This year’s Gretna Heritage Festival prompted the question: When there’s only one original member, is Lynyrd Skynyrd still Lynyrd Skynyrd?
A New Orleans version of this question arose when it was announced that drummer Bob French would be stepping down as bandleader of the Original Tuxedo Brass Band, to be replaced by his nephew, Gerald French. Such change has only occurred five times in the band’s 100-plus-year history—a century-long run that stands as the longest in New Orleans’ history. Clearly, no original member of the band is still with us, and, the lineup has been fluid, so what’s in a name?
“It’s a feeling of pride,” Gerald says. “But I’m not a stickler for things remaining as they were. Jazz is a true art form because jazz constantly evolves. The same instrumentation—like in the band Monday night I had a banjo, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, drums, bass, piano—it’s 2011, not 1911. But we played those numbers from the ‘20s and ‘30s, a couple from the ‘teens, and we don’t play like those guys did, but we still play with the spirit and feeling of New Orleans.”
What makes the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band after a century of change? According to French, “It started in a dance hall in Storyville. It evolved from being a dance band to a society band. When my grandfather [Albert “Papa” French] led the band in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and most of the ‘70s, they played for all of the big socialites. The Boston Club, the New Orleans Country Club, Rex, Comus, and all of these old-line organizations from New Orleans. The relation to me is that even though people are doctors or lawyers, they still like to let their hair down and have a good time, too. Our culture, our way of life, transcends all that stuff. It doesn’t matter if you’re a judge on the bench. There are some judges that can second line just as good as someone who collects trash or shucks oysters. These things are common to life here in New Orleans, and that’s the greatest thing about this band—it transcends all that.” The band began in flux, and that’s remained the only constant.
This band is capable of transcending time, genre, and apparently language. French remembered a college gig in Europe: “We were playing a college in Turkey, we’re playing for all of these kids, and you got a traditional New Orleans jazz band playing at a college. Don’t get me wrong, kids in Europe are a lot more exposed to jazz than kids in America. It’s a part of their fabric. We play a concert in Europe and we’ll see five times as many young people as here in the States. It is what it is. So we’re onstage, the kids are enjoying it, and Lucien [Barbarin] says, ‘Go into a hip-hop kind of groove; I want to try something.’ The band stops, and I go into a break-beat kind of thing, and he grabs the microphone and he’s singing the same lyrics [to “Breakin’ and Shakin’”], but more like a rapper would do it. The kids go crazy! They rush the stage! All of a sudden we were rock stars.”
The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band sidesteps issues of legitimacy within their tremendous continuity in a pretty simple way: They have the chops to entertain and innovate. “Being the leader of a band that’s 102 years old, that’s a lot of responsibility on me to make the right song selection,” French explains. “I try to strike a good balance between those songs that are the epitome of what New Orleans jazz was, stuff like ‘Bourbon Street Parade,’ ‘Fidgety Feet,’ which comes from the original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1917. We pay homage to where the band started.” But the band now is more than just a tribute to the past. “The way the band is now, we try to bring it a little more mainstream, so people who aren’t from New Orleans or people who frown on traditional or Dixieland music, it’s still appealing to them because it has a swing they can recognize. If it doesn’t make you feel like you want to move, something is wrong. It’s happy music. It’s dance music. It’s for people to enjoy.”
The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band plays Monday nights at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse.