In 1910, the Tuxedo Jazz Band played its first show at the Tuxedo Dance Hall in Storyville under Oscar Celestin. The popular ensemble went on to play all over New Orleans, as well as across the South and the nation. In 1953, it became the first jazz band to play the White House. The band has punctuated jazz history and produced some of the most memorable musicians of the past century: Bob French, Albert French, William Ridgley, Octave Crosby, Louis Armstrong and more. Author Sally Newhart has written a definitive and captivating history of the band from inception to present, including oral histories, archival photos, discography and a previously unpublished complete list of members since 1910.
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About the Author
Sally Newhart is a small business owner in New Orleans and was a close friend of former Tuxedo Jazz Band Leader, the late Bob French. Bruce Boyd Raeburn is the Curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University and director of special collections. Dr. Raeburn is a musician and author of New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History.
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Oscar "Papa" Celestin
Oscar Phillip "Papa" Celestin, the first leader of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, was born on January 1, 1884, to an African American family living in Napoleonville, Assumption Parish, Louisiana. The youngest of thirteen children, he lived with his parents in the small, rural town located fifty-six miles west of New Orleans. His father, a transient sugar cane cutter, supported the family by working as a field hand on plantations in the Napoleonville area, which had a population of seventy-three by the 1890 census. The Celestins were one of many poor black and Creole families in the area, and when young Oscar was old enough, he went to work with his father in the sugar cane fields, as had all the other children in his family.
Interested in music from an early age, Oscar had been attempting to teach himself to play the more readily available guitar and mandolin, but all that changed when he accompanied his father onto a Mississippi riverboat and heard a riverboat band. From the moment he heard the sound of those horns, all he wanted was to play the cornet. He started saving every penny with the dream of buying one but was spared the long wait when a co-worker on the plantation passed along an old battered cornet after hearing that young Celestin wanted one.
His parents arranged for him to take music lessons from Professor Claiborne Williams, a music teacher that lived about ten miles away in Donaldsonville, Ascension Parish. Williams, the cornetist for the St. Joseph Brass Band, which he had organized and led, was a classically trained violinist but taught all instruments, charging fifty cents for a lesson that could last up to an hour. John G. Curran, a music promoter, told David Hillyer, "I guess the first jazz band in the world was the Claiborne Williams band from Donaldsonville, Louisiana." He traveled by boat on Bayou Lafourche to get to his students, who would gather in groups at the different plantations along the bayou for their weekly lesson. In a short amount of time, young Celestin started playing with local bands at neighborhood parties and church picnics.
While he wanted nothing more than to be a musician, his mother encouraged him to get, and keep, a day job so he would have a reliable means of supporting himself. He found a job as a cook on the Texas-Pacific Railroad and left Napoleonville to move to St. Charles Parish. By 1902, he was playing in his first band, the J.C. Trist Band, named for the man who bought the instruments. While he was in St. Charles Parish, he adopted the nickname of "Sonny" and was soon playing cornet with another local St. Charles Parish boys' marching brass band, the Indiana Brass Band, led by cornetist Walter Kenchen.
In 1906, twenty-two-year-old Celestin moved to New Orleans, where the population of three hundred thousand included twenty percent black, a far cry from the mostly black population of less than one thousand in Napoleonville. His first order of business was to get a job. At six foot four and weighing close to three hundred pounds, he had no trouble getting hired as a longshoreman and was soon working on the docks. In his later years, he was happy to talk about his longshoreman's union card and the good times he spent on and near the Mississippi River.
With his day job secured, Celestin concentrated on getting to know the city and getting to be known as a musician. New Orleans was full of young musicians, and there were lots of opportunities for a talented cornet player. He played spot jobs with a number of other up-and-coming musicians in the city: Jack Carey, Joe Oliver, Jimmie Noone, Bunk Johnson, Peter Bocage, Jimmy Palao and Jelly Roll Morton. He played cornet with the Imperial Band, was a regular in the Crescent Orchestra and would occasionally take a job with the Olympia Orchestra, formed by Freddie Keppard in 1907.
