Obituary: Percy Humphrey

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The Independent Online
To the thousands of tourists who visited New Orleans each year to hear its jazz bands in the Preservation Hall, the trumpeter Percy Humphrey was a fixture. The whole Humphrey family was a New Orleans fixture. It made up one of the city's most noble jazz dynasties, stretching back to the 1890s when Percy's grandfather, "Professor" Jim Humphrey, used to put on his swallowtail coat and take the train out into the sugar-cane plantations outside the city to teach the basics of music to the plantation workers' children.

Although the Professor was no jazz player, he lived long enough to see most of his pupils absorbed into the music, including his three grandsons, Percy on trumpet, Willie on clarinet and Earl Humphrey, on trombone.

"We were brought up in his home, and each of us had to learn to play at least two instruments, " Percy said. "I happened to select drums first and the alto or baritone horn second. So he started me off with the baritone and I went to the alto and then commenced playing cornet. I finally dropped the drum situation and stuck with the trumpet - I'm still trying to play it."

Percy Humphrey was on the way up in the Golden Era of New Orleans jazz in the Twenties. He joined the famed Eureka Brass in his early days and became its first trumpeter and later its leader. He led his own jazz band in the city during the Forties and from 1951 to 1953 worked in the band of that New Orleans icon, the clarinettist George Lewis. He also played in dance bands and, when the Preservation Hall opened as a tourist attraction in 1961, worked there both with his own band and that of the pianist Sweet Emma Barrett. The British trombonist Campbell Burnap recalls sitting in at the Hall with Humphrey and noting that Humphrey played the trumpet with some restraint. "I don't play too loud. The good Lord gave me this lip and I intend to look after it," Humphrey said.

When the Eureka Brass Band broke up in 1972 Humphrey joined the New Orleans Joymakers, a band led by Orange Kellen, and came to Europe with them. He visited Britain five or six times, most often with the Preservation All Stars, and continued to play at the Preservation Hall until earlier this year. By now confined to a wheelchair, he played his last job at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in April.

Percy Humphrey, trumpeter and bandleader: born New Orleans 13 January 1905; died New Orleans 22 July 1995.