Joe Lastie Jr. : A Definitive Biography By Alison Fensterstock
When Preservation Hall Jazz Band drummer Joseph Frank Lastie, Jr. was born at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in 1958, he was set to inherit the creative legacies of not one, but two musical families. His paternal grandfather, Deacon Frank Lastie – who, as a child, spent time in the Milne Boys Home with Louis Armstrong - had helped to introduce drumming into the New Orleans spiritual church. His mother’s father, Emile Desvignes, also drummed in church in the Lower Ninth Ward, a close-knit African-American community where neighbors and relatives alike kept an eye on kids like Joe and his four sisters as they walked to school.
Church was central to the Lastie family. One of Joe Lastie’s earliest memories, he said, was waiting out Hurricane Betsy in church, in 1965. His first musical memories are of watching his grandfathers playing there; after his grandmother bought him his first set of Pearl drums at age six or seven, he played in church as well. Those formative years playing and hearing gospel music centered it at the root of who he became as a musician. “I find myself playing jazz, plating rhythm and blues, whatever, and still going back to the gospel roots,” he said. In 2008, when he made his first solo album, it was The Lastie Family Gospel, a warm tribute to those early joys of family and praise music.
There was plenty of secular sound in the branches of the Lastie family tree, as well – including more drummers, like cousin Herlin Riley and uncle Walter “Popee” Lastie, who played with Fats Domino. Another uncle, trumpeter Melvin Lastie, was a co-founder of the early, groundbreaking local black-owned record label A.F.O. (“All For One”) and uncle David Lastie was a saxophonist who played everything from bebop to R&B. Aunt Betty Ann Lastie played organ and piano, in church and at home. Joe’s grandmother Alice Lastie had been born Alice Hill, the sister of local R&B icon Jessie Hill, who waxed a New Orleans classic with “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” in 1960. Alice Lastie’s house on Delery Street in the Ninth Ward, said Joe Lastie, was always pulsing with music, made by family and illustrious guests.
“You’d never know when there’d be a jam session at her house,” Joe remembered. “Professor Longhair and my uncle Jessie – that’s my memory, playing with Professor Longhair in the living room.” Once, Ornette Coleman was a houseguest.
In 1970, with Joe approaching high-school age, his parents moved the family to Long Island, New York. The family home had flooded in Hurricane Camille, in 1969, and up in New York, they were able to buy a house with Lastie’s father working in a factory, and his mother in school and working at Long Beach Hospital. Joe studied with his first music teacher who wasn’t a relative, a bebop drummer named Clyde Harris, and played in his first school bands. There was a jazz club in the neighborhood called Swingo’s, and the young drummer liked to hang around outside and listen. He also heard the earliest emergence of hip-hop and even, on Long Island, befriended a young Flavor Flav, who had a crush on Lastie’s sister. Practicing, he listened to drummers like Max Roach, Billy Cobham and Buddy Rich. A favorite recording, he said, was Ray Charles’ live performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.
Even far from home, though, Joe’s ears were tuned to the New Orleans style. He went to the public library and borrowed records by Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, listened on his headphones and played along. And his family’s musical friendships weren’t cut off by distance: once, Joe remembered, the eccentric piano player James Booker came to stay.
Joe Lastie’s first experience with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – at that time about a dozen years old and established as an international touring outfit – was, in fact, from New York, on TV. “One of my fond memories is watching Preservation Hall on TV, with Mr. Willie and Mr. Percy,” the Humphrey brothers, who led the band in the ‘70s and continued to perform at Preservation Hall until their deaths in the mid-‘90s. “I’ll never forget that. I said, ‘Ooh, I would love to be there.’ That really caught my eye and my ear and I said, ‘Wow, that’s what I want to do.’ And a decade later, I went to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Now, how ironic is that? That’s just like someone seeing their favorite football team and saying ‘I would love to play with them.’ Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. But it’s what happened. Me, on Long Island watching Preservation Hall for the first time – who’d think I’m going to play in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for 27 years?”
Teenaged Joe Lastie was eager to get back to New Orleans. He convinced his parents to let him move in with his grandmother, back home, and finish school at Carver High, where he joined the marching band. He also studied, as did Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, Jr., with jazz pianist Willie Metcalf at the Academy of Black Arts, an art-education program housed at the Dryades Street YMCA. One of his earliest paying gigs was with a group of Metcalf’s students at Lu and Charlie’s, a modern jazz club in Treme that hosted musical adventurers like Ellis Marsalis and James Black; Lastie, he recalled, earned five dollars and was thrilled.
After graduating, as he put his shoulder to the wheel of a nascent music career, Lastie worked stints in construction and for Patton’s, the famous Louisiana hot sausage company. He busked with Scotty Hill’s French Market Jazz Band, on the corner of Royal and St. Peter St., watching the tourists stroll by. His first real gig came soon, though - a result of being in the right place at the right time. Walking down Bourbon Street one day, he passed a club where bassist Richard Payne’s band was playing. Payne needed a drummer, and Lastie had a job.
Gospel music stayed in Lastie’s world. He performed with the Desire Community Choir and with Raymond Myles, the flamboyant New Orleans gospel star. He also played rhythm and blues, keeping the beat for Antoine Domino Jr.’s Creole Cookin’ band and for Wanda Rouzan’s Taste of New Orleans, with his uncle David Lastie. He toured for a little less than a year with the pit band for playwright and actor Vernel Bagneris’ celebrated, New Orleans-themed musical One Mo’ Time, and went on the road with the lounge and swing-jazz vocalist Banu Gibson. With Gibson, though his uncles criticized him for playing with her, he said, he learned a lot, including how to sight-read music.
In the late ‘80s, Lastie had regular gigs with Wallace Davenport at the Maison Bourbon, down the block from Preservation Hall, and at a spot called the Mediterranean Café with Gregg Stafford. When Sandra Jaffe called Stafford to find a fill-in drummer, he recommended Lastie. Lastie joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band family of musicians – which was at the time, sadly, facing the loss of several early members, many of whom had been born with the 20th century. Drummer “Cie” Frazier, an original member, had passed in 1985. When drummer Frank Parker retired in 1990, Lastie inherited the chair. In his late twenties, he was by far the youngest member of the band; he soaked up instruction from the older men, hearing jazz as it had sounded at its birth and finding his own sound within that.
Joe Lastie traveled the world with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band but still found time for his own projects, including a recent stint with the Treme Brass Band, his own band, New Orleans Homegrown, and in 2015, the original single “New Orleans In Me,” written to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina which hit New Orleans the day after Lastie’s 47th birthday, August 28.
Today, after 27 years with the band, Joe Lastie calls himself a Preservation Hall hall-of-famer. After “New Orleans In Me,” he plans to continue writing and recording original material, but the most important thing to him, he says, is continuing to play New Orleans music: playing the traditional jazz, brass-band songs and gospel he grew up with, and also teaching the sounds and styles to young players on their way up.
“I’m at a point now where I’m not too much worried about the money,” he said. “I’m worried about preserving the music. I’m playing a gig down the street right now where I didn’t really want the headache. But guess what? It’s putting musicians to work, and keeping the traditional music out there.”
Biography courtesy of Alison Fensterstock