More often than not, when he’s playing at home in New Orleans, Leroy Jones throws his horn over his shoulders, tosses his music books and CDs into his cruiser basket, and crosses Rampart Street into the French Quarter. And more often than not, his wife, trombonist Katja Toivola, is on the bicycle in front of him. After years playing extended gigs in Asia and Europe, and 17 more on the road with Harry Connick Jr., the trumpeter relishes playing at home.
Whether it’s his weekly Friday night gig leading one of his bands, New Orleans’ Finest, at Preservation Hall, or one of his regular shows at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, the Bombay Club, or the Palm Court, Jones—like the musicians he surrounds himself with—has a sound that is effortless, powerful, sweet and polished. At the helm, his trumpet seems limitless—pretty in the manner of a masterfully sewn Indian suit, naturally drawing on a deep reservoir of emotions and musical vocabularies, and delivered as a seamless journey traversing each note and phrase and mood. In a single song, his playing is precise, pure, lilting, demanding, dancing and full of swing. Jones describes his style as “New Orleans traditional jazz with a 21st century flavor,” and indeed the merging of his sound with his hometown and the countless musicians he’s played with, studied, listened to, and breathed like air, is impossible to disentangle. Music is a language, he says. “First comes the hearing. Then comes the speaking.”
Home now, since Katrina, is the shotgun house he and Toivola renovated in Tremé, where a piano greets you a few feet from the front door and sunlight streams into the airy, open space. It’s just a few miles from the 7th Ward neighborhood Jones grew up in, behind the St. Bernard Projects and around the corner from his then neighbor, Danny Barker. Young Leroy began playing in the 5th grade, when the music department at St. Leo the Great sent around slips of paper asking what instrument the kids wanted to play. His first choice was cornet, and his parents rented a used one for three months. He developed an embouchure in record time, and in 1968, at the age of ten, got his first trumpet. Voila, he was in the band. “It fed my spirit,” he declares. “It made me feel good.”
Sister Mary Hilary was Jones’ first teacher and under her direction he became a member of the honor band, where he also took up the baritone horn. “I dreaded it because the mouth piece was different. I had to learn how to read the bass clef.” Plus, the case was big and the walk home from school was about a mile. “It was a bit of a burden,” he laughs, though in hindsight, he’s happy he did it.
At that time, when music instruction was much more prevalent in grade schools, Jones guesses about two out of five kids in his neighborhood were in band. He took to his parents’ garage for practicing, and it was here that the legendary Danny Barker first heard him playing.
Barker and his wife Blue Lu were members of the Fairview Baptist Church, and the pastor of the church, Andrew Darby Sr., wanted to form a youth group—a brass band—to get kids interested in doing something positive and to keep them out of trouble. The church didn’t have enough members to form a complete band so Reverend Darby asked Barker if he could recruit some youngsters.
“He’d be driving by in his car and I’d have the garage door open,” Jones recalls. Barker stopped one day, introduced himself, and asked if he would be interested in joining the band. Jones said he’d have to ask his parents.
“We didn’t really know who Danny was in terms of his status. I just thought he was a cool guy. He wore a nice hat and these slick, creased pants and Stacy Adams shoes. He had a cool, hip walk. He was the epitome of coolness. These guys today have nothing on Danny Barker.”
Jones’ parents said yes, and he joined the likes of Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, Gregg Stafford, Lucien Barbarin, Charles Barbarin, Jr., Joe Torregano, Derek Cagnolatti, Herlin Riley, Darryl Adams, Alton “Big Al” Carson and Kirk Joseph in what became the Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band—the Fairview Band, for short. Barker recognized Jones’ seriousness and tapped him to be the leader; his parents’ garage housed instruments donated by Allen Jaffe (then leading the Preservation Hall Jazz Band) and served as a band practice space. Jones was exposed, through Barker’s tutelage, to master musicians, such as the “African Cowboy” Earl Turbinton, who showed the budding musicians techniques and finger patterns on their instruments. After gigs in the French Quarter, the band stopped by Preservation Hall to listen to the likes of Kid Thomas, the Humphrey brothers, and Sweet Emma. At 12 years old, Jones was playing professionally with the Fairview Band in second lines for social aid and pleasure clubs.
A few years later, the band reconfigured as the Hurricane Brass Band, so named by Barker because “When we came up the street, we blew like a storm.” Stafford and Tuba Fats were already in the union, and because they’d been trained by Barker, they knew how to conduct the band’s business affairs on their own. Namely: “Be on time, have your shoes polished, wear a suit and tie,” recounts Jones. “When you’re on stage, even if you might not like it, when your horn is not on your face, smile. Etiquette. Musical etiquette. The protocol for you being a jazz musician.”
