Louis Ford has spent his entire life around some of New Orleans’ finest musicians—first and foremost his father, the late, great clarinetist and saxophonist Clarence Ford. With the sounds of his forefathers’ music in his head and heart, Ford became dedicated to preserving traditional jazz as “it should be played” and as he heard it performed while standing and playing alongside legends such as trumpeters Wallace Davenport and Teddy Riley and guitarist/banjoist Danny Barker. Thus, the clarinetist and saxophonist is a stickler for authenticity.
“Nowadays, a lot of people are doing the music with a straight-ahead swing,” Ford complains. “I like it to have a nice press roll [a continuous roll on the snare drum] with a strong two-and-four beat.”
That’s why Ford has enlisted his cousin, drummer Frank Oxley, as the go-to guy with his band, Louis Ford & His New Orleans Flairs. The band performs at Satchmo SummerFest at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, August 3.
“Frank has that traditional style,” Ford offers. “He was fortunate to be around people like [drummer] Baby Dodds. Frank isn’t called the ‘Drivin’ Drummer’ just for the name itself. He knows how to drive. He keeps that bass drum constant with the quarter-note beat. He keeps it going just the way Dodds and all those guys who preceded him played.”
Oxley is but one member of Ford’s extensive and influential musical family that, as is detailed in Larry Gabriel’s book, My Daddy Plays Old-Time New Orleans Jazz, dates back to 1856 with the arrival of bassist Narcisse Gabriel from Santo Domingo.
Ford’s descendants from that line include his uncles saxophonist/bassist Percy Gabriel and clarinetist/drummer Manny Gabriel as well as his cousin, reedman Charlie Gabriel, who currently performs with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The cousins often cross paths, since Ford also plays at the Hall with various groups, including the Preservation Hall All-Stars. At noon on Friday, the opening day of Satchmo SummerFest, Ford will be blowin’ clarinet with the PresHall Brass Band, another one of the traditional-jazz institution’s spin-off groups. At 2:30 p.m. Friday, Ford joins trumpeter Clive Wilson’s Satchmo Serenaders.
Many people who are familiar with Ford’s playing would agree that it is the clarinetist’s warm, full sound and precise tonal quality—no squeaking there—that sets him apart. Ford credits these qualities to his years of studying and playing classical music and the fact that his father encouraged him to start on the clarinet rather than the saxophone. He explains that the embouchure—the way the lips and tongue are applied to the mouthpiece—is different for the two instruments.
“When people who are really saxophone majors pick up a clarinet, you can tell that it’s somebody playing saxophone on a clarinet,” Ford observes. Ford didn’t start playing sax until junior high school, and performs on it most often at private events that he books through his own agency, Ford Production Company. But it’s difficult to imagine this traditionalist picking up a soprano sax to play a version of smooth jazz king Kenny G’s “Songbird.” “We give the people what they want,” Ford says of playing music for conventioneers that might include everything from the rhythm and blues of Fats Domino to the modern sounds of saxophonist Grover Washington.
Ford attended the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), studied with Kidd Jordan at Southern University of New Orleans and received a degree in music education at Loyola University, and he feels fortunate to have studied under clarinet guru Alvin Batiste. He not only taught Ford musical exercises that he continues to use every day but also, as was Batiste’s noted educational style, life lessons along with musical lessons.
“He once told me that, ‘You’re not going to always play with the best musicians. You’re not always going to play with the worst musicians. What you should do is to do your job to the best of your ability, and then get the money and run.’”
On the other hand, Ford’s father didn’t really offer such sage advice. “Dad would always tell me that practice makes perfect, which is the cliché you always hear. He would just show and demonstrate. Every morning— we’re talking about eight o’clock in the morning—he did his practicing. He really didn’t have to say much of anything; I just had to observe.”
As the director of the Lafayette Academy Charter School’s band program, which includes concert, marching- and brass-band ensembles, it’s now Ford’s turn to offer lessons and insight into the music that is his life. Naturally, he keeps the style of the school’s brass brand in the tradition of those he played as he was growing up, like Doc Paulin’s (his first brass-band gig), the Onward, Liberty, and Tuxedo brass bands. “I want the students to understand where it [the musical tradition] came from and how it relates to funerals and social aid and pleasure clubs,” Ford says. “I explain to my kids that music also enhances your brain for your academics—math, science, English. So they have to take music to the heart and focus on that.
‘Take that and run with it!’”