Last year at French Quarter Fest, a number of his friends and bandmates joined for a tribute to the late voodoo bluesman Coco Robicheaux. And midway through the set, a strange phenomenon occurred. “Apparently a big queen bee got disturbed so a whole hive moved out over the crowd, “recalls singer Irene Sage, who was onstage that day. “It seemed there were thousands of bees but everybody stayed chill. Barbara Gilmore Washington [stage manager] said ‘How about those honeybees, Coco must be here.’ Then [drummer] Tom Chute said something after the set, that one of Coco’s favorite books was The Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, and the whole theme of that book is the immortality of individual expression. One of the cities it was set in was New Orleans—and one of the main characters transforms himself into thousands of bees. When we heard that, there was no doubt.”
That’s one indication of how much a tribute set can mean. The Jazz Fest may be 90 per cent celebration, but every year brings a somber component as well, once you take stock of the music greats who aren’t there anymore. If you’re so inclined, you can say that the Fest gains new guiding spirits every year—or else you can just start holding your memories of their performances a little tighter.
This year will see tributes paid to some local music giants who passed away over the past year. These include “Uncle Lionel” Batiste, the Treme Brass Band bass drummer and beloved local personality; Bob French, the Tuxedo Brass Band leader/drummer and ever-quotable WWOZ host, and Hadley J. Castille, master Cajun fiddler. There will also be a further tribute for Robicheaux, who collapsed suddenly on Frenchmen Street in late 2011.
Before he took over leadership of the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1977, Bob French already had an impressive career as a New Orleans drummer, having played on Earl King’s “Trick Bag” and some Fats Domino sides. “Bob was an innovator—He played in the traditional style, but not in the revival style,” says his nephew Gerald French, also a drummer, who has taken over Tuxedo leadership. “His thing was a little more polished and it was hip. A lot of people don’t understand one thing about New Orleans music, that it’s not just like the record; it continues to grow. If you’re from New Orleans and you live and breathe New Orleans every day—then man, what you’re playing makes it New Orleans. Bob always understood that.”
Much of Tuxedo’s tribute set will come from the 2007 CD Marsalis Music Honors Bob French, which saw him playing alongside the likes of Trombone Shorty, Leon (Kid Chocolate) Brown, and Harry Connick Jr.—some of the many upstart players he’d crossed paths with over the years. “His legacy was to get younger players interested in the music. Kermit would sit in with the band and so would Kid Chocolate, Glen David Andrews, a lot of others. They would come to Donna’s and seek him out. That was a great institution for melting the pot, making the music more accessible. A lot of younger guys, they wouldn’t come to Palm Court or Preservation Hall, they’d be intimidated. Whereas a place like Donna’s was a bar and grill, someone could come in and say ‘I just need a hamburger’.”
French was known in later years for one of the liveliest shows on WWOZ, where his pointed patter pushed the limits of what you could say on the radio. He became something of a local conscience, directing particular barbs to musicians who didn’t return home after Katrina. “That was just Bob, period,” Gerald says. “No two ways about it, either you loved him or you couldn’t stand him. The radio was a great tool for him—he could voice his opinions on whatever he thought was hip, and he could also vent a lot of his frustration. He told the truth and spoke the way he thought, which doesn’t always make you very popular. Because he was an elder he could get away with it.”
Uncle Lionel Batiste
Uncle Lionel Batiste already showed up at his own wake last summer, looking typically dapper while propped against a recreated street lamp in the Treme funeral home where he was laid to rest. Even then, the drummer evinced the joie de vivre that was always his trademark. “He contributed to the band as well as the audience,” recalls Benny Jones Sr., his snare-drum partner in the Treme Brass Band. “When we performed he knew what to sing and how to get people into the music. And when we were off the gig he knew how to mingle with the crowd. They would wait for him to get off the stage so they could talk to him.”
To many Batiste embodied the ebullient spirit of brass band music; a mood that was caught in the Congo Square poster in 2010. His first musical instruments were the sticks and bells he learned to keep rhythms on, as a teenager in the ‘40s he joined a kazoo band. He stayed with the Treme for two decades and played on two of their albums. “He could take a solo using just the bass drum, and you don’t see many drummers who can do that,” Jones notes.
Along with their tribute set, the Treme plans to hold a jazz funeral on the first Sunday, one of the few funerals ever staged at the Fest. “It’s going to be very emotional, but he was the leader of the band and we have to honor Uncle Lionel,” says Jones, who is literally Batiste’s nephew by marriage. The new bass drummer Michael Hughes is also part of the extended family; his father and Batiste were schoolmates. “It was kind of hard, losing Uncle Lionel,” Jones says. “Everybody still asks me about him, they’re shocked to hear that he’s gone.”
