Bob French, longtime Original Tuxedo Jazz Band leader and WWOZ deejay, has died
Publication: The Times-Picayune
Author: Keith Spera
Date: November 12, 2012
Robert “Bob” French Sr., the longtime leader and drummer of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band and an outspoken, at times controversial, WWOZ-FM deejay, died on Monday, Nov. 12, after a long illness. He was 74.
Mr. French last performed with the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band in the summer of 2011. Afflicted with dementia and suffering from diabetes-related complications, he then moved into an assisted-living facility.
Mr. French grew up immersed in the traditional sounds of New Orleans. His father, banjo player Albert “Papa” French, took over the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band in the 1950s after the death of Oscar “Papa” Celestin, who founded the group in 1910.
As a young man, Mr. French rejected his father’s music in favor of rhythm and blues. His first gig in 1954 included Art and Charles Neville and piano wizard James Booker. One day, Papa French recruited his son to fill in for the Original Tuxedo’s ailing drummer. Bob French was so mortified by his sloppy performance that he committed himself to a proper study of traditional New Orleans jazz.
When Papa French died in 1977, his son took over the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band. Under Bob French’s leadership, the band expanded its repertoire during an itinerant existence around town. He restored the Original Tuxedo to Bourbon Street in 2009 via a Monday night residency at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. That he would work at a club owned by Mayfield, whom Mr. French occasionally bashed on the airwaves, caught some observers by surprise. “I love to play music, and I love money,” Mr. French said by way of explanation. “And I get both of them there.”
After his retirement in 2011, his nephew, Gerald French, took over the drum chair and leadership of the band.
His blunt talk, strong opinions, combativeness and force of personality earned him detractors; an altercation with a fellow WWOZ deejay reportedly got him booted off the air. But he also had his fans, including Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis. Both appeared on Mr. French’s 2007 CD, “Marsalis Music Honors Bob French,” issued by Marsalis’ namesake record label. Both stars also joined him for a performance in the Jazz Tent at that year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. Connick had sat in with Mr. French’s band as a child; Mr. French considered Connick’s father, former District Attorney Harry Connick Sr., one of his closest friends.
Thanks to Connick’s and Marsalis’ involvement, the “Marsalis Music Honors Bob French” CD was the most prominent recording of his 50-year career. It was smartly produced and played, beautifully packaged and distributed around the globe. Across 11 tracks, the drummer and his band revisited well-traveled standards, including “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which Mr. French generally declined to perform onstage. According to Mr. French, he and Connick, of whom he was quite fond, spent much of the recording session exchanging dirty jokes and good-natured insults.
In the fall of 2006, Marsalis served as guest editor of the glossy jazz magazine DownBeat, and put Mr. French on the cover. It was a rare turn in the national spotlight for a musician who was more familiar with the six sets a night, six nights a week grind. He spent years at the now-defunct Crazy Shirley’s at the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter streets in the French Quarter, where his band included his brother George French on bass and Ellis Marsalis on piano. Regular patrons included a young Quint Davis, the future producer of Jazz Fest.
As a bandleader, Mr. French took his father’s lessons to heart: Charge a higher fee than competitors. Dress sharp. Most important, be on time. None of his father’s rules apparently forbade drinking on the job, as Mr. French liked to sip between songs.
“I’m not an alcoholic,” he sometimes joked. “I’m a drunk. There’s a difference.”
Bob French on the cover of the September 2006 issue of Downbeat.
His drumming technique was extremely efficient; his arms hardly moved as his wrists and hands did all the work. From behind his drums, Mr. French kept a watchful eye. He did not tolerate mistakes by his musicians. He did not permit fans to videotape his shows, but had no problem with them talking or dancing.
“They can do anything they want except mess with the musicians’ instruments,” Mr. French said. “If they’re having a good time, Bob’s having a good time. If you’ve got a dancing audience, they’re easy to play to — they’re entertaining themselves.”
After Hurricane Katrina, he used his position at WWOZ as a bully pulpit to berate elected officials he believed let the city down. Both on air and onstage, he returned to similar themes. “In God we trust, all others pay cash” was a favorite expression. He often referenced red beans as an indicator of his economic status or as an inducement for fans to buy CDs.
His radio vocabulary was much milder than his off-air speech, which he peppered with f-bombs in all their permutations. His broadcasts functioned like a live-action Blackberry. He’d address the likes of Charmaine Neville or Dr. John over the airways: “I need a phone number. Call me back. It’s important.”
During one two hour-session on the air in the summer of 2007, he lobbied former WWOZ deejay Michael “Mr. Jazz” Gourrier for a free lunch; expounded on singer Tricia “Sista Teedy” Boutte’s sore throat and good looks; chatted with in-studio guests Cyril and Gaynielle Neville; commented on the romantic limitations of advancing age; bashed the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Mayor Ray Nagin; and spun a diverse program of mostly traditional, mostly local, jazz. His radio playlists favored the likes of Louis Armstrong, Dr. John, trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, pianist-composer Matt Lemmler, hot jazz singer Ingrid Lucia.
“This show gives me the chance to play what I think is cool,” Mr. French once said. “Some people call and say, ‘You’re not playing any traditional jazz.’ Well, it’s my show. I can do whatever the f– I want.’ “
Mr. French could sometimes be his own worst enemy. During a Los Angeles taping of the now-defunct NBC-TV show “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip,” he ran afoul of the show’s producers. He was cut from the scene that featured Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and other New Orleanians.
In the mid-2000s, the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band’s Monday night residency bounced around to several clubs, including Donna’s, Ray’s Boom Boom Room, Cafe Brasil and d.b.a., after his relationship with each club’s proprietor soured.
Privately, Jazz Fest staffers complained about his demands, attitude and bluster. He was not surprised. “I cuss them out,” he once said. “I’m not afraid of Quint. I have to fight for every dollar I get.
“(Losing) one gig is not going to hurt me. Two gigs is not going to hurt me. I’m older now. Thank God I get a check every month from Uncle Sam and from the musicians’ union. I live alone. I can cook a pot of red beans and eat off of it for three days.
“I don’t have to kiss nobody’s ass. I’m at the point in my life where I can do what I want. All my children are married and gone, and I’m home alone. When I’ve eaten, everybody has eaten.”
Of his tenure at WWOZ, he said, “I do a lot I’m not supposed to do, but nobody stops me. I think it’s good that somebody can do something that’s not automatic. I’m not a robot; I’m a human being. And I’ve always been opinionated. Ask both of my ex-wives.”
Survivors include two brothers, George and Albert French; and four children. Funeral arrangements are incomplete.