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Roots of "Jazz"

By the time Leroy Jones picked up the nickname Jazz in high school, he had already played Jazz Fest and the Super Bowl -- and hour upon hour in his parents' garage.

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His first influence was a nun, a trumpet-playing nun.

It was Sister Hillary, at St. Leo the Great Elementary School, Leroy Jones explains. From her, he learned the rudiments of his craft. "I took music lessons. Not jazz, music," he emphasizes.

You can still hear that today. Behind Jones' fun-loving, swinging, New Orleans jazz is a dead-serious approach to the music.

"I didn't really know that he could play jazz at first," wrote Wynton Marsalis in the liner notes for Jones' 1996 CD, Props for Pops. Both trumpeters attended St. Leo the Great; Marsalis was the junior by four grades. He recalled that "[e]very year, Leroy would be the first trumpet ... we all looked up to him."

Jones' jazz chops are well-known. Outside of New Orleans, that's thanks partly to more than a decade's worth of high-profile tour gigs with Harry Connick Jr. Local fans know him as the Friday-night trumpeter at Preservation Hall and the leader of a quintet often seen at Donna's Bar & Grill, Palm Court Jazz Cafe, or Dos Jefes Uptown Cigar Bar.

He is also a deft composer. Of the 13 cuts on Jones' recent self-produced CD, Back to My Roots, six are his compositions. Four of those originals are brass-band numbers that have such a New Orleans feel that they seem instantly familiar. The CD kicks off with a composition by his fiancee Katja Toivola, a Finnish jazz trombonist and saxophonist who met Jones during her frequent visits here to soak up the jazz scene. One of Jones' originals, KT & Me, is a love song for her.

Jones began playing at age 10 on a rented cornet. The following year, in 1969, his parents bought him a Selmer Bundy student model for $250. "I loved it so much," Jones recalls. It was also a big investment. Each month, his parents would tear off another page from the little payment-plan book and send the money off to Grunwald's music store in Gentilly.

From the moment Jones put that Selmer to his lips, he had an audience -- his neighbors. "I used to practice every day from 5 to 10 o'clock in my parents' garage," he says. Like most youngsters, the result was loud and bad. "It was raw, rough as sandpaper," he says. His 10 o'clock cutoff time jibed with city ordinances barring noise over a certain decibel level at night.

Within earshot of that garage were discerning ears: Seventh Ward neighbors and seasoned jazzmen like guitar-banjo player and raconteur Danny Barker. One day, Barker pulled over his big car, walked into Jones' garage, and asked him to lead the now famous Fairview Baptist band. That would bring Jones his first paying gig, at the third New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. His second booking was the halftime show for Super Bowl VI, held in Tulane Stadium in 1972. Jones, a month shy of 14 years, was billed as "little Louis Armstrong"; he played "High Society" and "Hello Dolly" with the Onward Brass Band and vocalist Carol Channing.

Soon after the July 1971 death of Louis Armstrong, there was talk of another big gig. "I almost got to play Louis' first cornet in the mock funeral for him," Jones says. Instead, the honor went to a distinguished older trumpeter, Teddy Riley.

Jones had wanted to attend St. Augustine High School ever since he'd first heard their band. Once there, he earned the nickname "Jazz." Trumpeter Terence Blanchard arrived at St. Aug four years behind Jones and was blown away. Jones was "one of the first young guys that I met that had a passion for jazz," Blanchard wrote in the liner notes for Props for Pops. Soon, Blanchard had the nickname Lil Jazz. "[N]ot because of my talent," he wrote, "but because I stuck to [Jones] like glue, wanting to know how he did what he did on his horn."

The horn has been Jones' sole moneymaker -- or nearly so. During a slow stretch in 1977, Jones took a job scaling the inside of ships' hulls, where, he says, it was damp, smelly, and "nothing nice." He stuck it out two weeks before the gigs picked back up. It's been all music ever since.

Often, Jones says, musicians in their twenties get lots of attention. Then they wait until age "65-plus" before they see that respect and attention return. "I'm in the middle," he says, "not a young lion and not an old legend."

Still, Jones has never been content with his playing. "There are days I get satisfaction," he explains. "But I'm never satisfied."

"Every year, Leroy would be the first trumpet ... we all looked up to him," fellow St. Leo the Great graduate Wynton Marsalis once wrote of Leroy Jones.
  • "Every year, Leroy would be the first trumpet ... we all looked up to him," fellow St. Leo the Great graduate Wynton Marsalis once wrote of Leroy Jones.

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