By 1908, more than a year after the legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden had played his last known job with Henry "Red" Allen's Brass Band, a marching band based in Algiers, Louisiana, Celestin was playing cornet with them. The band was always in demand for picnics, funerals and other church or social events.
Then in 1909, Celestin took the final step to becoming a full-time musician when he was hired by Alderman Tom Anderson, a political leader in the fourth ward, to work in his saloon at 209 Basin Street. Anderson's Fair Play Saloon was one of many on Basin Street, the gateway to Storyville.
The Storyville District in New Orleans, commonly called "the District," was within the area bordered by Iberville Street, St. Louis Street, Basin Street and Claiborne Avenue. The wood-framed buildings that lined the streets provided all forms of evening entertainment, but the primary focus was on the business of prostitution, which, while technically illegal, had been tolerated since 1897 and would continue to be until November 1917. Most of the more elegant "sporting houses" had beautifully furnished reception areas where the male customers were able to meet the women that worked the evenings. Pianos were the instrument of choice to provide background music, and talented piano players were well paid and always in demand.
Over at the Globe Hall, just outside the District in the Treme at St. Claude and St. Peter Streets, near the present location of the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium, Manuel "Fess" Manetta was getting $2.50 for playing the piano from 8:00 p.m. until 4:00 a.m., with an extra $1.00 for playing the advertising from 1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. before the evening's dance.
Drinking, gambling and dancing were the other forms of entertainment offered in the District, where the poorly paved streets were lined with bars and dance halls. The one- and two-story buildings always had bars and usually bandstands, where musicians were able to enjoy steady employment. As the only jukeboxes were nickel cylinder players in drug stores, and never in saloons, if there was going to be music, it was going to be live, and just as it continues in modern New Orleans, if there's music, there will be dancing — no matter the size of the place.
The Slow Drag was a popular dance when the music was slow and bluesy. Couples would press their bodies tightly together and keep time with the music in a smooth bump and grind. The couple could move forward, backward or side to side, always starting on the first and third beat of the measure. If you stepped forward with the right foot, you dragged the left foot. If you stepped to the left you would drag the right foot. Bands would accommodate the dancers with "Sunflower Slow Drag" and "Make Me a Pallet on the Floor," though most any song could be played at that slow tempo. Drummer Josiah "Cie" Frazier reflected, "You could hear the heels of the people just smoothing down on the ground like that."
"High Society," "Bucket's Got a Hole in It," "Down Home Rag" and "Liza Jane" were some of the other frequently requested tunes that every musician knew. The bands played from eight in the evening until four in the morning. They were compensated with free wine and between $1.50 and $2.50 per musician, with the band's manager getting $3.00. The real money was in tips, and a hot band in a popular club could easily collect $15.00 per person in an evening. This was during a time when a loaf of bread cost five cents.
The Tuxedo Dance Hall, owned by brothers Charlie and Harry Parker, was one of the more popular dance halls. According to the Daily Picayune of March 25, 1913:
The Tuxedo, a model of the dance halls which make up a good part of the Tenderloin, occupies a berth on North Franklin, between Bienville and Iberville. The bar faces the street and opens, without screens, the full width of the part apportioned to it onto the street. At the lower end of the hall a stand has been erected for the music, about 12 feet above the dancing floor, and is connected with it by a small, narrow stairway. Here a negro band holds forth and from about 8 o'clock at night until 4 o'clock in the morning plays varied rags, conspicuous for being the latest in popular music, interspersed with compositions by the musicians themselves. The band has a leader who grotesquely prompts the various pieces, which generally constitute several brass pieces, a violin, guitar, piccolo, and a piano.
When the Tuxedo had changed from a brothel to a dance hall, the Parker brothers hired Manuel "Fess" Manetta, a well-respected piano player, to assemble the best band in the city. His choice of musicians included: Peter Bocage (vln), George Fihle (tb), Arnold Metoyer (tp), Luis "Papa" Tio (cl), Babb Frank (pic) and Nooky Johnson (ent). They strictly read from sheet music and didn't play by ear or improvise.
When Metoyer's health failed, the band went three weeks without a regular cornet player because they had to have a musician that could read music. They couldn't hire a non-reader, even if that non-reader was a good player like Manuel Perez.
