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Papa Celestin

Date Posted: 2008-08-15

By Paige VanVorst
(There seems to be no end to the new things that keep appearing. This time out we’ve got a new CD featuring the legendary Papa Celestin, one of New Orleans’ most beloved bandleaders, and it is an extra bonus in that it gives us our first extended sample of the work of Adolphe “Tats” Alexander, a rarely -recorded reedman.
The material was unearthed in the mountain of tape George Buck acquired when he bought Joe Mares’ Southland label back in the 1960’s. We have barely scratched the surface in our Southland reissue program, but with interesting sessions like this turning up, Barry Martyn will probably dive into the tape archive with renewed energy.)
Oscar “Papa” Celestin was one of New Orleans’ most beloved musicians. He was not in the first rank as a trumpeter, but he was a good bandleader and a natural entertainer who personified New Orleans jazz to several generations. He moved with the times and led one of New Orleans best brass bands during the 1920s; in the 1930s he was touring the South leading a swing band, and from the mid-40’s until his death he joined the New Orleans Revival leading a “dixieland” band.
Oscar Celestin was born in Napoleonville LA on January 1, 1884, the youngest of thirteen children. His family were poor- his father worked as c sugar cane cutter on local plantations and the family moved back and forth between Napoleonville and Donaldsonville, which are both small towns in Assumption Parish, about thirty miles northwest of New Orleans.
As a youth he was interested in music and unsuccessfully tried to master the guitar and mandolin. His heart had been set on the trumpet ever since his father took him on board a Mississippi River showboat and he heard a jazz band. His dream finally came true when one of the plantations where his father worked gave him a battered trumpet for his son.
The youngster started practicing and before long he was playing with local groups at church and for neighborhood picnics and parties.
His mother wanted him to take a regular job rather than support himself as a musician, so he moved to St Charles LA when he was eighteen and worked for two years as a cook for the Texas and Pacific Railway. He continued his involvement with music, working on trumpet and trombone with a local brass band.
Celestin moved to New Orleans in 190 and settled into a job as a longshoreman. The city was full of young musicians at that time and Papa worked with most of them, working side by side with Joe Oliver, Jimmie Noone, Bunk Johnson and Jelly Roll Morton.
One of his associations was with the Allen Brass Band of Algiers. This was reportedly a rough-and-ready group, not a polished band like its contemporaries in New Orleans. It was full of stars, though- during Celestin’s period with the group it included future stars like Henry “Red” Allen, Peter Bocage, Jack Carey and Jimmy Palao. During this time he was also a regular in the Crescent Orchestra and took spot jobs with the Olympia Band.
He returned to the railroad in 1910 but that was short-lived, as he was offered a plum musical job- working in the band at the Tuxedo Dance Hall. The Tuxedo, at Franklin and Bienville, one of the few cabarets in Storyville with a full jazz band. Arnold Metoyer was the trumpeter until his health failed, and Celestin was given the job due to his long association with Manual Manetta, the band’s pianist- they’d been together in the Crescent Orchestra. Celestin flourished at the Tuxedo- he started to build a name for himself and he was soon the leader of the band.
The Tuxedo job came to a sudden end March 24, 1913 (Easter Sunday), when a feud between Harry Parker, manager of the Tuxedo and Billy Phillips, manager of the 101 Ranch, which was across the street. Storyville erupted in a hail of gunfire and both men were killed, and several bystanders were killed or injured. The police responded to the incident by permanently closing both clubs. Celestin was not working that night.
Celestin continued working, ultimately settling into a gig at the Villa Cafe. He was also active on the brass band scene during this period- he founded the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1911 and they were one of the most popular brass bands in New Orleans. They were a less formal brass band than most of the other groups of that era, playing hymns and popular songs instead of the marches the more formal groups featured.
Many great musicians worked with the Tuxedo Brass Band, including Louis Armstrong, who reportedly received that fateful letter from Joe Oliver inviting him to Chicago just after playing a funeral in Algiers with Celestin. The Tuxedo Brass Band continued until about 1925.
After the Tuxedo closed, Celestin became involved for a while with Armand Piron and Clarence Williams, who ran a music publishing company on Canal St in addition to their own bandleading activities. They organized a fabulous band for a proposed vaudeville tour- it included Williams, piano; Celestin, trumpet; Piron, violin; Bebe Ridgeley, trombone; Jimmie Noone, clarinet; and John Lindsay, bass. The group rehearsed and even took a couple of publicity photos, but there was a split between Williams and Piron and the group dissolved without ever appearing anywhere.
During this era, Celestin began working for the great families of New Orleans. He and Baba Ridgely decided to capitalize on the Tuxedo name and organize the Tuxedo Band, wearing (of course) tuxedos. This gave the band a distinctive style and opened the doors to a lot of society work. They got a lot of work at the Southern Yacht Club, the NEw Orleans Country Club, Tranchina’s Restaurant, Antoine`s and the Boston Club. Many of the band’s patrons from this era continued to hire Celestin for the rest of their lives- he entertained several generations of many of New Orleans’ elite families.
