Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Oscar "Papa" Celestin on WOSU

The importance of Oscar Celestin cannot be over emphasized. He was president of the first Negro Professional Musicians Union. He played in several bands (one of which ended in a gun fight) but formed his own band The Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra in 1910. It existed into the early 1930s. It's line up included every big name in dixieland and hot jazz you can think of: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Baby Dodds, Pops Foster, Johnny St. Cyr, Zutty Singleton... the list goes on. They recorded some sides for Okeh starting in 1925. He has a good bio here.

But in WWII he had to give up the band and worked in a shipyard. After the war he formed a new band (with the same name) that he remained with until his death in 1954. This band took off. They got a regular gig at the Paddock Lounge on Bourbon Street in the French quarter. They were sort of a tourist attraction. It was about this time that he began making radio broadcasts on WDSU. Arhoolie records released a whole LP of these WDSU broadcasts, and despite the crappy annoncer Roger Wolfe, the band is badass. At least some of these were also on WDSU-TV. Wolfe had his own record label, Bandwagon records that put out some Celestin cuts around 1950. WDSU had yet another radio show called the Dixieland Jambake where Celestin made yet more appearances. Papa then scored a big money gig for the Mississippi shipping Company, playing on the docks to serenade incoming and outgoing passengers of courselines. It made him a virtual celebrity.Things were going so well that in 1950 ABC was looking at syndicating radio shows out of New Orleans as a major talent hub. Bob Swezey met with some ABC execs who were connected to WDSU. ABC was already syndicating a program called "Battle of the Bands" out of NOLA. it featured groups rounded up by Papa Celestin and Sharkey Bonanno. Swezey was partitularly interested in gettign exposure for some cajun stand up comics.

In 1953, a year before his death he played a special concert in the Whitehouse for President Eisenhower. It was May 8th, 1953. He and his band were flown to DC for the annual banquet of the White House Correspondents’ Association. They were the first African-American band to do so. An estimated 10,000 people attended his funeral.