[Jaunathan Gagnon/Unsplash]

New Orlean's Longest Running Musicians

00:00 November 25, 2013
By: Emily Hingle

Saying that New Orleans loves its musicians and that musicians love New Orleans would not scratch the surface of their symbiotic relationship; they just couldn't do without each other. Some people come here to begin a musical career, just hoping to end up like those who are still enjoying performing after many decades, and many of the elder statesmen of our music scene have a lot to say about the state of the live music industry in the city, past and present.

A cornerstone of our music history is the legendary R&B and rock n' roll Mecca Cosimo Mattasa's recording studio, and bassist George French, frontman of The George French Quartet, was invited to jam on iconic songs, like many other talented people of the mid-century. "[Cosimo's studio] was great; I got to see some people I had only heard about," says French. He has been performing live in New Orleans long enough to have seen the difference that musicians' unions made for working players. "Here in this town, there's an infl ux of youngsters taking this business to an all-time low; they're working for nothing. I get a lot of calls, but don't get any calls back because I have to pay the guys in the band. That's truly ridiculous. I'm just lucky to have this gig at the Monteleone Hotel every Thursday at 8:30, which is one of the best gigs in town. It's pretty wonderful," states French. George French has a message for these young musicians who feel that promotion is worth more than payment: "Technology is nice, but I think a lot of people are getting ripped off. I'm hoping things change. Don't go out there and work for nothing; you're worth more than nothing."

The incredibly recognizable and stylish Deacon John Moore was heavily involved with the musicians' union during the 1960s, but recalls how his musical upbringing and education also led to his long career. "When I was born, my mother said that out of all her thirteen children, I cried the loudest. She cut my nails under a fi g tree because there was an old Creole saying about if you cut a child's nails under a fi g tree, he would grow up to become a singer. I don't know if it's just coincidence or destiny. My mother was the valedictorian of the fi rst graduating class of Xavier University; she stressed excellence in education. But when I was in high school, the priest said, 'Musicians ain't nothing but bums and alcoholics. What do you want to do something like that for, a guy with your brains? You could be a credit to your race!' I couldn't help it; I had a genetic predisposition," tells Moore. He learned how to play guitar from rock n' roll songs like Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog" on the small radio he snuck in his house, and his education was supplemented by his neighbors. "I used to go to some of the elder musicians Deacon in the community; they would show the young people all the hip stuff. I came up under the tutelage of some of the really famous guitar players like Justin Adams, Roy Montrell, and Papoose Nelson," explains Moore.

Moore recalls another popular practice of the day: "Before television, nobody knew what musicians looked like, so there were all these phony groups going out impersonating them and taking gigs, especially in little country towns. They would advertise Shirley & Lee and Shirley & Spice would take the stage. Television destroyed all that." Deacon John vividly remembers how segregation affected his higher education and nighttime entertainment. "We couldn't go to the white clubs, and they couldn't come to the black clubs because there was a mingling statute. There was a period before the Civil Rights laws came into effect where white college students blatantly violated the law and went to black night clubs because they thought it was hip; they called it slumming. I went to LSUNO when it was newly integrated, but there were still a lot of white people who didn't like that. I got off the bus to go to school, and people were picketing and chanting. They were throwing rocks. The school cafeteria was still segregated" remembers Moore.

The multi-talented musician, composer/arranger, and educator Harold Batiste made a point of passing on his musical knowledge throughout his career in the studio and on stage. He began his musical career at home and in the church. "The city has changed exponentially. Everybody had a piano in their front room; I could pick the melody out on the piano. My second big thing was I got to sing in the choir. At Christmas, we had to sing "We Three Kings." All the folks carried on so much about me, and I said I like this. My mother wanted me to be a doctor, but my daddy went to a pawn shop and got me a clarinet because a little boy in the neighborhood already had a clarinet," says Battiste. His mother insisted that he get the best education by attending schools of her choice which weren't in their neighborhood. "When I went to high school at Gilbert Academy, I got in the band. The band director was a wonderful guy, and a lot of important people came out of that band, so it was a worthy experience. I wanted to go to Southern University because all my buddies from the project were going there. But my mother wanted me at Dillard, and I'm glad I went there because I had a wonderful education," recalls Battiste. Harold Battiste was also a regular player at Mattasa's studio and remembers their innovative air-conditioning system. "They had air-conditioning in the fl oor. He had a big, plastic pipe and they would put a block of ice in it," says Battiste.

Harold Battiste eventually taught his craft at UNO when the Jazz Studies program was just starting.

It was there that his protégé Jesse McBride came under his tutelage, and continues to spread Battiste's legacy by releasing music in his honor and has taken over Battiste's musical project called The Next Generation that highlights young jazz talent. Like Battiste, McBride was directed by his mother to attend a specifi c school for the music program. "She had a plan for me," says McBride, and Battiste replies to him, "You did wonderful; I think you made your mother proud." McBride continues their story: "Amazingly, he allowed me to come get his saxophone out. I would play some wrong chords and he would laugh at me. Then he would sit at the piano and correct every chord very slowly." Like George French, Harold Battiste believes strongly in the power of musicians' unions. "Unions protect musicians. It's gotten to the point where you've got to be a real gangster to stay working; I hate to say that," says Battiste.

Centurion Lionel Ferbos may be 102 years old (born 1911), but thoroughly enjoys playing his trumpet at the Palm Court Jazz Café, Jazz Fest, and the Nickel-a-Dime Dance as much as he always has. Ferbos was not a career musician; he was a tinsmith, often pulling a cart of tools from the 7 th Ward to Audubon Park and back, and performed on the side while taking night classes at Xavier. No one in his neighborhood even knew he was a musician until he performed more regularly after retirement. He also worked at City Park digging out stumps for the Works Progress Administration during The Great Depression. Ferbos was inspired to perform after attending Phil Spitlany's All-Girl Orchestra at the Orpheum Theater, but was discouraged from wind instruments by his parents because he suffered from asthma. "My mother wanted me to take up the banjo," says Ferbos, and he purchased his fi rst instrument, a used cornet, at pawn shop on South Rampart Street. Ferbos claims that "New Orleans has changed completely; everything." "There were no overpasses. Roads were dirt, then gravel, and fi nally paved streets. My daddy had a shop in the Quarter on Chartres, and he used a horse and wagon," explains Ferbos. During his life, the lakefront had a slew of lively nightclubs that were often more racy than French Quarter clubs. "There used to be camps on the Lakefront. I played music for $1 a night at Mama Louis and The Happy Landing," says Ferbos.

These musicians and all of New Orleans' oldest citizens have watched their city change from a European-founded port town to a bustling, vibrant modern city, and they only want the best for the heirs to our cultural throne: success, and the payment and respect that they deserve for their art.

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