New Orleans is a magnet for foreign musicians, migrants who come seeking a culture, and a place to make a name and career. Grammy-winning Jon Cleary, and veteran jazz man Barry Martyn from England; Katja Toivola from Finland; June Yamagishi from Japan; Fredy Omar from Honduras; and, with apologies for an abbreviated list, our subject this month, Lars Edegran, born in Sweden.

Edegran is the Palm Court Jazz Cafe’s mainstay bandleader. He has been a prolific New Orleans artist for more than half a century now, absent a few stretches in New York and London. His list of recordings is as long as your arm and his memory of the music is a story of the town.

Born in 1944, he grew up in Stockholm surrounded by music. “My father played banjo and guitar, my older brother played piano, and I began piano lessons at 7,” Lars recalls. “But I wasn’t keen on classical music. In my early teens I began playing jazz, which was extremely popular in Sweden in the late 1950s and early ’60s, before the Beatles. Jazz bands played at school dances, universities and little clubs. I made my first recording in ’61.”

In 1965 Edegran met Bob Koester, who offered him a job in his Chicago record shop. “That’s how I got the visa,” Lars said. “He was my sponsor. On the application at the American Embassy, I had to say I wouldn’t be a burden to the state. The immigration laws were a lot easier in those days. I didn’t know how long I’d be there.”

Five months after reaching Chicago, Edegran visited New Orleans. “I was playing clarinet and met the Olympia’s Harold Dejan, and through him ended up in Andrew Morgan’s Young Tuxedo, playing funerals,” he recalls. “They still had Saturday night dance halls in the ’60s, like Munster’s at Lyons and Laurel (streets). They needed a guitarist, so I bought one from a pawn shop on Rampart Street. Harry Shields heard me play there. He told me Sharkey Bonano was looking for a piano player who could double on guitar. I ended up in Sharkey’s last band, playing mostly private jobs.” Alan Jaffe, the tuba player and director of Preservation Hall, wanted Lars to play with the band on television. “You had to be a union member. There were two at the time; I joined the black union,” Edegran said.
Meanwhile, Lars founded the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, which he anchors on piano and has taken on the European festival circuit. In the late 1970s he went to New York as music director for Vernel Bagnaris’s musical One Mo’ Time. On tour in London, he met the woman who became his wife. Today, Kathy Edegran manages Palm Court with owner Nina Buck. A floor above the bandstand, Lars has a day job managing the GHB Jazz Foundation and distribution of the many recordings done by Nina’s husband, the late George Buck – including New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra CDs.

“Lars looked like a blond choirboy when he arrived,” says clarinetist Tommy Sancton, who was himself just getting started at the time. “He learned from legendary local pianists like Sweet Emma, Billie Pierce, Jeanette Kimball and Lester Santiago. He developed an eclectic style that’s unmistakably New Orleans, and unmistakably his own. I admired the energy and enthusiasm he brought to his music, both as a player and as a leader and organizer of very interesting bands and shows. I have enjoyed playing with him, on and off, for over 50 years now – hard to believe. He’s an all-around musician, and a great asset to the culture of his adopted city.”

See Edegran Play

The New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra will perform at this year’s French Quarter Fest at 2 p.m. on April 8 at the Palm Court Jazz Café.

Edegran will also play at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 28 with Tommy Sancton’s Legacy Band, and on April 30 leading the Palm Court All Stars.