Song For My Fathers
8 p.m. Monday, April 19
Tulane University, Dixon Hall, Newcomb Place; www.tulane.edu
- Photo by Dan Lehrer
- Tom Sancton (right) gets a lesson from Punch Miller at Preservation Hall.
Tom Sancton is not the typical European jazz pilgrim who becomes a regular on the bandstand at Preservation Hall. Though he spent 25 years in Paris and served as the bureau chief for Time magazine, Sancton is one of New Orleans' native sons. His odyssey as a writer and musician, chronicled in his beautifully written memoir Song For My Fathers will be presented onstage Monday at Tulane University in a dramatic production including the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, archival photos and video.
"Preservation Hall wanted to do something to showcase the book and the music," Sancton says, crediting the institution's creative director, Ben Jaffe, with the idea for a stage adaptation.
The production also unites two institutions that have served as bookends in the story. Sancton's father is a Tulane graduate who taught journalism at the school while working as a reporter for the Item. (A Confederacy of Dunces author John Kennedy Toole was one of his students.) As a result of his memoir, the younger Sancton was offered a one-year teaching fellowship, which allowed him to return home, but the engagement has been extended to a regular post as a creative writing instructor.
As a boy, Sancton was inspired to follow in his father's professional footsteps, but the senior Sancton also exposed his son to what would become another lifelong passion. In the early 1960s, when Tom was 12 years old, his father took him to the recently opened Preservation Hall. The former art gallery had been converted to a no-frills music hall, and a generation of musicians who had played jazz in the 1920s and '30s revived the traditional sound, often, at first, playing to fewer people than were on the bandstand.
"I had an immediate love of this music, particularly with George Lewis," Sancton says. "There was this warmth, this music, this humanity."
Sancton became a regular at the club, and when he was given a clarinet by the British clarinetist Sammy Rimington, he approached the musicians for lessons. He was mentored by legends including George Lewis, Harold Dejan, Punch Miller and others. Besides discovering his own talent and love of the music, Sancton developed a unique set of friendships across social and cultural boundaries and generations.
"I was aware of segregation, but I wasn't aware of crossing a barrier," he says. "It was just great. I loved it. ... It's only later that I reflected on the barriers and the generational thing — for someone in their teens to have this deep friendship and admiration for these older guys."
In 1967, Sancton left for college and eventually pursued a writing career that took him to Paris. In 2000, he started writing a collection of profiles of "the mens," the phrase the musicians had used to refer to themselves. An agent told him the project was not a book and that he needed to turn it into a memoir. Together with the Preservation Hall band, he hopes it will be a dramatic way to capture important chapters in New Orleans history and culture.