Born: January 1, 1884 Primary Instrument: Cornet
Oscar “Papa” Celestin - trumpet, bandleader (1884 - 1954)
Papa Celestin was one of the most popular of New Orleans cornet players, and considered a major player in the development of jazz. Most of the great New Orleans players up to 1950 played for Papa one time or another.
Celestin was born in Napoleonville, Louisiana, and was inspired at an early age to become a musician. He played guitar and trombone before deciding on cornet as his main instrument. He played with various small town bands before moving to New Orleans in 1906.
Arriving in New Orleans, Celestin became a member of Henry Allen Sr.’s Excelsior band in 1908. In 1910 Celestin started the Original Tuxedo Jazz Orchestra which would become one of the most enduring bands with musicians like Peter Bocage, Louis Armstrong, Bebe Ridgley, Lorenzo Tio, Jr. and Isidore Barbarin. Oscar was not a good reader, and often used the 2nd cornetist for the 'hot' solos. Never-the-less, he was one of the most popular musicians in old New Orleans. Dressing the band in tuxedos, the Tuxedo became one of the most popular bands hired for society functions, both black and white.
During the 1920's, the importance of work on the riverboats became the pretext for the creation of an African-American local of the American Federation of Musicians in New Orleans. While groups led by Fate Marable, affiliated with the black AFM local in the home port of St. Louis, local bands such as those of Oscar Celestin had to travel to Mobile, Alabama--the closet black local--to file contracts for jobs on the Capitol, then a very popular riverboat showcasing jazz bands. The work on the riverboats was vital in the promotion and dispersal of jazz to a broader audience, and was also very competitive from a musician’s standpoint.
Celestin began recording with his own groups for Okeh from 1925 until the Depression forced him to give up the group. During World War II he was found working in a shipyard. After the war Celestin re-formed his band as the New Tuxedo Band, and began recording for various companies and doing live broadcasts from local radio stations. He was also a mainstay and tourist attraction on Bourbon Street.
In the 1950’s he reformed then again another band Papa Celestin’s New Orleans Band, which was one of the most popular jazz groups for a short while in the period. The veteran trumpeter (who was in his mid-sixties but seemed older) performed spirited versions of New Orleans standards, even getting to play once at the White House in the Eisenhower years. His last recording singing, Marie LaVeau, in 1954, is considered a voodoo cult classic
In view of the tremendous contribution Celestin made in jazz throughout his lifetime, the Jazz Foundation of New Orleans had a bust made and donated to the Delgado Museum in New Orleans. Near the end of his life, he was honored as one of the greats of New Orleans music. 4000 people marched in his funeral parade when he died in 1954.