Gerald French’s name is synonymous with New Orleans Traditional Jazz, a genre that he’s been immersed in from an early age. Born and raised in NOLA, French is an accomplished percussionist, vocalist and the leader of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band. Affectionately known as “The Giant” for his commanding presence behind a kit, French has shared the stage with renowned musicians such as Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and more, appearing at several prestigious festivals and on television programs such as The Tonight Show and The Today Show.
Christian Stankee, SABIAN’s Global Artist Relations Director, caught up with Gerald French at the 2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Christian Stankee: Can you tell us a little bit about your family history and the history of the Tuxedo Jazz Band?
Gerald French: There’s one book that was written on the band by Miss Sally Newhart. I can’t remember the title, but it has my grandfather’s picture and it’s very accurate. It lists all the members of the band from the beginning to now. Also, if you go to the Tulane Archives, Tulane University in New Orleans, you can find all kinds of stuff: old records, film, they even have interviews with my grandfather and my great uncle…My dad’s family moved here in 1850 from South Carolina in search of work and playing music, and that’s what the family’s been doing ever since.
CS: So you can draw a straight line from your grandfather all the way to when you started leading the band, which is when?
GF: Exactly. I started leading the band officially in 2012. My uncle Bob was the leader before me, he took over after my grandfather. So I’m the third person in the family to have leadership of the band. So yeah, the band would be 113 years old in December.
CS: So what does it take to be a drummer for a band like this?
GF: Things are so different than they were at the turn of the last century, whereas they were creating the sound that we know now as jazz. Now we’re morphing into something totally different. And, you know, we have elements of modern playing. We have elements of funk, because everybody loves James Brown and P-Funk. We’re kind of making our own gumbo, mixing all of those elements together. Larry’s a great modern piano player and he writes some incredible music, you know. It’s unlike any other band that you’re going to hear playing quote unquote traditional New Orleans music. It’s got a little bit of a lot of different elements.
CS: So you’re still striving to evolve the sound of the band even 113 years later? And that’s encouraged?
GF: Oh, yeah, oh yeah, definitely.
CS: There’s no pressure to keep it traditional?
GF: There’s pressure from older people who want things to stay the same. But there’s no way you can stay the same if you have new influences. Those cats back then had never heard Charlie Parker, Miles Davis or John Coltrane; or, like I said, P-Funk or James Brown or Otis Redding. So that’s the stuff that influenced that. Like, The Gap Band, Johnny Guitar Watson, Earth Wind and Fire, Chicago, Tower of Power – that was the stuff that influenced me growing up in the 70s and 80s. In the 80s, I was still listening to 70s music because I liked the horns. I liked the arrangements, and that’s one thing with New Orleans music that always holds. So we’re able to duplicate that sound with seven people, and it works. It fits.
CS: Tell me more about your influences as a drummer growing up in New Orleans.
GF: My biggest influence is my Uncle Bob. I mean, he’s the first drummer that I ever heard. My mom said when she would go to gigs with my dad and I would feel the vibrations, I would start moving in her stomach. She said she knew I was gonna be a drummer. As soon as I could use the bathroom by myself, like three or four, my grandfather used to take me on gigs and I’d sit right next to my uncle. And I’m just sitting and I’m soaking it up…I took lessons with Herlin Riley and I appreciate Herlin so much even to this day, because when you go for a drum lesson, most of the time, cats want to sit down and show you how much they can play. And Herlin was like, “Nah, we’re not doing that. You get on the drums and I’m gonna get on the piano.” And I’m like what’s going on? He’s like “I need you to be able to hear form.” Like, even though you’re a drummer, you still need to know the parts of the song. I also studied with David Lee. David Lee is another New Orleans drummer and he taught at the University of New Orleans. He played with Dizzy Gillespie for years. I did a couple of other local guys like Ernie Elly and Smokey Johnson. You know, I got a chance to see and hear Zigaboo as a kid because I lived uptown…But yeah, man, I’m seeing Russell Batiste, Raymond Weber, so there’s a lot of New Orleans cats man that really help mold my thing.
CS: What are you doing with the next generation, what are you are trying to impart to them when you teach?
GF: Well, the thing I’m trying to get them to understand is that it’s a drum and everything doesn’t have to be loud. Drums carry, so even if you do things that are subtle on the drums, people are still gonna hear it.
CS: That’s why I couldn’t believe you were playing a 5B, even though it’s maple, drawing the effortless sound out of the lightest touch on the kit today.
GF: It’s all about the touch, man. I got massive hands, my hands look like baseball gloves. And if I play a 5A or smaller, it feels like I’m playing with pencils. They get lost in my hands. Now, when I play with the Dixie Cups, I play with a 2B because I’ve got three horns, organ, lead guitar, bass, and three singers. So, I got to be heard. I need some lumber to be heard.
CS: How many gigs are you playing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival this fest?
GF: I’m only doing five this year.
CS: Only five?
GF: Only five, yeah. I’m usually at this tent every day at least twice a day. So now that I’m getting older, I’m getting more responsibility. Whereas I’m leading more bands, the gigs are decreasing, but the pay is increased. So that’s the good part.
CS: You tried the new 15” HHX Complex Big Cup hats today. What’d you think?
GF: Oh my god, man. The chick is insane. Really, really nice distinct chick sound. When you hit them with sticks, they open up good. Sonically, very clear, they’re distinct. They have a distinct sound. A drive, but at the same time you still get attack. You know, I tell people all the time, nobody makes better cymbals than SABIAN.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.