Gregg Stafford is coined "The last Trumpet player in New Orleans" for a reason. He has dedicated his career to preserving the traditional New Orleans Jazz music and tradition. During his youth, Gregg would notice all the wonderful jazz being played in the music clubs and made sure he would watch the street parades as the brass bands marched by. In his school years, He was very talented with his hands and he wanted to study woodworking and drafting, but due to an overcrowded school system, the classes were full to capacity and he had to choose another area of study. His choices were: vocal music, instrumental music, and home economics. He chose instrumental music and his trumpet playing career was born. After getting basic trumpet techniques in school, Gregg joined the E Gibson Brass band at the age of 16. Now, he was playing in parades and churches. This was the first of many New Orleans Brass Bands that Gregg would become involved with. Some of the Brass Bands included: The Olympia Brass Band, The Young Tudexo Brass Band, The Royal Brass Band, and others. The first time Gregg went on tour it was with The Tuxedo Brass Band. They played at the Bicentennial celebration in Washington DC. Gregg would eventually become the leader of this band. As Gregg was working more and more he didn't lose sight that he still had to go to college. He received a degree at Southern University and also became a school teacher. Gregg is now known as one of the top trumpet players in New Orleans and is very involved with preserving the great New Orleans jazz music and it's rich tradition. I recently had a conversation with Gregg.
R.V.B. - Hi Gregg... this is Robert von Bernewitz from New York... how are you today?
G.S. - I'm good... and you?
R.V.B. - Pretty good... we're expecting a big snow storm here. Everybody's at the store buying things and panicking.
G.S. - Oh Wow!
R.V.B. - I was just down in New Orleans a few months ago. I really enjoyed the city.
G.S. - There's a lot to see. It's one of those magnetizing cities. Once you get here, you don't want to leave.
R.V.B. - That's what happened. We had a good time. What was New Orleans like when you were growing up there?
G.S. - New Orleans was a musical city... as it always has been. In the neighborhood that I grew up in, you had a bar room on every corner. In some places, 4 bars rooms within one block. You had a church on every block. There was music all over the city... jazz and rhythm & blues.
R.V.B. - You were exposed to this, and heard the music all around as you were growing up?
G.S. - Yes, there were a lot of bars in my neighborhood. I was living in uptown New Orleans.
R.V.B. - Were there a lot of street musicians?
G.S. - You had a few in the early days, but they sort of disappeared after the depression. Street musicians didn't become prevalent until around the late 70's... in the French Quarter's only. Everybody was playing in night clubs, bars, and gin mills.
R.V.B. - I read the story about when you went to school. It was kind of a chance opportunity that you got involved with music. You were originally involved with industrial arts. What kind of industrial arts did you enjoy?
G.S. - Wood working and drafting.
R.V.B. - You were good with your hands?
G.S. - We were building all types of cabinet's... chairs... matchbox holders... and things of that nature. I also enjoyed mechanical drawing and drafting. When I got to high school, the industrial arts classes were filled up, because the school was overpopulated... too many kids in the district. Because the industrial arts classes were filled, I had to make a choice between vocal music, instrumental music, and home economics. I knew I didn't want to be in a choir, and I knew I didn't want to be in a girls class with home economics... so I chose instrumental music.
R.V.B. - How did it work out that you started with the trumpet?
G.S. - They were just trying to recruit trumpet players, because most of the trumpet players were seniors that were graduating. They were trying to re-build their trumpet section.
R.V.B. - How did you take to the trumpet? Did you pick it up fast... were you a natural?
G.S. - I always wanted to play the trumpet... and I learned pretty quickly. I wanted to play earlier, but my mother wouldn't purchase an instrument for me.
R.V.B. - When you developed your skills... how did you begin to start playing gigs and network yourself?
G.S. - I grew up in a neighborhood where there was a lot of parades. Sunday school parades... Masonic parades... Knights of Columbus parades... Sacred Order parades... Elks parades... and art sellers. There was always a parade in my neighborhood. There were brass band performances every week. I would follow the parades, and I would try to emulate the brass band musicians. Then I became a member of the E Gibson Brass Band. They had an upcoming parade, and they were looking for saxophone players. When I was 16 years old I asked to be in the band. They said "When we need a trumpet player, We'll call you. Sometimes we have two or three gigs... and I have to send out two bands". That's what happened. He had an Elks parade and he took me up on it... he called me. He said we have rehearsals on such and such of night... I went there and became part of the E Gibson Brass Band. From there, I started playing brass band music.
