Louis Prima would have been 100 this year. Jazz Fest honored him this year with a series of Prima-themed shows, and on Saturday, December 11, the Louis Prima Centennial Colloquium will be held in Tulane’s Freeman Auditorium. The colloquium has been organized by Bruce Raeburn of Tulane’s Hogan Jazz Archive, and he contends that Prima has been unfairly overlooked.
“Ever since jazz became recognized as an art form in the 1930s, there has been a tendency to subscribe to a jazz canon constructed by music critics that privileges ‘seminal’ artists at the expense of musician-entertainers,” he writes. “The Louis Prima Centennial Colloquium will take a different approach, celebrating a musician that unfailingly combined art and entertainment to deliver memorable performances that changed people’s lives. Within the New Orleans jazz community there have always been legions of incipient jazz stars whose primary objective as professional musicians was to satisfy their audiences. Most of these performers never became nationally recognized celebrities, although Louis Prima certainly did, making Gunther Schuller’s failure to include him as a person of interest in his monumental study of the 1930s, The Swing Era (1986), very hard to understand. If for no other reason, Prima’s composition, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which became an anthem for the Swing Era in Benny Goodman’s hands, would seem to be enough to qualify him for inclusion, as would his broad popularity in the period. Yet Schuller mentions Prima just once in his book, in a footnote stating that the clarinetist Sidney Arodin had worked for him.
“Fortunately, we don’t need the approbation of jazz critics to celebrate the music of Louis Prima, and I’d like to think that given enough time and opportunity, even the critics will eventually come around. He gave himself completely to performance, as an artist and as an entertainer, and created music that will never cease to inspire, simply because it was fun. Louis Prima today remains an American original, a timeless musical personality whose creativity, vitality and humor are abundantly evident in an international musical legacy that is susceptible to endless rediscovery by generations to come.”
Participants in the colloquium include Dan Morgenstern, who has been the Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University since 1976; Marcello Piras, Italy’s foremost authority on jazz and music of the African diaspora; Elijah Wald, a musician and writer whose books include How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music and Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues; and Jack Stewart, a historian, musician, city planner and restoration contractor who is currently working on several books on New Orleans’ musical history.
This event is from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free and open to the public. Because of limited seating, those interested need to reserve seats by calling (504) 865-5688.
The colloquium is made possible with the support of the Jay Pritzker Foundation, the New Orleans/Gulf South Center at Tulane University, OffBeat and French Quarter Festivals, Inc.