The People of Traditional New Orleans Jazz:
If music is the essence of the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park,
then people are the heart of our story.
George Vetiala "Papa Jack" Laine, musician and bandleader, was born in New Orleans on September 21, 1873. The son of Francois Laine and Bernadine Wink, Laine spent all of his life in or near the city’s 8th Ward (Lower Faubourg Marigny). Laine’s love for music began early. His first drum, a toy, came from bandleader Patrick S. Gilmore's son. By age eleven, Laine had progressed from a toy drum to a field drum purchased by his father at a salvage sale.
As a youth, Laine played in parades with other neighborhood boys using rag-tag homemade instruments. He later moved on to fife and drum type bands, playing tin flutes and penny whistles. Though primarily remembered as a bass drummer, he also played snare drum, full trap set, alto horn and string bass.
By the age of 16, Laine was an accomplished bandleader of both string bands and brass bands. He also led a large drum and bugle corps during the Spanish-American War. One of Laine's early specialties was playing music for funerals, and by agreement with other New Orleans bandleaders played only in Algiers and Gretna.
In 1895, Laine married Blanche Nunez, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. Jack and Blanche had two children, Alfred (b.1895), and Alma (b.1901).
The Glory Years
Near the turn of the century, Laine organized his famous Reliance Brass Band which he lead for nearly 20 years. The market demand for music in the early 1900s eventually called for three separate units of this group, plus four others, the Tuxedo Band, Laine's Band, the Formal Band, and another, with no name at all. As the crave for vernacular dance music grew, Laine also included dance bands, adding pianists, guitarists and string bassists with brass band players. Laine’s love of music and his role in it’s perpetuation is reflected in his creation of a children’s band. Laine often turned his house into a dormitory to ensure performers were available early for picnics, excursions, and out-of-town parades.
Although segregation laws of the day prohibited blacks and whites from performing together, Laine’s band included lighter-skinned blacks and creoles that he could hire without running afoul of the rule. The age of his musicians spanned the full gamut of years. Some had a great deal of formal musical training while others, none. His bands were made up of readers and fakers (those who could read music and those who could not), a winning combination in playing both standards and the evolving new music. In 1904, he combined New Orleans musicians with St. Louis locals at the St. Louis Exposition in Missouri, playing with the group briefly before returning to New Orleans.
As a bandleader, Laine hired many musicians, 150 of whom are now identifiable. A third of them became mainstays of early jazz. Many of these musicians went on to perform with such groups as Tom Brown's Band From Dixie, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the Louisiana Five, Jimmy Durante's Original New Orleans Jazz Band, and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and became internationally famous. Some still retain this fame today, including Tom Brown, Nick LaRocca, Larry Shields, Eddie Edwards, Tony Sbabaro, Alcide Nunez, Achille Baquet, George Brunies, and Chink Martin.
One of Laine's last jobs before retiring was at Camp Beauregard in Alexandria, LA., organizing and operating bands which included many of his band members who had been drafted during World War I. In 1919 Laine retired from the music business, but played occasionally with his son Alfred "Pantsy" Laine's band. He returned to his old occupation as a blacksmith, working predominantly for the Dennis Sheen Transfer Company in Fauborg Marigny.
"Papa Jack" started to take on the role of an early New Orleans music legend in November 1939, when the Sunday Times-Picayune ran a story entitled "Hot Music's Granddad Beats Anvil Instead of Drum." When the National Jazz Foundation was organized in New Orleans in 1945, interest in Laine expanded and continued to grow. The New Orleans Jazz Club succeeded the foundation and later put out a special issue of their Second Line magazine highlighting Laine in May 1954. In January 1959, a recording was made of Laine playing bass drum with cornetist Johnny Wiggs's band. Laine surprised everyone by still being able to play and producing an extremely vibrant, driving bass drum sound that definitely kicked the band along.
Laine's interviews between 1951 and 1964 give an account of his life and the development of jazz over time. On September 28, 1963, a week after his 90th birthday, the New Orleans Jazz Club honored Laine with a Certificate of Merit at a special function at the Royal Orleans Hotel. In late 1963, the National Educational Television network (NET) did a special entitled "Jack Laine- Patriarch of Jazz." By the time of his death on June 1, 1966, Laine had regained some of the glory of the days when he was at his peak. Jack Laine was extremely important in the long, extended development of New Orleans jazz. As a legendary figure, he pre-dated Buddy Bolden, and his career continued long after Bolden became incapacitated. As a bandleader and musician, his influence affected the course of jazz and touched many up-and-coming superstars, even after he himself had retired.