New Orleans jazz musician Alphonse Picou was born on Oct. 18, 1880. Picou was a talented clarinet player who played in bands throughout New Orleans and the French Quarter.
Picou came from a middle-class Creole family and at one point the musician lived in the Algiers neighborhood in New Orleans. He started playing music professionally as early as 1894, when he played with the Accordiana Band, led by accordion player Henry Peyton. A few years later, he formed his own group, called the Independence Band.
Picou later played with the Excelsior Brass Band, Freddie Keppard’s Olympia Band, the Golden Leaf Orchestra, the Crescent City Orchestra, the Papa Celestin Band and the Tuxedo Brass Band. He also had a brief stint in Chicago, where he played with fellow New Orleans musician Manuel Perez.
For a time in the 1930s, Picou found it difficult to make a living as a musician and worked as a tinsmith. But he returned to music in the 1940s.
Picou is most known for creating the clarinet solo for the marching band song “High Society,” composed by Porter Steele in 1901. Because of the solo, the song would become a New Orleans jazz standard.
Picou died on February 5, 1961, in his daughter’s home in Treme.
A 1961 Associated Press article about Picou’s death quotes the clarinetist’s amazement at “High Society’s” popularity: “I just happened to think of playing it that way one night, and the crowd went wild. They kept requesting it over and over and wouldn’t let me stop.”
Picou’s funeral procession was an elaborate showcase of classic New Orleans tradition. It featured several musicians and brass bands, including the last band Picou performed with, the 10-piece Eureka Brass Band. The bands accompanied the funeral procession for several blocks, playing traditional funeral songs and hymns.
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