Southern California Genealogical Society

A Musical Legacy
By Charlotte Marie Bocage

All of my life I questioned my Mother about my family. My father Charles Joseph Bocage Sr. died when I was almost five years old. We moved from New Orleans to Los Angeles within six months after his death on Christmas Eve. My mother told stories about my father’s family. As I got older I tried to find out if the stories were true. My genealogical search revealed a lot about my family.

My great-great-grandfather Octave Janvier Bocage married Marie Germine [Haydell] Gayaut on 30 April 1851. Together they had 21 children with six surviving to adulthood. I have documented 12 of the 17 children found through birth, marriage or death records.

My grandfather Charles Leopold Bocage came from a prominent boat building family and noted musical family in the Algiers community of New Orleans, Louisiana. Octave Sr. along with his sons Leopold and Octave F. won international prizes for their boat designs . Octave was not musical but his sons Leopold "Paul" and John Anthony both played guitar. My great-grandfather Paul a semi-professional musician playing with the Pickwick Band, and the Jim Dorsey band in the New Orleans area. Leopold married Emilie (Elizabeth) Lamothe on 2 September 1885 in New Orleans, Louisiana. They had eight children of which five survived to adulthood. Peter Edwin Bocage the oldest of the surviving children was born 31 July 1887 . Peter was a trained violinist, and accomplished musician. He taught himself how to play cornet, trombone and xylophone. He wrote and arranged music for his bands and others. Throughout his career he led several bands, taught others to read music and play instruments.

I often heard the following story I considered only a family legend. However, I found this story to be true and was verified by several printed independent sources.

The S.S. Capitol traveled up the Mississippi from New Orleans eventually to Red Wing, Minnesota. In 1918 Peter helped Fate Marable (a renowned New Orleans musician) organize the first ten-piece orchestra of color to play on the ship. During the winter months they played weekend dances in New Orleans for whites only. However, when the ship was to sail north to St. Louis during the spring of 1919, Peter didn’t want to go because he didn’t want to be away from home too long. He took Fate to the Co-operative Hall in New Orleans to meet the person he had chosen to take his place on the trip to St. Louis. Fate Marable immediately liked and signed the up and coming Louis Armstrong. Armstrong stayed on the ship for about three seasons. According to Knowles, Peter said, “Armstrong ‘was musically born’ with a ‘million dollars worth of talent .” So, Peter was very instrumental in giving Louis Armstrong his start in the jazz business. The rest, as they say is history.

My grandfather Charles Leopold Bocage was born 14 January 1900 . He was the youngest of the surviving children born to Leopold "Paul" Bocage and Emilie "Elizabeth" Lamothe. He married Mary Eve Charles in 1920 . My father Charles Joseph Bocage Sr. was the oldest of seven children. My grandfather Charles played banjo, rhythm guitar and violin all by ear. He was also the vocalist with some bands. His oldest brother Peter recruited him to join the Armand J. Piron band. Some of the members of Piron’s band were: my great-uncle Henry Clay Bocage playing bass, my great-uncle Augustin Lorenzo Tio Jr. on clarinet and tenor sax, my grandfather Charles on banjo, my great-uncle Peter on trumpet, Piron played violin and other noted musicians were also in the band. They played every night at Dominick Tranchina’s Restaurant in the Spanish Fort section of New Orleans until 1928.

The band went to New York in May 1923 for “a short engagement at the Cotton Club [in Harlem] - the first Negro group to play in the club .” They returned to New York in November 1923 when Philip Werlein arranged for Piron ’s band to record for Victor Records in December 1923. They were “the first colored band to record for Victor .” My grandfather Charles sang the falsetto lead on the “Kiss Me, Sweet” recording because of his high mellow voice. They also recorded for Columbia Records, and Okeh Records while there. In addition to recording some tunes, they were the first colored band to play at the Roseland Ballroom at 151st and Broadway in Harlem . Roseland patrons danced to the Charleston and Tango music provided by the Piron band. While in New York they also played the Lafayette Theatre, and Club Deluxe. They broadcasted from WJY on January 11, 1924 and were in New York until February 1924.

In 1928 Charles L. Bocage left the Piron band to join his brother Peter in the Creole Serenaders. This new band consisted of my great-uncles Henry on bass violin, Lorenzo Tio Jr. on clarinet, and Peter on trumpet and violin, my grandfather Charles on banjo, and other noted musicians. They played all over the New Orleans area. Their most important engagement was at the Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter where they played every night for three years. You could hear their jazz performances on broadcasts for the local radio station WWL . The Creole Serenaders became popular in a lot of small rural towns, particularly ones that were within a day’s drive of New Orleans. They went to these towns and performed live in bars and restaurants. Occasionally they played as far way as Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama. The Creole Serenaders played mostly from written music, but they could also play by head or improvisational memory.

It is unclear when and why my grandfather Charles quit playing. He left the music he loved to work as porter on the trains. He died at 63 years, 9 months and 20 days in New Orleans on November 4, 1963 .

The Bocages were highly regarded by their peers. They set and held high standards for their work and they passed on their knowledge to countless others who have helped make jazz what it is today. In an interview with Professor Alden Ashforth he told me, “They were widely admired for their high standards of musicianship and upholding those standards, which was an important influence on the less-trained but more path-breaking blues and syncopation oriented musicians in the early days of the formation of jazz .”

On a trip to New Orleans I was able to visit the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University. I purchased an audio copy of an interview my grandfather, Charles Leopold Bocage, did with jazz historian Richard Allen . Upon returning home to my Aunt Carol's house, we played the recording. I looked over to see tears running down my aunt's face. She replied, It's been a long time since I've heard my Daddy's voice. I was there the day they did the interview with my father. I remember it well. She drew a floor plan of the living room and where everyone sat during the interview.

Their celebrity made it possible for me; future generations of my family and others to know how my grandfather spoke and the contributions he, his brothers and in-laws made to New Orleans music. They may not have been a big commercial success but they were very rich men because of the admiration from their peers and that is something we can all be proud of. I certainly am glad to be from a family with such a proud musical and ethical tradition.

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