As the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches, Joe Frank Lastie Jr. is ramping up his mission to preserve New Orleans’s traditional music, a.k.a. jazz. Lastie, a master drummer, is a member of one of New Orleans’s beloved musical families, the Lasties, whose musical legacy includes original compositions and performances of New Orleans traditional music, rhythm and blues, and gospel music. Today, Lastie preserves the music and keeps his mission alive with his band, Joe Lastie’s New Orleans Sound.
Lastie was born in New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz—America’s first indigenous music. His familial roots lead him to not only love and play New Orleans’s sounds, but also to preserve the music for future generations.
For the past 40 years, Lastie has worked daily to preserve New Orleans music. Right after high school, Lastie began playing music on Bourbon Street and in the French Quarter. Performances with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, his work as a member of the Preservation Hall Foundation, his gigs at the Maison Bourbon Jazz Club, and years of touring nationally and internationally provide rare opportunities for the music preservationist to perform, inform, and educate.
“I’ve been on the road with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for 27 years,” says Lastie. “My band plays at Preservation Hall and I’m a member of the Preservation Hall Foundation, which is dedicated to the education of music and outreach at schools and all over the world.”
While New Orleans is credited with being the birthplace of jazz, most New Orleans musicians refer to the genre as “traditional music.” Known for creating New Orleans’s modern jazz, pianist and music professor Ellis Marsalis once said, “We don’t call it jazz, we call it traditional music.”
Lastie’s desire to preserve New Orleans’s traditional music comes at a critical time, when upcoming New Orleans musicians are fusing traditional and contemporary sounds—creating new genres of music like jazz-funk, jazz/R&B, jazz-rap, and other music forms.
“When people come to hear my band, Joe Lastie’s New Orleans Sound, they say, ‘That’s the sound we’ve come here to hear,’” he says of the thousands of tourists who come to the music mecca of American music.
“When you hear that beat, New Orleans you’ll greet,” Lastie says, laughing softy about his favorite song, “When the Saints Go Marching In.” “I love that song because we used to play that in church,” Lastie explains. The song is bittersweet for him, however, because his uncle Walter “Popee” Lastie died while they played that song on Royal Street.
Joe Lastie’s New Orleans Sound featuring “Kid Merv” is slated to perform at the Satchmo SummerFest, August 5, on the Coronet Chop Suey Stage in the French Quarter. Trumpeter Mervin Campbell is one of Lastie’s protégés. “He’s helping me to preserve our New Orleans jazz,” Lastie explains.
In early August, Lastie will release Jazz Corner of the World, an 11-track CD by Joe Lastie’s New Orleans Sound. “This CD is dedicated to the preservation of our own jazz traditions,” Lastie explains. “I wanted to keep my music as traditional as possible.”
The CD features seminal New Orleans traditional music, including jazz, gospel, and Mardi Gras Indian chants. Among the songs are “Just A Closer Walk with Thee,” “What a Wonderful World,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and a special tribute to his love for New Orleans post- Hurricane Katrina, “New Orleans in Me.”
New Orleanians and many around the world remember where they were on August 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina, a 100-year storm, broke levees, flooded the city, killed thousands, and created a flashpoint in humanity that will never be forgotten. Lastie was in Atlanta celebrating his birthday when Katrina hit. He lost a cousin and an uncle in the storm.
“New Orleans in Me,” a Lastie original, features Big Chief David Peters Montana of the Washitaw Nation, a Mardi Gras Indian group that preserves the centuries-old union between Louisiana’s first nation tribes and Africans, who escaped slavery to live in safety with America’s indigenous people. The song is Lastie’s love letter to New Orleans and speaks to the survival of the city in spite of Hurricane Katrina. “Twelve years gone and it’s a better day,” Lastie sings on his “New Orleans in Me” track.
