From 1925 until his death in 1964, Joe James was the regular pianist in Kid Thomas’s band.
Though not as well remembered as many of the jazz greats with whom he played, New Orleans pianist Joseph “Joe” James nonetheless retains an important position in the annals of New Orleans jazz. As the longtime pianist for Kid Thomas Valentine’s band, James directly contributed to the development of that band’s trademark sound and style. He also recorded extensively with many of the bands with which he played, most notably those led by Kid Thomas and Emile Barnes. Shortly before his death, James was featured on now classic Riverside Records’ Living Legends series.
James was born in the Algiers section of New Orleans in 1901. His first instrument was the banjo, which he began playing in his early teens. James took lessons from Professor Dave Perkins, traveling from his family’s home in Algiers to Perkins’s Garden District residence across the river. Perkins’s other students included jazz notables Baby Dodds and Red Clark. James took up guitar as well as the banjo and soon started on piano as well, taking lessons from Manuel Manetta. Piano would quickly become James’s primary instrument.
From 1925 until his death in 1964, James was the regular pianist in Kid Thomas’s band. During this time he appeared on all the group’s recordings, including a rare vocal by James on “Stingaree Blues” off the album New Orleans Jazz Society. The 1950s and early 1960s would be James’s most prolific recording era. The 1954 album Dance Hall Days featured Isaiah Morgan’s dance hall band and the Kid Thomas band, recorded at the Fleur de Lis Ballroom in Biloxi, Mississippi. The year 1959 would bring Thomas’s Creole Jazz Band album, featuring James on piano along with banjo player George Guesnon, trombonist Louis Nelson, and drummer Sammy Penn. In 1960 James was featured on the album Kid Thomas Band with Raymond Burke, recorded by Dr. John Phelan. Kid Thomas: The Dance Hall Years was a 1964 compilation of recordings made at Kohlman’s Tavern in Algiers. This album featured James on piano along with James “Sing” Miller, Joseph “Twat” Butler, Emanuel Paul, Louis Nelson, and Sammy Penn.
In 1961 James performed often with Emile Barnes’s band, along with Eddie Richardson on trumpet. A photo from the Ralston Crawford photography collection at the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University in New Orleans shows James at the piano during a rehearsal at Richardson’s sister’s home in New Orleans for a recording session for the Music of New Orleans (MONO) record label, owned by Barry Martyn.
But it was James’s recordings made for Riverside’s Living Legends series just a few short years before his death that would be his most well-remembered musical output on wax. Featuring Emile Barnes, Sammy Penn, Joseph Butler (vocals), Louis Nelson, Kid Thomas, and others, it is an album of standard tunes of the jazz, dance, and pop song genres, including “China Boy,” “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “Bye and Bye.” After James’s death, Thomas was said to have had a difficult time finding a replacement player who could perform in James’s trademark stomping, hard-driving style.
James died on October 18, 1963, in New Orleans.