In those days, the Hurricane Brass Band played all the second lines and was as popular as, say, the Rebirth or Hot 8 are today. But the Hurricane learned to play from “the Old Men”: They wore white shirts and black pants, and they never sang. Brass-band music was instrumental. (And still is—even on the Hurricane’s most recent 2005 recording.) Yet despite their traditional grooming, the Hurricane’s sound was different from their predecessors’ because the music in the players’ heads was different. James Brown, Fred Wesley, the Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, Earth, Wind & Fire: The radio washed Motown, funk, soul, and English rock ’n’ roll into the Hurricane’s pot of musical influences. So while they were carrying on a tradition—in fact, rejuvenating a music in danger of petering out—they were at the same time innovating it through different bass lines, beats and syncopation. The Hurricane eventually birthed the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the entire modern lineage of brass bands which continues today.
Danny Barker loved it. “He told me, ‘Listen to Armstrong, but get you some Charlie Parker records,’” Jones recounts. “Listen to where the music came from, but also listen to where it went. The one came from the other; it was all related. This was good advice to a young musician, and I took his advice.”
Jones almost attended Jesuit High School, but he didn’t like their band, and chose St. Augustine instead. “I wanted to play with the Purple Knights!” he reminisces. He joined the high school’s marching, symphonic and stage bands, as well as the wrestling team. A natural athlete, he got an ultimatum from his band director and mentor, Edwin Hampton: Either you play in my band or you play sports. Music it was. He learned how to read music and play in ensembles at St. Aug and, as a senior, he met freshman Terence Blanchard. “He was the guy that was well ahead of his time,” writes Blanchard. “He played with a command and maturity that is still unmatched. When I listened to him play, I always imagined myself having that tone, or his sense of phrasing, and definitely his sense of rhythm. He was and still is my hero.”
Jones joined the Musicians’ Union when he turned 18 in order to play his first regular French Quarter gig with Leroy Bates at La Strada, covering numbers by the likes of Teddy Pendergrass. He was the youngest guy in the group. He was also attending Loyola’s new Jazz Studies Program on scholarship, but after a year he chose to continue his musical education on Bourbon Street, catching the last wave of its great jazz heyday. “It was exciting to play there,” recalls Jones, who, prior to this, was “never far from mama’s call.”
His first regular jazz gig was at Maison Bourbon as a sideman in a quintet with Hollis Carmouche on clarinet, Frank “Little Daddy” Moliere on piano, Walter Payton on bass, and drummer Joe Lambert. “On breaks, you’d run to Preservation Hall and get a peek at Willie and Percy,” he recollects, naming brothers Willie (clarinet) and Percy (trumpet) Humphrey. He met trumpeter Thomas Jefferson and drummer Albert “June” Gardner during this time, as well as Teddy Riley, a young Freddie Lonzo and Wendell Brunious. “There was so much music,” exclaims Jones. “It was exciting.” In fact, musicians were so abundant they worried someone might come around to try and steal their gigs. “The atmosphere was a bit cutthroat,” he remembers. At one point he was fired from the Maison Bourbon for playing “too modern,” but not long afterward, the club hired him back because he brought in the crowds.
In 1980, Jones formed New Orleans’ Finest, which played at Frenchy’s and the Court Tavern, and two years later traveled to Europe. In 1984, when he was 26, his quartet played in Pete’s Pub at the Intercontinental Hotel during the World’s Fair.
Seven years of steady, nearly nightly gigging on Bourbon Street wound down when he traveled to Singapore in 1985 with Trevor Richard’s Camellia Jazz Band for a residency in the Park View Hotel. The idea of bringing New Orleans music to Asia caught on, and three years of steady work in the Pacific followed. Tai Pei, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Jakarta, Hong Kong, the Philippines: Jones had hotel residencies in them all. In between, he came home and worked gigs in the French Quarter. Though by that time, in the late ’80s, Bourbon Street was changing. “There were less pimps with feathered hats,” he recalls, “which was something to behold.” The clubs left, and the T-shirt shops came.
In June of 1990, Jones was back working in the French Quarter when he got a call from Harry Connick, Jr., who was starting a big band and wanted to recruit as many New Orleans bona fides as possible. He met Connick some seven years prior when he stopped by the Mahogany Hall when Jones was playing. Connick was on his way to New York at the time, but his dad, Harry Sr., made sure Junior “knew all the cats.” After doing the soundtrack to the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, Connick’s career “shot up like a beanstalk,” according to Jones, who jumped at the chance of playing in a big band with him. There were seventeen players—five of them trumpeters from New Orleans. It was great fun. “Harry always carried the flag of New Orleans. We were proud to go on the stage and represent this city.”
They toured together from 1990 to 2007; out on the road for a few weeks, at home for a few months, out on the road, and back again. During one of his stints home in 1992, Jones began playing at Preservation Hall. Bob French—“the Art Blakey of New Orleans”—urged him to come sit in. Percy Humphrey was at the point where he couldn’t play much; he’d kick off a song, and Jones handled the solos. After Percy and Willie Humphrey passed, Jones led one of the Hall’s bands for a spell.
