Leon Roppolo

LEON ROPPOLO –  Born Lutcher,  Louisiana, March 16th 1902;   died Echuca, Vic January 4th 1997

One of the most important pioneers of New Orleans-style clarinet playing died in his adopted nation of Australia, aged 94.   Leon Roppolo (frequently misspelled Rappolo) first established himself as a vital jazz voice while playing with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings from 1922-25.  Although it’s hard to discern from listening to the primitive recordings of the day, Roppolo was far ahead of his contemporaries both harmonically and rhythmically, displaying a freedom that was not to become familiar in the jazz world until the 1950s. 

Between 1926 and 1931 he was out of music, treated for mental disorders. Upon his recovery and release in 1932, Roppolo formed a small combo with fellow New Orleans reedman Irving Fazola, playing for three years at Chicago’s famed Three Deuces nightclub.

In 1935, the  sextet (two reeds, guitar, vibes, piano, bass and drums) had its own network radio show on NBC, helping to give the group’s hot new chamber jazz sound a national audience.   The sextet broke up in 1937 when Fazola left to join the Bob Crosby band.  Resolutely opposed to the disciplines of big band swing, Roppolo turned down many requests to join larger ensembles.  Instead, throughout the trad boom of the 1940s, he worked with mostly (then) unknown musicians like Bob Wilber and Bill Stegmeyer, playing the New Orleans repertoire with remarkable freshness and zeal.  In 1944-45 he formed his second great two-reed band, working on 52nd St. with Joe Marsala and Joe’s harp-playing wife Adele Girard.

In 1951, after hearing a record of the Bell brothers band from Melbourne, and consulting with his friend Rex Stewart, Roppolo sailed to Australia, where he made a series of sparkling recordings with the Bells for the Ampersand label. 

Sales were good and the experience so inspired him that he applied for citizenship and was given permission to settle in Australia.

 He joined Len Barnard’s band, mostly playing alto sax, and at the 1956 Jazz Convention, he played in yet another two reed front line with ardent admirer Ade Monsbourgh, winning loud applause and demands for no less that seven encores.

In 1958, joined by Joe Marsala, Roppolo and Monsbourgh toured Australia and the far east. Later Roppolo and John Sangster began performing Leon’s own compositions like Terrick Moon, Nathalia Backwater and Roger’s Rag, which have since become traditional jazz standards around the world.  He was a familiar figure at jazz conventions throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, returning to New Orleans only once, in 1979, for a street parade in  his honour.  In 1981 he bought a home along the Murray River to be near his friend Ade Monsbourgh in Nathalia, where the two often played impromptu duets in the Town Hall to the amazement and delight of on-lookers. 

In his later years he gave clarinet lessons to future Aussie jazz stars such as Andrew Firth.  He died at an Echuca nursing home with his Australian-born wife of 40 years, Mary, and a host of grandchildren by his side.