Louis James was a New Orleans traditional jazz string bass player, clarinetist, and multi-instrumentalist.
Louis James was a New Orleans traditional jazz multi-instrumentalist known for performing and recording with “Sweet” Emma Barrett, Manuel Manetta, Percy Humphrey, and Kid Howard. James is perhaps best remembered as a member of Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight.
James was born on April 9, 1890, in Johnson Ridge, near Thibodaux. He was born into a musical family: four brothers, an uncle, and several cousins were musicians. James’s first instrument was a “heel and head comb”—a term he used to describe the process of blowing through tissue paper stretched across a comb while stomping a foot in time. This simple mouthpiece was followed by the mandolin around age eight, and James soon took up the violin as well, likely inspired to learn stringed instruments by the great south Louisiana fiddler Joe Gabriel, with whom he would later perform. While still in his teens, James started on the clarinet, influenced by hearing George Baquet perform with John Robichaux’s band in Thibodaux. James taught himself the tenor saxophone from a “method book.” Clarinet would continue to be his main instrument until his mid-twenties, when he took up the string bass.
In 1915 James relocated to New Orleans, though he would travel back and forth a number of times between New Orleans and Johnson Ridge/Thibodaux, playing with his siblings in the James Brothers Orchestra, the Joe Gabriel band, and the Youka Brass Band. The early years of James’s career were marked by musical collaborations with Amos Riley, Joe Howard, Kid Rena, and Willie Pajaud, as well as work with Frank Duson and Jack Carey.
In 1926 James began performing with Louis Dumaine’s Jazzola Eight, one of the hottest jazz groups of the 1920s. Toward the end of Dumaine’s life, James often played string bass with the band leader as well as tenor saxophone and clarinet. The year 1927 marked James’s first recording with the Jazzola Eight, “Red Onion Rag,” released by the Victor Recording Company. This record remains well regarded in the jazz canon today.
After James’s success with Dumaine, the following decades found him performing with noted musicians Manuel Manetta, Kid Howard, John Robichaux, and Percy Humphrey. He soon formed the Louis James String Band, with whom he would record a session in 1965 and release it on the Mono label. James played violin on this recording; the album displayed a rougher, more “country” version of fiddle playing that was dismissed and labeled by critics at the time as being inferior.
The Louis James Orchestra would record an album released by La Croix Records in 1967; it would be the last record James would record. He appeared at Preservation Hall until his retirement in 1965.
James died on October 26, 1967, in New Orleans.