R.V.B. - How many tunes does one play in a typical parade?
G.S. - I was a young man and I was just learning. They were very kind and very helpful... they helped me get started. I learned as I went along.
R.V.B. They nurtured you along?
G.S. - Yes... you basically start off with one of the older bands. He was always looking for teenagers, for the non union bands, There was also the union bands. It was protocol to learn as you went along.
R.V.B. - Were you happy with the progression of your chops?
G.S. - When I was in high school, and it was Mardi Gras season, I would play parades and football halftime shows. As you continue to perform and practice... you get better. Your chops get stronger. When it was Mardi Gras time, I would play two gigs every night. I was marching 12 or 13 miles. You don't have that anywhere else in America. That has changed in New Orleans... after the storm. Sometimes we played two parades a day. I would be in school at 9 in the morning... play for a parade that starts at 12. The parade would finish at 3 and I would go back to school... and then go play another parade at 6. It would go on all day.
R.V.B. - You were working it.
G.S. - I played a lot of carnival parades in high school.
R.V.B. - That's a good way to learn. I understand you also joined a church group at this time... when Danny Barker invited you?
G.S. - Yes. It was a church band. They formulated a brass band... with young kids. It helped keep a lot of teenagers off the streets, and taught them traditional New Orleans Brass Band music. His position was that if nobody would give the kids an opportunity to learn the music, it would become extinct. Thank God for him... because some of the principle players that are playing in New Orleans right now are like myself... Leroy Jones... Michael White... Lucien Barbarin... and a few others... I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now. Everybody was part of that Fairview church band.
R.V.B. - Did you do the same type of parade gigs with that band also?
G.S. - We played churches and parades.
R.V.B. - How did you work your way into the club scene?
G.S. - If you play brass band music... most of the union musicians were members of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band, members of the Olympia Brass Band... members of the Onward Brass Band. If you were a trumpet player, the streets prepared you for the clubs. All the brass band musicians were night club musicians as well. That was just another step of the traditional scene. In the night clubs, you play a repertoire of jazz standards.
R.V.B. - Were there any issues with you being young and playing in clubs?
G.S. - No... as long as you were of age. It you were a good player... people hired you. New Orleans is a city that had conventions. A lot of the jobs I played were with the Olympia Brass Band... Teddy Riley's Royal Brass Band... the Excelsior Brass Band. Teddy Riley was very instrumental in my ability to move along through the years, and elevate myself to a higher status. Herman Sherman did also with the Tuxedo Brass Band. I eventually became the leader of that band. That was protocol... if you weren't playing in brass bands, you were playing in night clubs. A majority of the venues were on Bourbon Street. There was also private quarters, which still exists today around New Orleans. You played at social functions for private people... at their house. When I started meeting and playing with older musicians, I began to realize that they were on the street, and had other jobs as well. I'd go to the Preservation Hall and see Willie Humphrey and Percy Humphrey. They eventually became friends of mine. They saw that somebody was interested... like I was, at a young age. That was something that was unprecedented, until Danny Barker came along. He boosted us, and pushed us in the right direction... to learn the music. Danny Barker coached us, and taught us about the history of the music... so we could continue to carry the torch.
R.V.B. - It is very important, and you're still doing that today. How did you wind up playing outside of New Orleans, and start touring?
G.S. - My first time on the road was with the Young Tuxedo Brass Band in 1976. I went to play the Smithsonian Festival for the Bi-Centennial celebration. I was fresh out of college, and I was out on the road for almost a month.
R.V.B. - Where did you go to college, and how did you enjoy your years there?
G.S. - I went to Southern University. I was working towards my degree in Education. I'm a school teacher. I didn't have any intentions of becoming a professional musician... it just happened to fall in place. It all just transpired. Throughout the years, I met older musicians and they put me in their bands.
R.V.B. - It's a beautiful thing that you had a backup plan. You're a very well rounded person.
G.S. - Well you need that. (haha)
R.V.B. - How was the Bi-Centennial celebration gig? Was that a real thrill for you?
