders whose roots were Uptown.
Jazz has infused much of Stafford’s life, though it didn’t always pay his bills. To earn his way through college, he worked nights at Perky's Pancake Parlor on Bourbon Street alongside waitress and aspiring singer Topsy Chapman. In those days the street was still rich with legitimate jazz clubs, whose musicians came to eat at the pancake parlor after their gigs.
Until retiring two years ago, Stafford worked days as an elementary school teacher, primarily teaching math at schools like Joseph A. Craig, in Treme, and Lawrence D. Crocker, in Uptown.
Students such as future musicians Derrick Tabb and Corey Henry remember Stafford as a cultural role model because they often saw him outside the classroom, playing gigs on the streets with groups including the E. Gibson, Young Tuxedo, Onward and Hurricane brass bands.
With the Jazz Hounds, Stafford’s band, he is carrying on the tradition of his mentor, musician and raconteur Danny Barker.
On Saturday's set list was “Some of These Days,” a favorite tune of Barker's, Stafford told the audience. As Stafford’s horn carried the melody, Frank Naundorf came behind him playing the trombone line, as Naundorf did for years in the original incarnation of the Jazz Hounds, when it was led by Barker.
In his dying days, Barker handed off the band to Stafford.
“That was just the protocol then,” said Stafford, who also inherited the Young Tuxedo Brass Band from leader Herman Sherman. “I had a lot of torches passed to me,” he said.
Stafford never thought his status as an educator clashed with his ability to perform in music clubs and during parades for the social aid and pleasure clubs that he’s a member of — the Black Men of Labor, Young Men Olympia, Lady Jetsetters.
On parade days he's in top form, strutting down the street with a cigar in his mouth and his fedora balanced upside-down on his head.
“I’m a schoolteacher, but I can have a Bud Light and shake my butt,” he said.
He learned his steps and carefree style from watching older guys in Central City as a child. “Those old people had so much fun when they hit the streets,” he said. “They were out there to show up and show out, to be free of all the unnecessary racism that they were going through.”
When Stafford arrives home in Central City at night, he’s met at the gate by two German shepherds, Jack and Teddy, named for trumpeter Jack Willis and Teddy Riley.
He’s debating which trumpeter’s name fits his third dog, a new puppy. Maybe Percy, for Percy Humphrey. Maybe Sheik, for George “Kid Sheik” Colar, who passed Stafford his band when he died in 1996.
“I want to remember those guys in everything I do,” he said.