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The 109-year saga of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band includes only five band leaders.
The Original Tuxedo Orchestra, named for the Tuxedo Dance Hall in the Storyville district, was founded in 1910 by cornetist Oscar “Papa” Celestin. Celestin led the group, eventually rechristened the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, for 44 years. After his death in 1954, trombonist Eddie Pierson stepped in for four years.
Banjoist Albert “Papa” French, Bob’s father and Gerald’s grandfather, then logged two decades as leader. During his tenure, the band took up residency at Tradition Hall, reportedly the first African-American-owned club on Bourbon Street.
Following Albert's death in 1977, his son Bob took over. Bob expanded the repertoire as the band played out an itinerant existence around town. He restored the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band to Bourbon Street in 2009 by accepting a Monday gig at the Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
Gerald, the son of bassist and singer George French, spent his formative years as a musician at the Fifth African Baptist Church. As a boy, he tagged along to second-line parades, to his father’s and grandfather’s gigs, and to Tradition Hall, sitting near the drums to watch his uncle “like a hawk.”
Other local drummers who impacted his approach include Louis Barbarin, Smokey Johnson, Ernest Elly, Duke Barker, Frank Oxley and such contemporaries as Russell Batiste, Shannon Powell, Raymond Weber and Herlin Riley. By 21, he was subbing for Bob with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band: “I’m onstage with a bunch of 80- and 90-year-olds, and they’re kicking my ass.”
He spent years with Charmaine Neville and has backed Harry Connick Jr., Dr. John, trumpeters Leroy Jones and Gregg Stafford, clarinetist Michael White and pianist Lars Edegran, among others. He’s a regular at the Palm Court Jazz Café and Fritzel’s European Jazz Pub, and masks with the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians.
“I get around,” Gerald said, laughing. “I’ve paid my dues.”
He renders funkier “street” brass music with his Original Déjà Vu Brass Band, but is committed to maintaining the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band’s traditional repertoire, even if the musicians are intrinsically more contemporary in their approach.
“It’s got a little more modern feel, it swings a little more, but it’s still the old music. Larry doesn’t play like Jelly Roll Morton did, but it’s still the same song. That’s my mission: to expose people to those old songs.”
Gerald French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band take the Saloon tonight!