Germaine Bazzle, called New Orleans’ “First Lady of Jazz,” is in her element. And she is not, as one can often find her, at some popular nightclub singing on stage, flanked by first-class musicians and faced with an admiring audience.
Instead, she sits behind a wooden desk in her classroom at Xavier Prep High School, an all-girls school on Magazine Street. Bazzle’s silver-and-black hair is slicked back. She waits quietly—her mood meditative—for students to arrive for the beginning piano course.
The girls rush in, greeting Bazzle enthusiastically, asking her if she has cut her hair, asking her why she didn’t play piano at mass this morning. She politely answers their questions, then quickly cuts the chatter. “My dear ladies, will you please get your pencils out?” she says, her voice tender and whispery. As the students busy themselves with a pop quiz, peacefulness settles over the room, leaving the shudder of an old air conditioner the only sound in here.
Tacked on a wall way in the back are two yellowing newspaper clippings, the only indications that Bazzle is the accomplished artist that she is. One story gives the obituary of one of her contemporaries, tenor saxophonist Red Tyler; the other highlights one of Bazzle’s jazz performances.
The clippings hang in the rear of the room like an ingenious thought pushed to the back of the mind, a perfect example of how Bazzle has carried on her two lives: teacher, first and foremost; entertainer, second. While many artists have taught as a day job, a way to keep the bills paid while they establish their “real careers,” this has never been the case for Bazzle. “It was never a struggle or a balancing act for me, because I always wanted to teach. This was my dream. The performances just sort of happened, and I do it on the side when I’m not teaching,” she explains.
She has been an entertainer for nearly 40 years, but she began teaching a couple of years before that, having graduated from Xavier University’s music education program. In the early 1950s, she was teaching at C.M. Washington High School in Thibodeaux, when someone who knew she played bass in college asked her to fill in permanently as a bassist for a local traditional jazz group. “It was called the Earl Foster Combo. I didn’t have anything else to do, so I joined,” Bazzle says matter-of-factly.
After spending 12 years as a teacher and performer in the small town, Bazzle grew tired of the scene and moved back home, to New Orleans, in which she’d grown up in the historic Seventh Ward. “I just decided I would quit teaching because I figured I had done it long enough,” she says. “I thought I’d come home and do something different.”
She did. She left the classroom and the bass playing and began performing as a jazz vocalist with different bands, flitting from one club to another with sets that started at 3 in the morning and ended after dawn at 7. She performed at clubs called Holly’s, Sylvia’s, Mason’s, Gloria’s and The Living Room—black-owned clubs that boasted live jazz music uptown, downtown and “around town.”
“One night, I decided I wanted to hear some good live jazz. I went to this club called Holly’s, and the drummer, the leader of the group that was going to perform, said, ‘Hey Germaine, you want a gig?’ I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘Right now.’” She laughs. “That’s how it always happened with the performing. Still, it’s not the biggest thing in my life. I didn’t set out to do this, but I do it.” And, contrary to her plans, she never completely abandoned teaching.
“Even when I first came back, I was teaching private piano lessons at my home in the afternoons,” says Bazzle, a trained classical pianist. She stayed out of a real classroom for about three years, but one day a friend called with news that Xavier Prep High School needed a part-time choral director. Bazzle eagerly took the job, eventually switching to full-time as a choral and piano instructor.
Twenty six years later, even though her singing career blossomed into her being called the “Queen of New Orleans” and “New Orleans’ First Lady of Jazz,” she’s still here, teaching at Xavier. “I view my life as having the best of both worlds,” she says. Known for her inventive scatting ability, she has performed standards with well-known musicians such as Tyler, Chuck Badie, saxophonist Victor Goines, bassist/vocalist George French (with whom she’s worked consistently for the last 10 years), pianist Ellis Marsalis, pianist Emile Vinnette and many, many more.
She has recorded with singer Dianne Reeves, Lady BJ and others. Bazzle’s first and only solo recording, Standing Ovation (1994, AFO Records), taken from two live performances (one from the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1991; the other from a set at the former Storyville Jazz Club) was produced by local writer and musicologist Kalamu ya Salaam.
In his liner notes, Salaam writes that while some might compare Bazzle to Ella Fitzgerald and Betty Carter, she is “dazzling in her own right, especially in her ability to mimic not only the sound of the trombone, but also her musicianship. She knows the music, knows the changes, the melody, the harmony and above all, the rhythms…She is an awesome jazz artist, not only as a technician, but also as a very warm and sensitive human being whose artistry makes one feel glad to be alive.”
Indeed, the audience is heard clapping and howling as Bazzle finishes such standards as “Mood Indigo” and “Secret Love.” Bazzle downplays all the praise. When, several years before the solo recording, Salaam wanted to record her in the studio for a CD that features Germaine Bazzle, Lady BJ, Ellis Marsalis and other musicians, Salaam had to all but drag Bazzle into the studio, the singer recalls. “I kept putting him off,” she admits. “Finally, he called me and said, ‘What time do you get out of school?’ When I walked outside that day, he was there waiting.” And a good thing, too. The CD, called The New New Orleans Music also was produced by Salaam and released in 1988.
Bazzle attempts to explain her modest attitude. “I guess I never thought I was ever up to that standard of excellence to record. It was nice to see the CDs come out, but I try to take things like that in stride. It’s nice and important in the realm of things, but I don’t even listen to myself,” she says, laughing. And, she doesn’t tour as a jazz artist, because she doesn’t view “spending 100 days on the road as glamorous.”
