Saturday, April 13, 12p
Dow Chemical Stage
Tommy Sancton makes his annual pilgrimage to his native New Orleans. Most of the year, the traditional jazz clarinetist, journalist and bestselling author lives in suburban Paris. But Sancton comes home every spring festival season to play music with his friends and enjoy the city he still loves.
In 1962, several years before Sancton spent 22 years working for Time magazine in New York and Paris, he was a 13-year-old white youth in New Orleans captivated by the traditional jazz that black musicians played at Preservation Hall. “I heard George Lewis and was enthralled by the sound of his clarinet,” Sancton recalled. “I always say his tone was like molten silver.”
A few months later, British clarinetist Sammy Rimington, a friend of Sancton’s journalist father, gave the boy a clarinet. Sancton soon took informal clarinet lessons with Lewis. “I started hanging around Preservation Hall, sitting in and having an informal apprenticeship with all the old guys,” Sancton said. “It was an incredible and unlikely experience.”
Not only unlikely but illegal, because in 1962, Louisiana’s segregation laws forbade gatherings of whites and blacks in public spaces. Sancton’s father, however, a reporter who’d worked for magazines in New York City and the Item-Tribune newspaper in New Orleans, was an outspoken civil rights advocate.
“People coming together, overcoming racial barriers, age barriers and cultural barriers, this fit with my dad’s values,” Sancton recalled. “I owe a big debt to him for instilling those values in me and giving me access to the jazz musicians of New Orleans.”
Both Sancton’s biological father and the African-American musicians he considers his spiritual fathers inspired his 2006 memoir, Song for My Fathers. “The musicians’ world, their culture, humor, manner of speaking, warmth, I was brought in contact with that through music,” he said. “I felt like I was part of something greater than the white middle-class world that I’d been born into.”
In addition to his presence at Preservation Hall, Sancton paraded through New Orleans neighborhoods with the Harold Dejan–led Olympia Brass Band. “The musicians were protective of me,” Sancton remembered. “They figured I was someone who could carry on their style of music.”
As much as Sancton loved music, he left New Orleans at 18 to study American history and literature at Harvard. In Massachusetts, however, he co-founded the Black Eagle Jazz Band with some like-minded musicians. In 1974, during his graduate study at England’s Oxford University, Sancton stopped playing music to concentrate on his academic work.
A Black Eagle Jazz Band reunion in 1986 promoted Sancton to play clarinet again. “I realized that I had suppressed my voice for 13 years,” he said. “The sound of my breath blowing through a horn, making the reed vibrate, it was not just music, it was my inner voice.”