Louis Prima Centennial Colloquium
9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11
Tulane University, Freeman Auditorium, 1229 Broadway St., 865-5688; www.tulane.edu
Bruce Raeburn was a Ph.D. candidate in history at Tulane University and a part-time rocker when he first fell under the spell of Louis Prima. It was the early 1970s, the twilight of Prima's 50-year career, and Raeburn — then a drummer-for-hire who later formed his own band, Shot Down in Ecuador Jr.; now curator of Tulane's Hogan Jazz Archive — happened on a crowd outside the Royal Sonesta. "You could see him from the street," he says. "At that point, the guy he was working off was Sam (Butera). He didn't have a female vocalist with him anymore. I think Gia (Prima) was raising the kids. As effective as he was with Keely (Smith) and her deadpan, Sam was another wild hair.
"Of course, one couldn't miss the sort of intrusive toupee he was wearing at the time," Raeburn says, chuckling. "It actually worked well with the act. You could see that, even when he aged, he was a kid at heart. The way he moved, it was just highly entertaining."
Since 1995, Raeburn has enjoyed a more intimate relationship with Prima's estate, as a consultant on documentary projects like 1999's Louis Prima: The Wildest! and an expert witness in infringement lawsuits against corporations like Campbell Soup, who, Raeburn says, "hired a guy to sound like Prima to promote Prego spaghetti sauce, and then hired a musicologist to say that it didn't sound like Prima — not that it didn't sound like Vic Damone or Bobby Darin, but specifically didn't sound like Prima. ... Later on this became an issue with Disney, in terms of The Jungle Book. The point was that Prima had a trademark persona as an entertainer."
It's that indelible persona, and its lasting influence, that the Hogan Jazz Archive aims to celebrate with this week's Centennial Colloquium, which honors Prima's birth via five presentations. The early partnership and lifelong friendship with clarinetist Pee Wee Russell will be detailed by Rutgers University's Dan Morgenstern (himself a friend of Russell's, Raeburn adds). Author Will Friedwald tackles the cultural influence of Prima's Italian-American celebrity. Marcello Piras, Italy's leading jazz authority, traces the path Prima's predecessors took from Sicily to Louisiana, and local historian/musician Jack Stewart addresses the legend's place in the New Orleans jazz canon.
Finally, myth-busting author Elijah Wald (How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll) examines Prima's career in relation to the changing styles of the times. "He wants to break down the categories," Raeburn says. "He's done that for the blues, he's done it for pop music, he's done it for jazz. I don't think he was planning on doing anything focusing on Prima, so I kind of commissioned him to do it. I'm real interested to see what he comes up with."
Raeburn shows no scholarly distance in describing these subjects; rather, he exhibits all the giddy anticipation of a fan. "That shuffle beat that Louis always used, from 'Sing Sing Sing' with Jimmy Vincent on, that was red hot," he says. "Things like 'Zuma Zuma Baca La' — supercharged, the pure energy of it. For me, what attracted me to punk rock is also what attracted me to Prima. He put out so much energy and feeling in the music he was playing. It was visceral, not intellectual. It's the kind of music you respond to on a strictly emotional level."
There's also the issue of defending Prima's legacy as a serious innovator of jazz, despite critics' attempts to frame him as a clownish entertainer. Both are true, Raeburn argues. "One of the things that anyone who attends all these papers will come away with is that there is a kind of consensus view of Prima as someone who transcends boundaries, transcends styles, was very honest and sincere as a musician, and had trouble with the critics, to some extent, as a result of that. But the historians will, I think, have the last word over the critics on Louis Prima."