Celestin made his recording debut January 23, 1925, when Okeh Records brought their mobile recording equipment to New Orleans. Celestin usually had a second cornet in his band in those days, recognizing that he was not a strong jazz player. Having a hot second cornetist also helped the band with African-American audiences, as Celestin’s playing verged on the sentimental. For this session Celestin used Kid Shots Madison, and they work very well together, generating a sound not unlike King Oliver’s band.
There were four more Celestin recording sessions, for Columbia, on their visits to New Orleans in 1926, ‘27 and ‘29. The band changed over the period, the largest change in late 1925 when Celestin split with Bebe Ridgely, who had handled the Tuxedo Orchestra while Celestin managed the Tuxedo Brass Band. Several players left with Ridgely and Celestin recruited several new players, including Jeanette Salvant, piano, August Rousseau, trombone, and Earl Pierson, tenor sax.
The Celestin sides from the 1920s are fascinating- the band shows considerable improvement throughout the period, gradually adopting various arranging devices of the period as, by the time of the April 1927 session the band comprised ten pieces. Highlights of the Columbia sessions include My Josephine, a beautiful Paul Barnes composition that is still played by New Orleans groups, As You Like It, a run through the Sister Kate changes not unlike Jones and Collins Duet Stomp, and interesting sides like It’s Jam Up, a predecessor to Marie Laveau with beautiful cornet work from Celestin and Guy Kelly, and The Sweetheart of TKO, a jazzed-up version of a fraternity song. The latter proved to be a mistake for Celestin, as the fraternity (Tau Kappa Omega) were highly offended by his treatment of their theme song and refused to hire his band again. The Celestin Columbias also provide initial appearances for a number of players who were famous during the New Orleans Revival- Paul Barnes, Jeanette Kimball, Cie Frazier, Narvin Kimball and Abby ‘Chinee’ Foster.
The Celestin band began to travel during the late ’20’s and he barnstormed all over the Gulf States, and as he got into the 1930s he was leading what amounted to a conventional big band. One near miss for his band came in 1936 when he was reportedly booked to play a battle of the bands with Joe Oliver, who was down on his luck in Savannah, but Celestin never showed up and Oliver continued his decline. The Depression finally caught up with Celestin and he stopped touring and took a day job as a longshoreman, working putting together a band for weekend work.
The band continued as basically a swing-style unit, working locally in New Orleans. and he brought in some new musicians in the early 1940s, including Capt John Handy, Jimmy “Kid” Clayton, Octave Crosby and Wallace Davenport.
Disaster struck Celestin in 1944- while working as a welder at a shipyard he was struck by an out-of-control truck and suffered two severely broken legs, which never healed properly, leaving him with a limp; he spent almost a year in the hospital.
After about two years’ convalescence, his wife convinced him to try playing the trumpet again. He gradually learned to walk again and began practicing his trumpet and soon had a band organized- himself and Kid Shots Madison, trumpets, Alphonse Picou and Willie Humphrey, clarinet, “Black Happy” Goldston, drums, Leonard Mitchell, guitar, and Ricard Alexis, bass.
This group got relatively little work, but a year later Papa got a call from the National Jazz Foundation, a predecessor to the New Orleans Jazz Club, asking if he was interested in putting together a band. He made a few phone calls and had his band ready for an audition. He got the job and the rest is history-
Celestin returned to the recording studios in 1947 with a four-tune session for Deluxe. The tunes included My Josephine, Eh La Bas, Marie Laveau and Maryland My Maryland. The group included Bill Mathews (trombone), Alphonse Picou (clarinet), Paul Barnes (alto sax), Sam Lee (tenor sax), Mercedes Fields (piano), Ricard Alexis (bass), Harrison Verret (guitar) and Black Happy Goldston (drums).
He was also working on new compositions- he told an interviewer in 1948 that he had three new tunes- Atomic Control, Papa Celestin’s Hop and Trying to Get Along, though all three appear to have vsnished without a trace.
The band began working on Bourbon Street appearing at the Paddock Lounge, the Mardi Gras and the Famous Door. Celestin also became a popular feature on the radio- DJ Roger Wolfe had a regular show on WDSU, a battle of the bands format including Celestin, Sharkey Bonano, the Dukes of Dixieland, Paul Barbarin and others. Numerous airshots of these broadcasts were been issued over the years, including several on the CD being issued currently.
Celestin’s fame rose sharply over the next several years- in addition to his continuous club dates, he made appearances at concerts sponsored by the New Orleans Jazz Club, he recorded again in 1950 for Wolfe’s New Orleans Bandwagon label. He obtained a lucrative permanent gig with the Mississippi shipping Company, playing on the docks to serenade passengers on incoming and outgoing cruise ships. He was close to becoming a trademark for the City of New Orleans.
