It was one of those little rituals that speaks volumes about the nature of music in New Orleans, and New Orleans musicians.
When the car containing Willie Humphrey would pull up in front of Preservation Hall to deliver the clarinetist to his usual Saturday night gig, a middle-aged street musician who often entertains the people waiting in line outside the club would respectfully silence his saxophone, then introduce Humphrey.
“Do you know who this is?” the street musician would announce. “This is one of the living legends of jazz, one of the world’s greatest clarinet players, Willie Humphrey!”
For many of the European and Japanese fans who came to Preservation Hall, the introduction was not necessary-Humphrey’s reputation abroad was the stuff of legend.
But regardless of the onlookers’ knowledge of his legacy, they would applaud the elderly musician as he made his way to the club’s door.
In return, Humphrey-cradling his favored clarinet in its carrying case, along with a back-up horn wrapped in a grocery bag-would doff his hat with his free hand, acknowledging and thanking his fans for their applause.
Photographer David Spielman, who recorded this ritual in the image on this page, remembers the gesture as a typical example of Humphrey’s grace. “If you were to look up ‘Southern gentleman’ in the dictionary, it would say ‘Willie Humphrey.'”
Had Humphrey chosen to be more pompous, no one could have blamed him. Just weeks before complications from a heart attack claimed him on June 7 at the age of 93, Humphrey was still performing with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as he had for over 30 years.
His life history is peppered with touchstones to another era. As a musician, he was a side man to the drama of the infamous 1919 World Series,’the one at which members of the Chicago White Sox plotted with gamblers to throw the game. He shared a stage with such jazz luminaries as Joe “King” Oliver, Sidney Bechet and Freddie Keppard.
He worked in music all his life: with big bands on Mississippi riverboats, as a teacher in New Orleans, with a variety of players in Chicago, California, New York. .
But his most enduring contribution (of the last three decades, anyway) was as a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the guardians of the trad jazz flame. Humphrey appeared on numerous recordings made with the band, and toured with them up until a few years ago. Positioned alongside the raucous Pat O’Brien’s on St.
Peter Street, Preservation Hall is an oasis of elegant music, where countless visitors to the city formed their impressions of “New Orleans jazz” based on the performances of Willie Humphrey-a mainstay of the club since it opened in 1961-his trumpeter brother, Percy, and their bandmates. Many locals–including young players like Kermit Ruffins, the ReBirth trumpeter turned Louis Armstrong disciple, and Michael White, the clarinetist and educator-have also been touched and influenced by Humphrey.
“I listened to him a lot, when I was trying to get a concept of the role of the clarinet.” says White, who has taken over Humphrey’s Wednesday night slot at Preservation Hall. “And he told me that it is always good to practice scales. You hear that kind of thing [a lot], but it became a regular part of my routine after he said it.”
Humphrey’s contributions have not gone unheralded. In April he and his brother were honored with Big Easy Lifetime Achievement Awards. Willie’s passing was marked, appropriately, with a lavish front-page spread in The Times-Picayune.
With Willie Humphrey’s death, the extinction of an era comes ever closer. “He was one of the few remaining individual stylists,” says Michael White. “He had a unique concept of tone-his style was rich and full.
He came from a time when developing your own sound and style was important-he was one of the last people of that generation.
“He had tremendous stage presence. He remained creative, and practiced, to the end. And he was loved all over the world.”