“My beloved Lower 9 was gone. I was sad, but I went through Hurricane Betsy in 1965. I was in the attic as a child but I survived Betsy,” says Lastie, a lifelong Lower 9 resident. “It was always in my mind that we’d come back after Katrina,” he continues. Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Preservation Hall reached out to Lastie in Atlanta and asked him to play in New York for a Preservation Hall Foundation fundraiser. After traveling back and forth to New Orleans, Lastie moved back home in 2007.
Also in August 2017, Lastie will tour Russia with Joe Lastie’s New Orleans Sound. In September 2017, Lastie will embark on an American tour, which will feature the Blind Boys of Alabama and New Orleans’s Queen of Soul, Irma Thomas.
Lastie cut his teeth on traditional music under the tutelage of his grandfathers and parents. Grandfather Frank Lastie introduced gospel drums to the Spiritual Church. “My grandfather played with Louis Armstrong in the Waif’s Home Band [Milne Boys Home)] and my other grandfather, Emile Desvigne, also played drums,” he relates. His father, Joseph Frank Lastie Sr., played saxophone. His grandmother, Alice Lastie, was his spiritual adviser and bought Lastie his first set of drums. Grandmother Beatrice Desvigne was also a spiritual adviser in the church. Sidney Desvigne, the cousin of his mother, Eugenia Desvigne Lastie, was a famous New Orleans trumpeter. Lastie is the only son among four sisters: Jean, Cynthia, Alice, and Cheryl.
The Lastie family includes many well-known musicians who played several musical genres, including Lastie’s uncles: drummer Walter “Popee” Lastie, saxophonist David Lastie, Sr., and trumpeter Melvin Lastie. Betty Lastie Williams played organ and piano in the church; cousin Herlin Riley is a drummer who performed with Wynton Marsalis for nearly two decades before forming his own band. His cousin Arian Macklin is a tuba player, and singer Jessie Hill is grandfather to trumpeter James Andrews and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.
At age 7, Joe Lastie Jr. began playing drums at the Israelite Spiritual Church. In 1969, Lastie and his parents moved to Long Island, New York. While others went to the local library to check out books, Lastie borrowed the albums of New Orleans’s greats, including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Louis Armstrong, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Allen Toussaint, and others. Later in life, he would play with those iconic musicians, including Louis Armstrong on a Preservation Hall recording where the band played along to a filmed performance by Armstrong. He also took drumming lessons from Clyde Harrison, a New York-based jazz drummer.
“There were doors open in New York [to advance musically] but I wanted my New Orleans experience. I wanted to be with the creators,” Lastie explains. Carrying only a brown paper bag, just before his senior year in high school, he returned to New Orleans and moved in with his grandparents, Alice and Frank Lastie.
At Carver High School, Lastie studied music under Yvonne Bush. He recalls going to her house and playing jam sessions with Professor Longhair and Lastie’s uncle, Jessie Hill. He played at Tipitina’s nightclub with them. He also attended the Academy of Black Arts run by famed jazz pianist Willie Metcalf, who appeared in the movie Ray as the young pianist’s mentor.
Fellow students at the academy were Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, and Donald Harrison. He remembers being a part of a funk band with Wynton and Branford and playing music on a float in a Mardi Gras parade with Branford. Although the Marsalises, Blanchard, and other contemporaries left the city to advance their careers, Lastie stayed home.
His recording career includes collaborations with the Desire Community Choir, Antoine Domino Jr. (Fats Domino’s son), the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and renowned trumpeter Wallace Davenport, among others.
Lastie’s most cherished recording experience, however, was a 2010 gospel CD he produced in conjunction with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Lastie Family Gospel featured cousin Leon Vaughn, an organist; his Aunt Betty, pianist; and family friend and pianist Ricky Monie. His Aunt Betty, he noted, was featured on the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highway TV Show. “Ricky, Leon, and Betty were pioneers of New Orleans gospel. I wanted that spiritual feeling,” he says. They rocked out to “I’ll Fly Away,” he adds. “If I hadn’t recorded them their sound would have been lost. That was very special.”