Still, around town, she continues to work with different bands, performing at festivals, Snug Harbor, the Funky Butt. “I enjoy [live] performances,” she says. “I go on a gig to have fun. I love working with the musicians. I’m the vocalist, but I see myself as part of the group, just bringing another sound.” At performances, it is evident that Bazzle deeply appreciates the band members and the fans, and she loves the music. She is sophisticated and elegant, yet welcoming and fun. As she sings, she moves her head and her hips from side to side. She smiles constantly. Her skin, the warm brown shade of pecan candy, glistens under the bright lights.
Bazzle grew up in a big house in the Seventh Ward where the living room piano was the equivalent of a family’s television set today. She listened to many of the artists whose songs she knows sings. “I loved Joe Williams, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington, Count Basie…” she says. Her mother and father, uncles and aunts, nearly all her family members were musically inclined, though Bazzle, the eldest of six children, was the only one to pursue music professionally. She began taking piano lessons when she was 12. “There was always music in our house,” she recalls. “As long as somebody was awake, there was music.
Bazzle credits her favorite music teacher, Sister Letitia who taught music at the former Xavier University Junior School, with getting her interested in mimicking the trombone. “She would use her voice as a trombone during demonstrations,” Bazzle says. If ever anyone has attempted to use one label to describe Bazzle’s musical abilities, they regretted the mistake. Bazzle’s diversity would surprise even some of her most devout jazz fans.
In addition to her jazz and classical music backgrounds, she is a former member of the St. Louis Cathedral Choir and, for 16 years, she has been a member of Moses Hogan Chorale, formerly called the New World Chorus. Bazzle’s brown eyes really light up at the mention of the group, which performs old spirituals such as “Battle of Jericho,” “I Want Jesus to Walk With Me,” “Old Time Religion” and “Elijah Rock.” “I like to do different kinds of music, but this is a very important thing in the whole music scheme that just doesn’t get a lot of attention,” she says. “Moses is a wonderful composer and arranger. I am very fortunate to be in his group. We have performed everywhere—Carnegie Hall, Orchestra Hall, Australia, France, at the Oscars. It means so much to me, because when we travel, we are bringing our heritage to all these different communities, we are bringing the songs from slavery. What’s sad is that there are not enough black people in these audiences.”
When the chorale performs locally, Bazzle says proudly, “there is standing room only.” The group, which has about 35 members, is made up of people from all walks of life—teachers, attorneys, bus drivers. And again, Bazzle just sort of happened upon this opportunity. “I don’t even know, really, how I got in that group,” she says. “I went to one of the rehearsals to listen, and the next thing I know. That’s how things have happened for me over and over again. I thank God.” To keep herself going, to keep her creative juices flowing, Bazzle says she always says a little prayer before going up on the bandstand or wherever it is that she is performing.
In the future, if she has her way, Bazzle says she will give up the nightclub performances in favor of performing at jazz festivals only. But she will remain in the classroom, urging the girls, as always, to “get it right.” As her students finish their pop quizzes on a recent Friday, they move to the corner of the room that houses beige Wurlitzer student electric pianos. School has been in session for just three weeks, and the girls’ fingers often falter on the keys.
Bazzle keeps the time with her claps: “I, 2, 3, 4… Staaay with me. Staaay with me,” she admonishes, her tone moving from soft to stem. “Some of us need to learn to work as a unit; you’re getting ahead of yourselves. And I hear fingernails clicking. Please, ladies, be sure to clip them.” She continues with the practice instructions. “Stretch the fifth finger of the left hand to the very low C” and so on, until, finally, the girls are ready to play the first song: “Hark the bells are ringing ring-ing. Ding Dong. Ding Dong.” “Thank you! Thank you!” Bazzle yells, applauding.
Watching the students grow in their knowledge and performance of music is what moves her most, she says later. “The first day, some of them placed their thumbs on the keys and nothing else. I said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with the rest of the fingers?’ And now, they know what to do. To have a chance to see progress readily is so rewarding to me. Some of these kids have never had a chance to touch an instrument. I never try to push any of my students to pursue a career in music, but I know that when kids have the opportunity to do things, it opens a door to other things. I have found out that I must work with children in order to know something about me, in order to keep learning about myself,” says Bazzle, who has only flirted with the notion of retiring.
Intentionally, she tries to keep her entertainment life (what many would view as more glamorous) away from her students. “I don’t even mention it to them,” she says, but what she does do is bring lessons she’s learned from “out there” to her students. “The two [jobs] really feed the other.” Sometimes, her students find out about her other life, from former students, from their parents, from radio programming, from Jazz and Heritage Festival schedules. When they do, “they look at me strange,” Bazzle says. “They say, ‘But Ms. Bazzle, you don’t act like an entertainer.’”
Once, about two years ago, Bazzle actually performed at the school, filling in for a band that had to cancel its showing in the auditorium. “It was funny. The kids didn’t know. One kid—I can still see her face now—sat there in the audience with her mouth open wide. Later, she said, ‘You are not the same person up there.’”
Fourteen-year-old Adrienne Francois, one of Bazzle’s new students, wasn’t at the school for that rare performance, but she has heard about her piano teacher’s “other life.” “I didn’t know who she was until another student told me after I had been coming to this class for a week,” says Adrienne, whose musical ambitions this year include learning how to play “This Little Light of Mine.” “I thought Ms. Bazzle was just a regular teacher,” she says.
“When I found out that she wasn’t, I was, like, ‘What? And she’s teaching at a school?’ I was so impressed. I’m so happy that she’s sharing her dream with us even though she’s famous.”