Harry Connick Jr., Branford Marsalis lead tribute to the late Bob French

Publication: The Times-Picayune
Author: Keith Spera
Date: December 5, 2012

Among other, sometimes less flattering designations, Bob French was considered the unofficial mayor of the Musicians’ Village. In November, he also became the first of its residents to die.

On the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 4, Harry Connick Jr., Branford Marsalis and their manager, Ann Marie Wilkins, the trio who championed the construction of the Musicians’ Village after Hurricane Katrina, hosted a private memorial concert for French, the longtime leader and drummer of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band and an especially colorful WWOZ-FM deejay.

Over the decades, French mentored scores of young musicians, including Connick and Marsalis. After their success and fame had far surpassed that of their mentor, they returned the favor.In 2007, they both appeared on a French album released nationally by Marsalis’ record label, Marsalis Music; they also joined him onstage at that year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, shining a bit of their star wattage his way.

Connick’s and Marsalis’s friendship with French was rooted in music, but extended well beyond it. Shortly after French’s passing, Connick posted a statement online that read in part, “He was, and always will be, one of my greatest friends and greatest influences. Were it not for Bob, his kindness and mentorship, I would not be the musician I am today.”

Marsalis offered a similar online tribute. “Bob was an amazing musician, with very strong opinions. When it comes to music, he was always more right than he was wrong. Because I had the mentality that focused on the message, regardless of the delivery, I am a better musician because of him. I will miss the man, and the musician greatly.”

The duo’s affection for French – their jocular relationship involved the frequent and robust exchange of good-natured insults and ribald jokes – was evident during Tuesday’s memorial at the Ellis Marsalis Center for Music, the community center at the heart of the Musicians’ Village.

Connick, who is also in town for the launch of “Sunshine by the Stars: Celebrating Louisiana Music,” a PBS documentary he narrates, served as the informal program’s genial emcee, a “bittersweet pleasure” for him.

In front of several dozen Village residents and invited guests, he opened the program at a piano, paired with Marsalis on alto saxophone for a gorgeous “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Bob’s brother George then joined them on bass. George’s son Gerald French, who assumed leadership of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band after deteriorating health forced his Uncle Bob to step down in the summer of 2011, took a seat at the drums.

Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack eased onto the stage to salute French, whom he called a “character of the off-da-hook order.”

Connick confided that, “We’re not sure what we’re going to do or how we’re going to do it, but we’ll figure it out.” Rebennack took up a guitar to lead the all-star band in Earl King’s “Mama & Papa,” with its refrain of “everything will be real fine.”

And so it went for an hour. Ellen Smith, an alumnus of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, lofted a lovely “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” augmented by simpatico Connick and Marsalis solos. At the end, Smith and Connick set the song down gently.

Connick credited the three ladies of vocal group Solid Harmony for bringing “class and beauty” to the otherwise male-dominated dressing room. After they harmonized on a spry “Basin Street Blues,” he gushed, “Where have you been all my life? I love Branford and Dr. John, but that’s the best thing we’ve heard all afternoon.”

The unfailingly enthusiastic Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, like French a Musicians’ Village resident, made clear to Connick that he would accompany himself on piano for “Carnival Time.” “He said, ‘I got it,’” Connick recounted, before joking to Johnson, “I’ll be over here.”

Calvin Johnson traded licks with Marsalis in a saxophone workout. Trombonist Steven Walker joined in for a glorious “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

In her address, Wilkins recalled spending hours by French’s bedside as he faded away in various assisted living facilities over the past year. During the long campaign to raise money to build the Musicians’ Village, he had served as the project’s poster child, often posing for advertisements and articles. He was always willing to work, Wilkins said, to rise early for yet another morning TV show or photo shoot.

Though she thought of him as a “kind and gentle giant,” she, and others, acknowledged his curmudgeonly reputation. When Wilkins arranged for French and several other New Orleans musicians to back Connick at the White House, a Google search by the Secret Service raised some red flags. The Secret Service was concerned that French “seemed to have issues,” Wilkins said.

But she vouched for him, and he was eventually cleared for the White House visit. He apparently enjoyed meeting the First Lady as much, if not more, than President Obama, offering an admiring “Mmm, mmm, mmm after she left the room.

Upon learning that WWOZ program director Dwayne Breashears would speak at Tuesday’s event, Marsalis said his first thought was, “Is that the dude Bob punched in the mouth?” (It wasn’t. The altercation that resulted in French being removed from the air involved a fellow WWOZ deejay.)

 Breashears struggled to find a French story he could still tell with children in the room. He concluded that “without Bob, WWOZ would not be what it is.”

And as for all those tales about French, Breashears claimed they were not 100 percent true.

Maybe 97 percent true, Marsalis chimed in.

After the memorial, guests dined on a buffet set out in the Music Center’s lobby. Fried food isn’t generally served to students at the center – the focus is on healthier fare – but an exception was made for French’s beloved fried chicken.

He would have approved of the evening’s menu and music.