Dominic Massa / Eyewitness News
Bob French, a popular jazz drummer and former bandleader of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, who also hosted a freewheeling radio show on WWOZ, has died. He was 74.
French had been ailing in recent years, and retired after he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
Prior to his retirement, French had been living in Musicians’ Village and remained active until his retirement, as a frequent performer in Frenchmen Street clubs and at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta.
"RIP Bob French," Mayfield tweeted on Monday afternoon.
French was a living, though often outspoken, link to New Orleans’ musical history, most notably in his work with the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, which he led from 1977 until 2011.
On his WWOZ morning radio show, he could be irascible and unpredictable, often diverting from the music to discuss politics, chat with friends or rant about an issue that caught his attention. He also played whatever music struck his fancy, from Louis Armstrong to Dr. John.
"This show gives me the chance to play what I think is cool," French told Times-Picayune music writer Keith Spera in 2007. "Some people call and say, 'You're not playing any traditional jazz.' Well, it's my show. I can do whatever…I want.'"
Although French could be cantankerous, he had the respect of musicians who followed in his footsteps. In 2007, Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. performed with French on a tribute album. In 2010, French performed at the White House as a member of Connick’s band.
Reaction from other musicians on Twitter showed his influence throughout the city.
"Rest in Peace to a New Orleans legend, Mr. Bob French," tweeted the Soul Rebels Brass Band. The Tuxedo Brass Band echoed that with a tweet saying, "R.I.P. Bob French gone but not forgotten thank you for everything!"
Last summer, after picking up a regular gig at Mayfield’s Bourbon Street club, French stepped down as leader of the Tuxedo Jazz Band due to his failing health.
The band, founded in 1910 by jazz great Oscar “Papa” Celestin, was later led by French’s father, banjo player Albert “Papa” French. Bob French’s nephew Gerald took over as the fifth bandleader of the group. Gerald's father, George French, who was Bob's brother, is also a well-known local jazz musician.
As a child, French took drumming lessons from Louis Barbarin and organized an R&B band in high school whose members included James Booker, Art Neville, Charles Neville, Kidd Jordan and Alvin Batiste.
In the 1960s, French recorded with Earl King, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, who was a relative on his mother’s side.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.