Freddie Lonzo: A Definitive Biography By Alison Fensterstock
Growing up in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, trombonist Freddie Lonzo remembers, brass-band parades could roll down your street at any time.
“Not necessarily on Sundays, it could have been any day,” he said. “You know, in New Orleans, almost any day you’re going to bump into some music somewhere, some band playing, marching, or just standing on the street.”
Sometimes, he said, it seemed like music was behind every door. Playing football in the street with his friends, close to the corner of Third and Danneel, Freddie could hear everything from praise music to wild jazz coming through the neighboring walls. The great drummer Ed Blackwell rehearsed with a combo in a house down the street, he recalled. On another corner, tambourine and voices in harmony rang out from a sanctified church. “Where I grew up, it’s like, if you take the four corners, you’re going to see three bars and a church,” he said.
Freddie Lonzo is the youngest of three brothers. His father, a mechanic, and his mother, a homemaker, had rented a trombone from Werlein’s Music Store for their middle son to play. To Freddie’s chagrin, his big brother never let him touch the horn - but when the older boy went off to college in Mississippi, he got his chance.
“I said, leave the horn here. Don’t send it back to Werlein’s. I’ll mess around on it, you know.” Freddie was about 14 years old then, he said, and he was a quick learner on the instrument. Mercedes Stamps, an attentive band teacher at Carter G. Woodson Middle School slotted him into her advanced group of brass students and spent extra time bringing him up to speed. Working alone in a practice room to catch up, he listened through the wall to the regular school concert band, and played along.
By the time he got to Walter L. Cohen High School, where he studied with band director Solomon Spencer – who also worked as entertainment director at Lincoln Beach, the African-American entertainment center on Lake Pontchartrain during segregation – he was skilled enough to fill the role of first-chair trombone as well as join a teenage funk band called the Ecstatics. That led to meeting Paul Batiste, a guitar player who, along with his brothers, was forming up his own funk group. Freddie Lonzo became a trombonist for the Gladiators, who eventually changed their name to the Batiste Brothers Band and still perform today. (In 1970, the Gladiators released the collectors’ favorite “Funky Soul Parts 1&2” on record impresario Isaac Bolden’s Soulin’ label.)
Christmas Day was special. “Almost every Christmas,” he said, “you’d get skates and you’d get bicycles, but they always had some type of plastic instrument, saxophone or trumpet.” On the holiday, the family would make their way to a cousin’s house on Third and Claiborne.
“They had a piano in the house, and my cousin also played saxophone and his sister sang a little bit,” he said. “Christmas was always, ‘We got to learn this instrument, because when we get over there we’re going to have to play.” His uncle also played the saxophone, but the family jam was only part of the draw; Lonzo’s aunt also collected records, and it was at their home that he remembers first listening to Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughn, Stan Kenton and Lionel Hampton, among others. “The whole family would be sitting around, just listening to the record,” he said.
Freddie Lonzo developed his own holiday ritual, as well. On New Year’s Eve, he’d take his horn out to the porch, in the dark, and play “Auld Lang Syne.”
“By myself,” he explained. “I used to stand on the porch and play it as strong as I could. And every now and then I see somebody that’s my brother’s age – he’s about 70 now – and they remember that, they say, ‘I remember you used to stand out on the porch and play ‘Auld Lang Syne.’”
As a young musician, Freddie Lonzo also played in marching ensembles. His first parading gig, in junior high, was with the E. Gibson Brass Band, based out of the Magnolia Housing Projects and run, at that time, by brothers Don and Ed Lee White. He also played with McNeil Breaux’s Apollo Brass Band, Doc Paulin’s Brass Band (“He was the Danny Barker of Uptown,” Lonzo said) and at Carnival parades with Irish Channel walking clubs like the venerable Jefferson City Buzzards. He yearned to emulate trombonists like Wendell Eugene and Waldron “Frog” Joseph, and he worked hard. By 11th grade, he was invited to play with Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band, a training ground for many future New Orleans players of renown, many of whom would, as well, go on to play at Preservation Hall. (Lonzo intersected with other future Preservation Hall-affiliated players as a youth, too; he took lessons from Maynard Chatters, and was briefly bandmates with Frank Oxley on one of his many side gigs)
The Olympia kept him busy. “We did a lot of work with the Jolly Boys Social Aid and Pleasure Club,” he said. “They would parade all damn day.”
Playing with the Gladiators during high school kept Freddie Lonzo even busier. It was the late ‘60s, and funk, as played by new groups like the Meters, the Gladiators, the Gaturs and the Fabulous Phantoms, just to name a few, was the evolving sound of the city. At a talent show, the Gladiators won a spot sharing the bill with the Temptations; they also played on shows with acts like Wilson Pickett and Bobby Womack and made the rounds of local stages like the Nitecap, the Devil’s Den and the Dungeon. Once, they played a flamboyant gay Carnival ball.
Freddie graduated from high school in 1968 and tried college, spending a year each at Dillard, Xavier and Southern universities. “It just wasn’t for me,” he said. “Then I went to the school of Bourbon Street.”
Freddie worked briefly as a busboy at the Woolworth’s on Canal and Bourbon Street, a job for which he quickly discovered he was ill-suited. Luckily, in the early ‘70s, an Olympia bandmate recommended him for a job playing at a club called Your Father’s Mustache, in the 400 block of Bourbon Street. It was part of a chain where the waiters were encouraged to act up as comic relief for customers who came to drink huge steins of beer and eat peanuts, whose shells they could toss on the ground. The band wore string ties, red-and-white-striped vests and straw hats, and played old-timey “Gay Nineties-style” songs, Freddie Lonzo said, for the drinkers and peanut-eaters to sing along to.
Bob French, the drummer who would soon inherit his father’s historic Tuxedo Jazz Band, was leading the Storyville Jazz Band at the time. He had an opening for a trombonist, and he invited Freddie to take it. (The famously irascible French fired Freddie after a few weeks and sent him back to Your Father’s Mustache, but soon rehired him.)
That gig, Lonzo said, was “like going to university.” Ellis Marsalis was in the group for a time. So was trumpeter Teddy Riley and bassist George French, Bob’s brother, both of whom Lonzo credits, alongside early jazz trombonist “Kid” Ory, as significant shapers of his sound. While working on Bourbon Street and continuing to play in parading ensembles – including the Onward Brass Band, alongside his influence Wendell Eugene - began visiting Preservation Hall to hear the great traditional players working in its band, including “Frog” Joseph, Percy Humphrey, George “Kid Sheik” Colar. By the mid-‘80s, Freddie was playing at the Hall himself.
Freddie Lonzo went on to perform and record with artists including Wynton Marsalis, Dr. Michael White, Lars Edegran, Wallace Davenport, boogie-woogie piano player Sammy Price and many others, both older veterans and his own contemporaries. And more than forty years after he first entered “the school of Bourbon Street,” as a member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he’s one of its learned professors.