Robert “Bob” French Sr., the drummer and longtime leader of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band and a radio DJ, died on Monday after a long battle with dementia and diabetes-related complications, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports. He was 74.
Growing up surrounded by music, French took over the reigns of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band from his father, Albert “Papa” French, a banjo player. While the younger French initially rejected his father’s music in favor of rhythm and blues, he turned eventually to an intense study of New Orleans jazz.
Under French’s leadership, the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band’s repertoire grew. He brought the group back to Bourbon Street in 2009 when he scored a Monday night residency at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel.
“They can do anything they want except mess with the musicians’ instruments,” French said of his audiences, whom he forbade from videotaping his shows but encouraged them to talk and dance. “If they’re having a good time, Bob’s having a good time. If you’ve got a dancing audience, they’re easy to play to – they’re entertaining themselves.”
French was also known as an outspoken, often controversial radio DJ for WWOZ FM, where he spun traditional and local jazz records. On air, French could be as vicious as he was funny: after Hurricane Katrina, he went after elected officials whom he believed had failed the city and once bashed Reverend Jesse Jackson and Mayor Ray Nagin. On a separate occasion, he tried to get a free lunch out of former WWOZ DJ Mike “Mr. Jazz” Gourrier.
One of French’s most celebrated works is his 2007 effort Marsalis Music Honors Bob French, which found the drummer playing standards alongside Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick, Jr. In 2011, French stepped down from his drum kit, a position that was filled by his nephew Gerald French, who also leads the band.
“I do a lot I’m not supposed to do, but nobody stops me,” French said once of his time at WWOZ. “I think it’s good that somebody can do something that’s not automatic. I’m not a robot; I’m a human being. And I’ve always been opinionated. Ask both of my ex-wives.”