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Carnival’s Big Band Sound

René Louapre, conductor of the René Louapre Society Orchestra, a mainstay of the New Orleans Carnival season for most of the 20th century.

My Dad played for 50 Comus [balls]. He even had a specially made gold tails jacket he wore just for that.”

Henri Louapre’s father was René Louapre, conductor of the René Louapre Society Orchestra, a mainstay of the New Orleans Carnival season for most of the 20th century.

Rene Louapre died in 1987 at the age of 71. He was a ’32 graduate of Warren Easton High School – and a ’33 graduate of Jesuit High School. According to his son, the 16-year-old was a little young for college, and since Jesuit needed a trumpet player that year he managed to get two high school diplomas. A music degree from Loyola University followed, and he received a master’s degree in music from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

Ultimately, the senior Louapre spent 32 years working for the Orleans Parish Public Schools, most notably as Supervisor of Instrumental Music. “That was when all the schools had orchestras – not just bands,” according to Henri.

René Louapre, in a 1984 interview with All Right, a WWOZ-FM radio magazine, said he had his first trumpet lesson at the age of 10, and soon was playing cornet with the Sons of Firemen, who gave him a free horn. He had some private music lessons, played in school and, after he had a full time job, he kept playing at night. He was soon playing regularly with the Leslie George Orchestra, which provided music for many of the old-line Carnival krewes. After Mardi Gras went on hiatus during World War II (which Louapre spent in the U.S. Army), Leslie George left the city.

René Louapre picked up the baton and his Society Orchestra began playing for balls and other events. Soon, as many as 40 Carnival balls might be on the Louapre calendar.

Meanwhile, he kept up with his day job and his family grew. As son Henri explains, “It’s a difficult life when you’re trying to work in the day and play music till 4 o’clock in the morning.

“It was hard. I never spent a New Year’s Eve with my father, because he always played the New Orleans Country Club,” says Henri Louapre.

Cecilia Wark Louapre took on the responsibility of raising the family. The Louapre clan ultimately included five children: Kathleen (Howell): Cecilia (Taylor); Dr. René Louapre III, Margaret (Arnold); and Henri “the caboose,” currently chairman of the Loubat Equipment Company. Kathleen graduated from Dominican College; the rest graduated, like their father, from Loyola University New Orleans.

The Louapre family didn’t listen to music at home, and their mother didn’t play instruments. The children all took lessons. The girls played in the band at Dominican High School. René III was the only one who joined his father as a musician on stage, but Henri helped his father with management and travel details as the years went on.

After all those social occasions and music, René Louapre’s concept of the ideal vacation atmosphere was peace and quiet. As Henri remembers, “When we were very small we would go traveling. We would go up to Montana and Canada. He drove. We all had assigned seats, and the car was a [19]57 Plymouth. We loaded it up, and went. One year we drove all the way up to Lake Louise, in Canada.”

The leader wasn’t the only one working two jobs in Louapre’s orchestra, which usually had 14 or so members. In a 1968 interview in New Orleans Magazine, René Loupare listed some of his musicians’ other occupations:

saxophonist Jim Rush was the traffic manager at WDSU-TV; Lloyd Daigle played guitar and was a pharmacist at Maison Blanche; and trombonist Angelo Castigliola worked at Woodward Wight & Co.

While he could take a summer off from his two occupations,  Louapre’s orchestra might not get a regular break on the bandstand, playing nonstop through an event. This style of playing became fashionable in the post-war era through New York bandleader Lester Lanin.

According to Jimmy Maxwell, son of Louapre’s drummer Eddie Maxwell and now leader of the Jimmy Maxwell Orchestra, Lester Lanin once played a job at the New Orleans Country Club. Louapre heard him and picked up on the popularity of nonstop music. Lanin’s “businessman’s bounce” wasn’t far from Louapre’s cheerful one-step.

Louapre commented in 1968 that the one-step was the ideal beat for call-out dances since the krewe members might get drowsy in their restrictive masks and need a little energizing on the dance floor. “We save the dreamy, slow romantic ballads for the dancing after the call-outs.”

According to Maxwell, and to Louapre in his 1968 interview, the pattern for music at Carnival balls still involves hard work for the band members. There might be a small group playing for the krewe members before the ball, then the ball begins with march music (the “Triumphal March” from Aida, the “Coronation March” from Le Prophete and, for Rex, “If Ever I Cease to Love.” Suitable music for the tableaux follows – whether classical or show-tunes, it’s carefully orchestrated and timed to suit the performance – and then music for dancing. The band might play another four hours for the Queen’s Supper or the supper dance following the ball.

As Louapre noted in 1968, the goal of the orchestra is to get happy dancers out on the floor. “Music must make people happy – it’s an emotional healer as well as a business.”

As Maxwell points out: “The aim is to see how many people you can get on the dance floor.”

Maxwell himself was once part of the Louapre Orchestra, and now his own son is assisting him. In all those years, the musicians have continually adapted popular tunes. As Maxwell explains, “Under René Louapre, you might play “In the Mood,” “Mack the Knife” and “New York, New York;” later on “Brown-Eyed Girl” was popular.”

“Nowadays we might play “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, or “I Got a Feeling” from the Black Eyed Peas.”

Rene Louapre used to occasionally play a favorite tune of someone on the dance floor. Jimmy Maxwell notes, “Older people, some still have signature songs. I will squeeze their song in, they will look up, there’s an acknowledgement.”

Today, Jimmy Maxwell’s Orchestra often plays in other cities. Louapre’s orchestra traveled too, but not as extensively. Maxwell has a more national focus since he was in business with New York orchestra leader Peter Duchin for some years.

The make-up of groups has changed, too. “Sometimes I bring down musicians from New York, guys I knew with Duchin’s band. If you’re playing a party in Atlanta, you may have a bass player from Chicago.”

Like René Louapre in his later years, Maxwell fields orchestras for both the Rex and Comus balls. Louapre always was at Comus, but for some years The Harry Morel Orchestra played for Rex.

As Maxwell explains, this Mardi Gras night, “there will be two 14- or 15- piece orchestras. I am responsible for both.

I’m there for the beginning of Rex, I then turn over the conducting, then I reappear across the street for the beginning of Comus and I see Comus through to the end of the night.”

Or until the last dancer leaves the floor.

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