As a man and a musician, Coco Robicheaux made a dramatic impression; many will recall his chicken-sacrifice scene in Treme as one of the series’ most grabbing. Irene Sage, a friend and musical collaborator for decades, has a memory that goes back to the Dream Palace (now the Blue Nile) in 1988. “I’ll always remember this day because it was my 18th birthday and it was Mardi Gras Day—and it was my first local gig off Bourbon Street. You were supposed to take a mushroom at the door, and all the women were asked to take off their tops—and most of them did. And then, in walks Coco. He had this gorgeous black hair going down to his shoulder, and this silk leopard jumpsuit open down to the middle, and these two topless women escorting him onstage. It was just out of sight.”
Though mainly known as a singer/writer, Robicheaux was more of a Renaissance man; he created the Professor Longhair bust at Tipitina’s and even played trumpet in an early Dr. John band for a short time. “He was the epitome of an artist—always reading poetry and philosophy, fascinated by religion. And his heart was stretched out to everyone,” Sage says. And she reveals that he once had a particularly obscure gig in San Francisco. “He was right in the Bay Area when the hippie movement was going on. LSD was a prevalent drug but nobody understood it yet, kids were coming into hospitals all the time. So they started to set up ‘tripping tents’ on Haight-Ashbury, and Coco was one of the people there to talk kids down from their trips.”
Robicheaux’s Spiritland band is now making a tribute CD with singers Sage, Mike Hood, Dorian Rush and Walter “Wolfman” Washington, who will all play at the Fest. “I keep thinking about the last Jazz Fest show Coco did—He felt good, looked great and put on a hell of a show. So I hope we can make him proud this year.”
Hadley J. Castille
Singer and fiddler Hadley J. Castille was a longtime ambassador of Cajun music, whose best-known song, “200 Lines: I Must Not Speak French,” argued for the preservation of Cajun culture and language. He began performing regionally before he served in the Korean War, but found new popularity on the Canadian festival circuit during the ‘80s. “It really opened my eyes to see how much they loved him there,” his granddaughter Sarah Jayde Williams recalls. “The customs agent would pull him aside and say ‘Hey, Mr. Castille, how’ve you been doing’? I would see my grandpa playing onstage, he’d be talking in French and getting this reaction from people. And I’d say, ‘You know what, I want to be able to do this.’ He’d teach me a song and I wanted to learn what the words meant and the story behind it. So I really learned a language because of it.”
Raised by her grandparents after her parents divorced, she inevitably grew up absorbing the music of her heritage. “Even before I started playing I remember him taking me to festivals, so Cajun has been a familiar sound for as long as I can remember. He sent me to get classical training when I was three or four, and he always made the joke that I had to stop with my classical because it was messing up my Cajun. I was about eleven when I first got onstage with him—not really performing, just doing one or two songs. The first time I’d written all the notes out and came onstage with my music stand, and he looked at me and said, ‘Okay, you have to put that away’.”
Though a Cajun traditionalist, Castille also wrote new songs (often with his son Blake, the band’s guitarist) and incorporated a lot of swing into his playing. And in recent years he let his granddaughter take a share of the spotlight. Watching the 23-year-old Sarah Jayde dance around the stage belting out “Colinda”, was a reminder of how lively and sassy this kind of music can be. “I said in an interview once that people thought of Cajun music as old guys singing off-key, and Grandpa said, ‘You can’t say that!’ But it’s true, I used to tell my friends I was going out to see Cajun music and they’d say, ‘We’re not going to that place.’ I think there’s more appreciation for it now than there used to be.”
Her set this year with the Sharecroppers band will focus on songs from Castille’s repertoire. But in years to come, it’s likely that more of her personality will come through. “I’ve been thinking a lot about this since he passed. And I would like to keep his music, but I’d also like to start writing my own stuff. I learned everything from him note for note, so his style has become my style.
“My mom would always tease me and say that I have an old soul, because Patsy Cline and Etta James are my two favorites. But I like a lot of new music too, I really like the Killers. My dad plays in a heavy metal band, and I’ve seen some good videos of girls playing dubstep on violin.” What would her granddad think of her playing that kind of music? “You never know, it’s not his generation but he might like it. Either way, he would always encourage me to do my music, but to make sure that people know about our culture.”