The endless rounds of work tired him out and he decided to take it easy in 1951. He left his band at the Paddock under the leadership of Bill Mathews and went to California to rest up. While in California he looked up his old friend Kid Ory and got a four-week booking with Ory’s band at the Beverly Caverns.
The two old friends, who hadn’t played together in at least thirty years, got along like oil and water. Ory was used to being the leader and resented everything Celestin suggested, and of course, Celestin deemed himself an expert on bandleading based on his very successful comeback. And, of course, he’d led his own groups for forty years.
Joe Darensbourg said he was resting between sets when he heard a ruckus in the kitchen. He headed there to see what was going on and caught sight of Ory running around the kitchen, waving a meat cleaver at the rapidly-departing Celestin.
When Celestin returned to New Orleans he had to get a new band. His old group, now under the leadership of Bill Mathews, left the Paddock when Celestin returned from New Orleans and opened at the Mardi Gras Lounge- that band included Alvin Alcorn (trumpet), Alphonse Picou (clarinet), Mathews (trombone), Joe Robichaux (piano) and Black Happy Goldston (drums). Celestin’s new band included himself (trumpet), Eddie Pierson (trombone), Joe “Cornbread” Thomas (clarinet), Adolphe Alexander (alto sax), Jeanette Kimball (piano), Albert “Papa” French (banjo), Sidney “Jim Little” Brown Porter (bass) and Cie Frazier (drums), and they continued at the Paddock for some time, though Celestin still had spells of poor health and spent periods resting.
Papa Celestin’s proudest moment came May 8, 1953, when he and his band were flown to Washington DC for an appearance at the annual banquet of the White House Correspondents’ Association, reportedly the first African-American band to be so honored. Papa got the shake the hand of President Dwight Eisenhower, who stated, “Mr. Celestin, you are a fine gentleman and a credit to your race and country.” Celestin proclaimed it the “proudest moment of my life.” A commemorative recording of the event was issued (in a limited edition of one hundred copies).
Later in 1953, Celestin got a chance to appear on the big screen. Cinerama was the 1950s equivalent of IMAX, a system involving three synchronized projectors which provided a panoramic effect. The movies were basically travelogues, with eye-popping shots of scenery from all over the world. There was usually a new Cinerama movie each year and they were shown in special theaters equipped with the three-projector system and special screens.
Cinerama Holiday included spectacular footage of the Celestin band playing a t the Absinthe House, their current gig. The band was about the same as before except that Ricard Alexis (trumpet) and Emmanuel Paul (tenor sax) were added.
Two sides from the film were issued on Columbia, giving Celestin one of the best paydays he ever had.
Papa took his band into the Southland studios for his last recording, Papa Celestin’s Golden Wedding, commemorating his fifty years as a trumpeter. Joe Mares wanted something that would really sell, and asked Papa to play the tunes he’d had the most requests for over his bandleading career- he chose Down By the Riverside, When the Saints Go Marching In, Marie Laveau and Oh Didn’t He Ramble. Celestin was not in good health and Mares had him stretch out the numbers so he’d have enough to fill an album as he was sure he’d never get him in the studios again. In fact, Papa never played another note of music after he walked out of the studio after that session. He died at home December 15, 1954 at the age of 71.
His funeral was one of the largest in New Orleans history. An estimated ten thousand people lined twelve city blocks to view the procession, which included both the Eureka and Tuxedo Brass Band.In keeping with New Orleans traditions, they played Just a Closer Walk With Thee upon leaving the church and Oh Didn’t He Ramble upon leaving the cemetery.
Ironically, a bust of Celestin had been commissioned- the dedication was scheduled for December 15, the day he died. The bust, by sculptor Rai Granier Murray, and paid for by the New Orleans Jazz Club, was placed in the Latter Memorial Library.
The Celestin band continued until the present- immediately after his death it was led by trombonist Eddie Pierson and it subsequently was led by banjoist Papa French. Under French it became the prime attraction at Dixieland Hall and recorded extensively for their Nobility label. The band is currently led by French’s son, drummer Bob French.
Papa Celestin was a relatively limited trumpeter who made the most of his modest gifts- he was an outstanding bandleader and ingratiated himself to several generations of New Orleans’ upper crust. Some musicians accused him of being an Uncle Tom due to the amount of old-time New Orleans hokum in some of his performances, but he was basically playing the hand he was dealt- people expected most of the facial contortions and hand-clapping and he was just giving them what they wanted, which assured his survival as a bandleader for several generations.
He always led good bands and he became a beloved New Orleans institution during his seven-year comeback. We’re glad to have the opportunity to issue a previously-unknown Southland session from April 28, 1954 along with some airshots from 1950 which have not yet appeared on CD.


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