G.S. - Of course... I was fresh out of college, and I had never been out on the road as a musician. I'm playing with older guys, who were in there 50's and 60's... and I'm 21 years old. (hahaha) That was the first time that I ever traveled. I was staying at Georgetown University college campus... your getting paid... you're getting fed... you're meeting people... it was something new for me.
R.V.B. - What did you do once the mini tour was over?
G.S. - I went back home. I didn't pursue a teaching job. Then, I went back out for another month with the Olympia Brass Band. I was home for about a week and then right back out to California. I went to Los Angeles, Santa Fe, Montague... I met up with my paternal grandmother, and my cousins... who were living in Los Angeles. I was able to spend time with them. I spent 2 weeks with my grandmother after I finished the jobs. Then I came on back home.
R.V.B. - So first, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band and then right to the Olympia Brass Band.
G.S. - They were the oldest Brass Band's in the city. The Tuxedo Brass band is one of the most historical bands in the city... it goes all the way back to Louis Armstrong. He left to go to Chicago.
R.V.B. - It's a very prestigious organization to be a part of. Where did you play in California?
G.S. - We played the Monterey Jazz Festival, and we also played for a lung cancer charity event in Los Angeles.
R.V.B. - Did you meet any other jazz players at Monterey?
G.S. - It was a real good experience for me. When I was in DC, we used to go out with the New Orleans musicians, and see the different groups coming in from Africa. That was a different experience. When I went to California to play at the Monterey Jazz Festival... I met Dizzy Gillespie. I hung out with Cat Anderson and Jimmy Witherspoon. Louie Armstrong had passed in 71, so they had a tribute to him there. You go back stage, and you're there with all of these artists. So I go over to this table, and there were these old guys sitting there... and I introduce myself. Cat Anderson says "You look like Wallace Davenport". Wallace Davenport was a trumpet player from New Orleans who played with Lionel Hampton and Count Basie. They took a liking to me. I'm sat down at the table... I'm 21 years old... I'm sitting with Jimmy Witherspoon... one of the greatest blues singers... I'm sitting with Dizzy Gillespie... I'm sitting with Cat Anderson... the trumpet player from Duke Ellington's band. We were all having a good time.
R.V.B. - That's sounds like a very cool experience for you.
G.S. - It was a great experience for me. I met the trumpet player Blue Mitchell. All of these great jazz artists that I had been hearing about... I wound up hanging out with. Now I got the bug... I don't want to be anything else but a musician... keep on traveling.
R.V.B. - I can imagine. I guess in this business... you move around a lot and meet a lot of people.
G.S. - Dizzy Gillespie and I were very close friends. We would run across each other on the road. I saw him at Monterey, and a year later I saw him in Berlin Germany. We laughed and joked. We were back stage, and I had a beautiful German girlfriend. He was going into the dressing room and I was coming out... she spotted him and said "Look, there's Dizzy". Gatemouth Brown had given me a note, because he had to go back to the hotel... and he asked me "Look, if Dizzy comes through here... give him this". When I saw Dizzy Gillespie, we embraced each other and I said " I got something for you Dizzy. Gatemouth Brown asked me to give this to you". He's standing there looking at this big beautiful German girl I was with... and he starts speaking to her in German. (hahaha) I'm like "Oh no, no, no." (haha) He said "Man, where did you find her?". The note that Gatemouth gave him said " The president is at such and such hotel". He just wanted to let him what room he was in. We were all staying at the same hotel. I had all of these personal experiences with these guys. The next time I saw Dizzy was in Jacksonville Florida. That's the way it is... you run into these friends all over.
R.V.B. - It didn't take you long to go overseas. That happened relatively quick.
G.S. - I played at The White House, in the same year as I played in Monterey and Berlin. That was also the summer of the 25 anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival.
R.V.B. - Part of the deal is recording. How did you enjoy studio work?
G.S. - Studio work is not something that I always enjoy because you're concerned about how you're going to sound... you don't have an audience... but you try to do your best. With some of the recordings that I did in the earlier years... I'm more knowledgeable now than I was then. I'm still very proud of the fact that I've done them. It's for historical purposes and it's good to hear. I go back sometimes, and I listened to what I did. Sometimes it sounds good and sometimes it don't sound good. I could have done a little bit better here or a little better there or "Wow... that sounds great!". Some people tell me they really like it. "I listened to your CD and it sounds real nice"... it varies.
