Special/Signature Issues » Folk Used to Be a Bad Word

Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band: Bourbon Street Wake-Up Call

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If the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band can bring as much unvarnished energy to its playing as leader Bob French does to a telephone interview, it will be a bracing performance. French seems to remember everyone he's come across in his long career, and is startlingly forthright about his opinions. “I'm sorry if people get pissed off,” French says. “I tell it like it is. Why tell a lie?”

His stories have an amazing New Orleans cast of characters. He was in a band with the older Neville Brothers and piano legend James Booker when he was still a high-school student. He remembers the old guys of Preservation Hall when that was one of the city's best gigs. He remembers Mac Rebennack as a guitarist, before he hurt his hand and reinvented himself as the piano-playing Dr. John. He recalls Marsalis family members crashing a gig, assuming, despite their lack of union cards, that he'd let them sit in. He did. “Those Marsalises always had huge balls,” he says. He remembers the days of Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, and the glory days of Bourbon Street.

“Now from the 100-block there's nothing but damn noise,” French says. “You might hear some of the most awful music, twanging guitars and” — the ultimate sign of decline — “bouncers.” What was real has become a cheap tourist imitation.

Almost wiped out by Katrina (the only thing the storm spared was his two sets of drums), French soldiers on. He inherited the soon-to-be 100-year-old band from his father, who shanghaied him into the lineup one evening when the usual drummer got sick. “I didn't like my father's music ƒ?~til that night,” he recalls. “That was when I woke up.”

His current band is fairly young, all in their 20s and 30s, except for the fiftysomething bassist and French (who is 71). “That's my thing, to get the young'uns involved,” the bandleader says. “They look at me like I looked at my daddy, they think it's easy. I say come on up and play it if it isn't anything. Then they wake up.”

Performances
Saturday: 1:15-2:15 p.m. at the Richmond Times-Dispatch Dance Pavilion.
Saturday: 9:30-10:30 p.m. at the Ukrop's/First Market Stage.
Sunday: 5:45-6:30 p.m. at the Ukrop's/First Market Stage.

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