Duke Ellington Jazz Festival: Jazz on the National Mall
Publication: The Louisianna Weekly
Author: Geraldine Wyckoff
Because Bob French boasts a certain omnipresence as an informative as well as provocative host of his radio show on WWOZ, it’s not quite like the music community has missed him. However, it’s been some time since he’s been heard behind the drums leading the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band on a regular basis. This week and in the near future, the drummer holds down two gigs - Monday nights at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse and Wednesday nights at Kermit Ruffins’ Saloon (Sidney’s Saloon).
Mondays have long been associated with French who picked up the music and red beans and rice tradition at Donna’s Bar & Grill years ago, moved the action to Frenchmen Street to finally land at the now defunct Ray’s Boom Boom Room. Mayfield’s Play_house is a bit more upscale than his past Monday night haunts but the drummer approaches the job in his usual straight-forward, play it and tell it like it is manner.
“Bob French is Bob French,” he declares adamantly. “I ain’t changing. I do the bullshit thing and it’s cool. I ain’t cussin’ though; I’m not going to do that in a hotel.”
Having performed at the Bourbon Street club, which is housed in the Royal Sonesta Hotel, for several weeks, he’s thus far enjoyed the gig.
“Nobody messes with the band,” French says of his freedom to play what he wants at the Playhouse. “You mess with the band, you mess with me and I’ll be gone,” he admits.
As always, French doesn’t mind taking and fulfilling requests from the audience.
“Satisfied customers are the best thing in the world. If I don’t know what to play, you know what I do? I ask ‘What do you people want to hear?’ Sometimes you get stuck in a rut and you don’t realize that you’re in a rut and then when people start asking for different things you realize, ‘Man, we haven’t played that in a long time.’ Then you keep better on your game.”
French brings to both gigs a stellar edition of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, an ensemble French inherited on the death of his father, the great banjoist/guitarist Albert “Papa” French and that was established by the legendary cornetist Oscar “Papa” Celestin. It includes trumpeter Andrew Baham, trombonist Freddie Lonzo, bassist Mitchell Player, pianist Paul Longstreth and vocalist Yolanda Windsay.
Naturally, traditional New Orleans jazz fills the menu when French mans the drums. However, it wasn’t always like that. He began playing professionally with R&B bands and after high school hit the road with the noted vocalist James “Sugarboy” Crawford of “Iko Iko” fame. French didn’t begin playing classic jazz until he filled in with drummer Paul Barbarin’s band at Dixieland Hall. “I discovered how much I didn’t know about the music. I gained all the respect in the world for it,” he once said.
For the last 15 years, he’s passed on his knowledge of the music and the sounds that were born in New Orleans on community radio station WWOZ- 90.7 FM each Tuesday morning from 9 a.m. until 11 a.m. He cites hearing the late Betty “Big Mama” Rankin’s shows as his reason for getting into radio.
“I used to listen to her and loved what she was doing musically,” he says. “I fell in love with her personality and used to come in and help her - I hung with her. She was one of the people that really kept me interested. She was very instrumental in what I do on the air,” adds French who took over Big Mama’s show when she fell sick.
“It’s been a good experience for me. I think I can make good decisions on music. I don’t play trad just because it’s trad. Playing bad music is bad. It’s just like hiring musicians. I always try to hire good musicians. Why do I want to have a ragtag musician on my gig?
French played at Ruffins’ club with his brother, bassist/vocalist George French’s band when the trumpeter first opened his corner spot at 1200 St. Bernard Avenue. He’s glad to be heading back there for the initial Wednesday night shows that will be presented with the help of sponsors. This week’s performance is sponsored by Chef Jean-Luc Albin’s Maurice French Pastries. Ruffins’ wife, Karen, has been acting as a coordinator in seeking support. “I’ve gotten a good response,” says Karen whose mission is to help “employ our musicians at our (New Orleans’) slowest time of year.”
Naturally, because it’s Kermit’s joint where something is always cooking, free food comes with the $5.00 cover charge. There are promises of special guests plus coupons for discounts at Maurice’s bakery. Showtime is 9 p.m. until midnight.
The philosophy of supporting this city’s musicians in a real way rather than just by lip service is right up Bob French’s alley. As anyone who has listened to his radio show knows, he doesn’t hesitate to speak his mind.
“This is 2009. If I can’t say what I want to say now, I’ll never be able to say it,” he declares. “And it’s time for the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana to get off their hands and start appreciating what they have in this city as far as the talent. The musicians don’t get their fair share here.”
While French was off the local gigging scene, his drumsticks weren’t idle. As Celestin and his father did before him, the drummer has continued to lead the Tuxedo at private gigs. Next month, he travels to the nation’s capital to perform at the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival and also heads to Montana for another fest.
“I ain’t sitting at home looking at the walls.”