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Preservation of a Musical Family : Ex-Newport Builder at 56 Is 'Baby' of a N'awlins Institution

June 23, 1989|JIM WASHBURN

According to Preservation Hall Jazz Band drummer Frank Parker, the group's hometown of New Orleans plays a central role in the warmth and freewheeling improvisation of the band's traditional jazz.

"It's a city where musicians are born into families of musicians," he said, "so they're always around it. You see funeral parades, and a mother will be out there with a baby in her arms, and the minute it hears the music, the baby's moving in her arms. They're born into it. You just don't have that in other cities."

The family connection is also evident in the Preservation Band itself. Two members are brothers: trumpeter Percy and clarinetist Willie Humphrey, who have been performing together in public for more than 75 of their 80-plus years. The pianist is the former wife of the banjo player. The Humphreys have always been close friends of Parker's family--"they were around when I was born." And, with most of its members active in New Orleans music since the 1920s, they've been cooking in the same pot for a long time.

And there is certainly a familial Crescent City empathy in the vibrant improvisations the band brings to its traditional repertoire, not the least of it being supplied by trombonist Frank Demond.

The only thing out of place in this scenario is that Demond, along with being the baby of the group at age 56, is related to no one in the band--and, before he joined Preservation Hall in 1971, was a Newport Beach house designer and builder.

Playing to full houses at the band's yearly Saddleback College stop (they'll be back again Saturday), Demond said, is a far cry from when he used to build houses by day--several of the homes on Newport's waterfront Seashore Drive are his creations--and try to put his music over in county bars and pizza joints at night.

New Orleans jazz had been Demond's hobby since he first heard it at age 15 when growing up in Los Angeles. Even after moving to Newport in 1954, Demond would sojourn to L.A. to listen to and learn from the jazz players who came to town, developing friendships with several players and sitting in with them.

"The way I learned the music," he said, "was by sitting at the feet of (the late Preservation Hall trombonist) Big Jim Robinson, just listening to and almost becoming Jim, feeling his friskiness and his love of life.

"Since I've been playing with Preservation Hall, I've gotten together with a meditation teacher, a guru from India, and I realized that these musicians are already living the highest teachings of these great masters in India. And you sit at the feet of somebody that knows how to do it, and that is the teaching and spirituality at work. That's really how I learned how to play the trombone. I never took formal lessons."

In 1971, Demond got a call asking him to take the trombone player's place for an indefinite length of time in the band. "They called on a Saturday night, and on Monday I was in El Paso, Tex., playing with them. I was with them for eight weeks. Then I finished the houses I was working on in Newport and soon after moved to New Orleans and have been playing with Preservation Hall ever since.

"A lot of people have told me that it took a lot of guts, but really it didn't. I didn't think about it. I followed my heart. I just jumped, and it felt right."

Moving to a predominantly black section of New Orleans called Treme, just outside the French Quarter, Demond found his new life to be quite a departure from Newport.

"It broadened my horizons," he said. "It was a whole different culture. The black musicians in New Orleans came up through real tough times. But it reminds me of the way the beautiful, full-bodied French wine grapes grow on the hard-shale slopes in Southern France. For all the hard times of my musician friends, there's a warm family feeling and a beautiful spirit there.

"Newport Beach, particularly, seems enamored with all the exterior things--fine cars, fine houses, beautiful furnishings and things like that--but there is a wonderful culture of music and feeling and emotions that I didn't really feel either in Los Angeles or Orange County. It just felt like something deeper in the human spirit that was awakened. It felt to me like it was a much more expanding understanding of life and people, and we're sharing this emotion through music."

Preservation Hall may be the finest remaining exponent of that music. Opened in 1961 on St. Peters Street in the Quarter, the music hall, Demond said, is founded on a love of music.

"The music is treated with a lot of respect," he said, "not like Bourbon Street two blocks away. They have the loud amplifiers and beat each other over the head, and all they're doing is selling booze (on Bourbon Street). Here, they're honoring the music. People only have to pay $2 to get in and can stay as long as they like."

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