G.S. - I appreciate the fact that Big Bill was a producer that took interest in me, and recorded me on his Jazz Crusade Label. He calls me the last trumpet player of New Orleans. There's probably some truth to it. The last trumpet player in the traditional genre... from the old school style.
R.V.B. - Did you ever cross paths with Al Hirt?
G.S. - I ran across Al Hirt. I played at The Intercontinental Hotel for 30 years. Al Hirt used to come to the show. He'd take my horn and play. He'd say "Gimme that horn. Let me play a few tunes". (haha) He was more of a Dixieland player. He wasn't a traditional revival style trumpet player. All of those guys are great people man.
R.V.B. - Were you involved with Preservation Hall?
G.S. - I played with Preservation Hall for many years but I'm not that active there anymore. I started back playing there again about two months ago. I now play there once a week with The Legacy Band.
R.V.B. - How did hurricane Katrina effect you?
R.V.B. - Tell me about your organization "Black Men of Labor".
G.S. - Benny Jones, Fred J Johnson, and myself, founded the Black Men of Labor. We started that organization after the demise of Danny Barker, because Danny didn't want a jazz funeral. He became disenchanted about the way things had changed with jazz funerals. I thought it would be a disservice, not to honor him with a jazz funeral. We were able to convince his wife that we would give him an honorable jazz funeral, and dress in a dignified way... the way it's supposed to be done. There was so many things that had changed on the street. They were playing fast music and the protocol was not the same. He didn't like that. We stepped up to the plate, and gave him a very dignified and honorable funeral. So myself, Benny Jones, and Fred Johnson, decided to do something to put the music back on the streets. That was our main objective. That's how the Black Men of Labor came about... to carry the torch and instill and inspire younger generations the importance of keeping the tradition. You have to understand where this music came from. How it originated... how important it is... not only the music, but the dancing. The second line is totally different than the way they dance today. If you don't get an opportunity to see it... it's like a cup of coffee... if you never tasted coffee... you won't know how it tastes. If you've never seen a traditional jazz funeral done in the right manor, you wouldn't know it. Today, it's more of a hip hop style type of brass band. They changed the rhythm... to a pop song on the street... as opposed to doing marches.
G.S. - I enjoy teaching. I went to college to be an educator. I studied education, but after college I went on the road as a musician. I didn't go right into the teaching profession. I did some other things. I worked in television for 10 years. I was an in-house studio cameraman. I was a Lighting director... I was a technical director... and I was a floor director. I worked for a PBS affiliate, and I worked for Cox Cable TV. I was an engineer for Cox Cable TV. I was their chief engineer for Algiers Systems. I designed the whole cable system in Algiers. Through music... my affiliation with people who knew me as a musician... it gave me the opportunity to work at channel 12. One of the producers... "Debbie"... at channel 12... she needed a production supervisor. I just happened to hear that there was a position open, and she introduced me to the production manager. With my college degree under my belt... I got the job. I became an in-house studio cameraman. It was good for me, because I had a steady job. The hours were ideal for me, because I was still able to do my music at night. The hours were from 11AM to 7PM. Most of the gigs started after 9PM. It worked out well, and it was a good job. As cable TV grew, this broadcasting position was phased out at the station, and I wound up working with them. As part of their agreement with the city, they had to create a public access studio... because of my experience, they brought me in and put me in the engineering department. I was in the engineering department for 2 years until the project was completed, and then I went back into production.
R.V.B. - How did you wind up as a teacher?
G.S. - With the engineering job... once they built the systems... you had to move on to another city. I didn't want to move, so I decided that I'd stay in New Orleans. I went and applied for a teaching position, and got involved in education. I also wanted to continue my career as a musician.
R.V.B. - What subjects do you teach?
G.S. - I'm an elementary school math instructor.
G.S. - I'm about to retire. I'm going to retire on the 1st of May. I have tours coming up. I've already booked them. If my health holds up, I'm hitting the road. I'll have more free time to travel, and concentrate on my music.
R.V.B. - How are you feeling? Are you healthy?
G.S. - I'm great... I feel fine.
R.V.B. - Good. Thank you very much for sharing your story with me. Good luck on your retirement and congratulations on your accomplishments... both professionally and musically.
G.S. - Thank you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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