THE MEMBERS of the Humphrey family were master craftsmen amongst New Orleans jazz musicians. During the second half of the 20th century the mere fact of having been born in New Orleans meant that many incompetent musicians had their names added to the legend. Not so the Humphreys.
Willie Humphrey Jnr was a gifted jazz and symphonic clarinet player who, unusually, used an Albert system clarinet on which to play jazz and a Boehm system for classical music.
He was taught to play violin and clarinet by his grandfather, Professor Jim Humphrey. In the 1890s Professor Humphrey, usually dressed in a swallowtail coat, travelled the sugar plantations to teach music to the local children. Many of his students went on to become jazz players of note, including the trumpeters Chris Kelly and Sam Morgan and Willie's father, another distinguished clarinettist. The professor also taught Willie Jnr's brothers the trumpeter Percy and the trombonist Earl.
'He taught a lot of people, a whole lot of them that made it and didn't want to admit that he was their teacher,' Percy Humphrey said. 'He started Kid Ory, and he taught Papa Celestin, Kid Howard and Joe Howard.' The teacher believed in the iron fist. Willie Jnr remembered, 'He would put it: if we didn't do right, well, we could understand it better on our backs.'
Willie Humphrey Jnr followed Louis Armstrong in playing on the Mississippi riverboats in the band of the caliope player Fate Marable. In New Orleans he knew the pioneers of the music who were of his grandfather's generation and had played before the American Civil War.
In 1919, like Armstrong, Ory, Oliver and the cream of the city's musicians, he migrated up river to Chicago, where he worked with Jelly Roll Morton, Freddie Keppard and King Oliver, but he returned to New Orleans the following year. He then worked with several important bands, including that of the trumpeter Kid Rena, before leaving again in 1925, this time for St Louis, to rejoin Fate Marable.
New Orleans drew him back once again in 1932 where he followed the family tradition as music teacher. He left again to tour with Lucky Millinder in 1935 but remained based in New Orleans for the rest of his days, apart from serving with a navy band during the Second World War. After the war he became a prominent member of the Eureka Brass Band and other local groups and worked with his brother Percy, who led his own band. He and the trumpeter Thomas Jefferson (who claimed a blood relationship to his presidential namesake) formed a Be-bop band about this time, but Jefferson quit, thinking rightly that there was more money to be made mining the traditional vein.
Whilst working for the drummer Paul Barbarin, a member of another great New Orleans family, Willie Humphrey Jnr visited New York in 1955. He ran his own band in his home town and also worked with the pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, at Preservation Hall, the showcase for New Orleans jazz. He visited Europe for the first time in 1967, touring with Billie and De De Pierce, and remained in demand, often with his brother Percy's band or with the Preservation Hall band for tours and festivals. He played with the latter group at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.
Amongst his last recordings was an album done in August 1991 with the visiting English trombonist Chris Barber, long a devotee of the Humphrey family.
Earl Humphrey, the trombonist brother, died in 1971, but Percy Humphrey still plays at Preservation Hall.
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