Jones also began releasing his own albums during this time. Mo’ Cream from the Crop (‘94) and ’96’s Props for Pops both appeared on Connick’s imprint of Columbia Records, Noptee. “He did it not only because he loves me, but because he thought I deserved it.” But eventually, Jones’ own commitments began conflicting with his touring schedule with Connick. He still plays and records with Connick and maintains a great friendship, but he no longer goes on the road with him.
Currently, Jones plays with the Spirit of New Orleans and the New Orleans Helsinki Connection—both fronted by his wife, trombonist Katja Toivola, who he met on one of her first trips to New Orleans from Finland in the mid ’90s. He also leads three bands: The Original Hurricane Brass Band, his six piece New Orleans’ Finest, and the Leroy Jones Quintet—which often enough is comprised of Mitchell Player on bass, Jerry Barbarin Anderson on drums, Meghan Swartz on piano, himself on trumpet, and Toivola on trombone. In both their live performances and his albums, Jones moves seamlessly from jazz standards to original compositions. At one recent show, bright, swinging renditions of “Bourbon Street Parade” and “My Blue Heaven” sandwiched “Carnival’s in Town,” a dance-inducing, Latin-tinged original of intertwining horns, which he also played in an episode of HBO’s Treme.
His 2007 release, Soft Shoe, and 2009’s Sweeter Than a Summer Breeze are rife with this seamless movement between original and standard, as well as his striking string and horn arrangements. A nice example is his original “Shansky,” on Soft Shoe, a delightfully sly Pink Panther laced groove written with drummer Shannon Powell in mind. It arrives in the perfect place on the album—just a few graceful tracks following the heart piercing traditional, “Flee As a Bird.” Sweeter Than a Summer Breeze has a similarly flawless layout of songs, each one a gorgeous ride of arrangements, thick with strings, pure, lilting, and delightful.
His arranging chops were heavily influenced by pianist and arranger Edward Frank and his years in Connick’s big band. “Whenever I write an arrangement,” he says, “I try to be sensitive of the space, keeping the accompaniment in the mix, but with subtlety, as to not step all over the melody line or the lyrics. I don’t really follow any strict system of rules.” In the not-too-distant future, he hopes to do a solo recording of all originals.
Jones’ live performances, like his recordings, strive to hit the perfect balance between players. He likens the team effort on stage to a football game. The job of the rhythm section—piano, bass and drums, or piano, sousaphone and drums, perhaps with a banjo thrown in—is to accompany. “The front line blocks. They don’t run the ball. They’re not built for running the ball.” In musical terms, running the ball is Jones’ job: playing the melody on trumpet. “The trombone tailgates and the clarinet plays counter melodies against what I’m playing,” he continues. “So if I start playing what the clarinet’s playing, then we lose something with the team.”
It’s one big musical conversation, he emphasizes. “I’m listening to what they’re doing. So then not only do we have counterpoint happening with the music itself, we have harmony, and we have things that coordinate between the three horns in the front line.” All of this, of course, depends on a solid, grooving rhythm section. “That makes a difference. When the rhythm section is swinging, it makes it easier for you to play your role in the frontline as the horn man or a singer.”
When the team isn’t working together, “You can feel it because you’re trying to catch your breath. You’re dodging tight ends and linebackers. On a good night, if everything is going well, it’s wonderful. You get this light feeling. Everything clicks into place.” After all, he continues, jazz is happy music. It lifts people’s spirits. “It doesn’t have to be perfect note for note, but if there’s love in it, that’s what comes across. The emotion and the feeling are the most important things above all.”
Jones still listens to music every day. He lost quite a lot of LPs when his house in Gentilly flooded after Katrina—mostly jazz and pop from the ’70s—but he’s managed to build back the collection digitally. Now, when he travels, he carries half his musical library with him on an iPod. Traditional jazz, world music, music from Brazil and Asia, or what’s spinning on WWOZ: not a day goes by without listening. “When you’re listening, you’re practicing. Some things are fresh. Some remind you of past things you’ve heard.” In either case, he says, what you listen to comes out in what you play. Likewise, he has not lost his zeal to practice: to sit down, every day, with his horn, or at the piano, to play with an idea or a chord progression.
Jones calls himself “a trumpet player who happens to sing.” In many ways, he’s like his first mentor, Louis Armstrong: the entire package. He has technique, passion, artistry, arrangement know-how and an ability to entertain. All the parts fit together inside a highly creative life, just like Pops.
Thanks to his parents’ record collection, he knew who Armstrong was even before he picked up a horn. I asked him which period of Armstrong’s career he was drawn to the most. “The early years, in the ’20s, with King Oliver,” he quickly answered. “Louis was inventive and willing to take chances. It was really his creative time. And then again in the ’50s, with Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. Louis was hot again. He was more relaxed, and you could hear where he had settled in. He had a tremendous sound, and with just a couple notes, you know exactly who it is.” Some might say the same about Leroy Jones.
“I always wanted to play with that kind of finesse,” he continues. “Armstrong makes art into entertainment, and entertainment into art. What he did made it possible for people like me.”