Manetta recommended Oscar Celestin, who lived uptown, worked on the railroad, was a reader and had played with Jack Carey, the man who had developed the "Tiger Rag." George Fihle remembered working with Celestin in a parade and agreed with Manetta that he would be a good choice. So when Manetta and Babb Frank, thought to be the best piccolo player in the city, got off work at 3:00 p.m., they briefly went by the Big 25, another club located about a block up Franklin Street, and then on to Celestin's home to try and hire him. Celestin was agreeable and went to work at the Tuxedo Dance Hall the next night.
Manetta did his best to make Celestin's first night playing with the band easier. The band opened with "Kinklets," a Scott Joplin tune that Celestin had played with Jack Carey's band. The next song was "The Flowers that Bloom in the Spring," another tune Celestin knew. When the band quit for the night, Celestin took their written orchestrations home and practiced during the day.
In 1910, when Celestin was hired, the Tuxedo Dance Hall's house band consisted of Celestin (cnt), George Filhe (tb), Peter Bocage (vln), Lorenzo Tio Jr. (cl), T. Brouchard (b), Manuel Manetta (p) and Louis Cottrell (d). Celestin, a compelling vocalist and good all-around performer, was soon made leader of the band. Taking his inspiration from the name of the club, he started calling the band the Tuxedo Orchestra.
He was becoming a well-known personality, as reported in the New Orleans Daily Picayune: "The leader of the band at The Tuxedo was the pride of the house. Harry Lauder, Billy Van or George Evans never had anything on him in funny facial expressions or funny twists of the legs. When he led the band people stopped to watch his antics ..."
Competition between the various clubs was a given, and anything a band or bandleader could do to encourage more customers to walk through the door would not only add money to the tip jar, but it would also keep the club owner happy, thereby ensuring the band steady employment. Some other dance halls operating in the District between 1910 and 1913 and vying for a packed house each night were Fewclothes Cabaret on Basin Street, which featured Tig Chambers when he wasn't playing at the Big 25 on Franklin Street; the Globe Hall, where the Eagle Band played; Hanan's Cabaret on Liberty Street, which had Freddy Keppard and his Olympia Orchestra; and Manuel Perez at Rice's Café on Marais Street. You would find King Oliver at Huntz Cabaret on Liberty Street, Pete Lala's on Marais Street had the Bunk Johnson Band and over at the 101 Ranch Dance Hall on Franklin Street, which was owned by Billy Phillips, you could listen to the Silver Leaf Orchestra, with William "Bebe" Ridgley on trombone.CHAPTER 2
William "Bebe" Ridgley
William "Bebe" Ridgley was born on January 15, 1882, on Sundorn Road, in Metairie, Louisiana, near the present-day causeway in Jefferson Parish. Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans that is now congested with homes and vehicles, was nothing more than vast acres of farmland spotted with dairy farms and the occasional small cluster of wood-framed homes. The United States Census for 1900 lists Jefferson Parish having a total population of 15,321, while the bordering Orleans Parish had a population of 287,104.
There were thirteen children in the family, with William being the oldest of the two boys and two girls still living at home when his mother died while giving birth to twins. Both babies also died within days of being born. At the close of his first year in school, William had been promoted to the second grade, but with the sudden change to his family's situation, he felt that he should not return to school when classes started in the fall. He chose instead to go to work to help support the family. So at the age of ten, Ridgley found a job with a German family who owned a small grocery store a short walk from his home in what was still considered "the country" in Jefferson Parish.
The store's owner hired a lot of young workers, and the combination of a bunch of kids hanging around a quiet country store with little to do and a German family with a love of music living in an area where a musical career was well respected led to the inevitable — "Let's start a band!" Encouraged by the grocer, the young group of employees soon put together a band with a banjo, a clarinet, a cornet, drums and Ridgley's bass violin. The grocer, who believed in the importance of music lessons, hired James B. Humphrey, an established New Orleans trumpet player and music instructor, to teach his employees. Humphrey taught music to children in the city of New Orleans from his home at the corner of Valance and Liberty Streets. He also traveled by train to teach a weekly music lesson to the children of field hands on the Magnolia, Deer Range, Bell Aire and Ironton plantations.
