Bob French, Original Tuxedo Jazz Band Leader and Popular Radio Host, Dies at 74
Drummer Robert “Bob” French Sr., former leader of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band and a popular radio show host on WWOZ (New Orleans), died Nov. 12 after a long illness. He was 74.
French, who was known for his outspoken demeanor and controversial opinions, was a prominent link to the rich history of New Orleans and a fixture within its vast musical community. As a child, he took drumming lessons and, in high school, organized a group whose members consisted of then-rising stars such as James Booker, Art Neville, Charles Neville, Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste. The group’s first gig in 1954 was a strong indication of French’s initial rejection of traditional New Orleans jazz in favor of a more contemporary r&b sound. He’d later record with Earl King, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew in the 1960s.
The century-old Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, which French led from 1977–2011, was founded in 1910 by Oscar “Papa” Celestin. Throughout its existence, the cohort would undergo several personnel changes. French’s father, banjo player Albert “Papa” French, led the Tuxedo Jazz Band throughout the 1950s following Celestin’s death, and initially recruited his son as a sit-in for the group’s ill drummer.
“I went on the gig, and all these great people were on it, such as Frank Fields on the bass, Jeanette Kimball on piano, my daddy on banjo and Waldren ‘Frog’ Joseph playing trombone,” French said in the cover story for the September 2006 issue of DownBeat. “I was surrounded by these giants, and I couldn’t play shit. The guys on the front line were laughing their asses off. I scuffled and made it through. I was so embarrassed that I was living in the house with my daddy all those years and I did not know the music that he made a living off of, and that fed me.”
It was during this time that French shifted his focus to the study of traditional jazz, and in 1977 he inherited the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band from his father. As the leader of the group, French was a stickler for musical perfection and good behavior. During his nearly 25-year tenure, he was responsible for drastically expanding the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band’s repertory. He also restored the band’s place on Bourbon Street in 2009 through a regular Monday-night residency at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse after a few failed attempts elsewhere.
French’s eclectic and sometimes erratic musical tastes also translated to his popular morning radio show on WWOZ. His musical-programming decisions changed day to day but often revolved around New Orleans artists such as Louis Armstrong and Dr. John. Additionally, French would often rant about politics, current events and controversial issues. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, French used the radio station as a platform to target elected officials he believed were responsible for the downtrodden state of New Orleans. Still, he was well known throughout the musical community and he accrued a bevy of local fans and collaborators, such as Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., who remained avid supporters of French up until his death.
In 2007, Marsalis and Connick appeared on French’s album Marsalis Music Honors Bob French (Marsalis Music) and performed with the drummer at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The tribute album was one of the most successful of French’s career.
French’s last performance with the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band was in the summer of 2011, after which he stepped down as leader due to health issues, including Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes-related complications. The group was subsequently taken over by his nephew, Gerald French.
The Crescent City is mourning French’s death and continues to recognize his place as a celebrated figure and profound influence on New Orleans music. “Rest in Peace to a New Orleans legend, Mr. Bob French,” tweeted Big Easy-based brass band The Soul Rebels.
He is survived by two brothers, George and Albert French, and four children.