He agreed to travel the short distance over the line into Jefferson Parish to teach the grocer's group. Every Sunday morning, Ridgley would take the grocer's two-wheeled spring cart to Liberty Street in New Orleans to pick up their music teacher, making it back to the grocery store for the band's 9:00 a.m. music lesson.
"Professor Jim" was known for his ability to teach a band fast and would bring a new piece of music each week with every instrument's part written out. He started them off with simple arrangements of familiar tunes, hymns they had grown up with and popular songs. As the band members progressed, their interests were more in marches rather than dance music. The dozen or so young fellows admired marching brass bands and wanted to form one.
Humphrey suggested to Ridgley that while he was a competent bass violin player, he might be better off learning the trombone, especially if his plan was to be in a marching brass band. So one night a week for about a year and a half, Ridgley made the trip to the Professor's Liberty Street home for a private lesson. In an interview with William Russell in 1959, Ridgley remembered the first tune he learned on the trombone was "Harmony Rag."
The German family that owned the store where he worked found a C.G. Conn one-valve trombone, which they purchased for $85.00 and gave to Ridgley as a gift. He progressed with the instrument and was soon glad he had made the switch as the band of youngsters started to get small jobs in the area.
The band at the store would practice most nights, which kept the place crowded all the time. Other local bands would make it a point to pass by the store on their way to their parades, funerals and house or club gigs. Bands coming from a distance on the way to New Orleans for a gig knew they'd get a friendly welcome at the store. Ridgley, whom the German family treated like one of their own, had the privilege of being able to take in the musicians he knew and give them a cool drink of water or some whiskey. The sound of a band travels pretty well in the relatively quiet countryside, and there would soon be a crowd listening to a few songs before the band continued on its way. It was a great situation all the way around. The store made extra sales, the bands played some advertising with hopes of future gigs, the locals had a place to hear music and the grocery store band was able to learn the music that was fresh and popular in their impromptu lessons from those traveling musicians.
Sometime around the turn of the century, Ridgley and his family moved across the parish line into Orleans Parish and made a home on General Ogden Street in the Carrollton area. The grocery store band started getting hired to play for some of the smaller white parties in the Carrollton area, and at one of those dances, Ridgley hired Buddy Bolden to play cornet. Bolden was living with some of his kin on Hillary Street in the Carrollton area. Ridgley didn't think Bolden could read music very well, but he thought he was a wonderful fellow with a style of his own.
It was and still is a common practice for musicians to have a nickname, not necessarily one they would choose for themselves but more frequently one chosen by their colleagues. Nicknames were most often inspired by a physical attribute, but they could be based on anything. One of Ridgley's sisters had always called him her baby. During the time they were playing in the Carrollton area Ridgley, with a little help from his band members, started going by "Bebe," pronounced "Baybay."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Original Tuxedo Jazz Band"
Copyright © 2013 Sally Newhart.
Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Bruce Boyd Raeburn 9
1 "Papa" Celestin Oscar 15
2 "Bebe" Ridgley William 20
3 New Orleans Music Culture 26
4 Murder at the Tuxedo Dance Hall 31
5 Tuxedos for the Tuxedo Jazz Band 35
6 Louis Armstrong 37
7 The Tuxedo Brass Band 41
8 Jazz Travels Riverboat 48
9 The Band, Baseball and Texas 54
10 The First Recordings: 1925 58
11 The Ridgley-Celestin Split 61
12 Celestin and the American Federation of Musicians Local 496, Colored 70
13 Recording Sessions: 1926-1928 76
14 The Depression and War Years 79
15 Comeback: 1940-1950s 86
16 On the Docks and at the White House 92
17 Celestin's Last Years 98
18 Two Leaders: Eddie Pierson and Sarah Celestin: 1954-1958 107
19 Albert Joseph "Papa" French: 1958-1977 111
20 Robert Thomas "Bob" French Sr.: 1977-2011 131
21 Recording and Touring and New Orleans 139
22 Adjusting after Hurricane Katrina 145
23 The Centennial Year: 2010 154
24 Gerald "The Giant" French 163
About the Author 223