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Celebrating a Life of Music: Yvonne Busch

Tod Smith By

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Because of Miss Busch, instead of just being a drummer, now I'm a musician. —James Black
On this Wednesday night, it was all about the music, the musicians and their teacher. Yvonne Busch may not be a household name, but to those who came to play at this jam session held in her honor at Donna's Bar & Grill, she may very well be the first name in New Orleans music. From local favorites like tenor-man James Rivers to the internationally acclaimed drummer Herlin Riley, this group of musicians came to pay tribute to the woman who many credit with getting them started into a life of music, Yvonne Busch. And they did it the best way they knew how, by playing the music she inspired them to appreciate, respect and love.

"Miss Busch" is a legend among local high school musicians and music teachers of the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's. Her marching bands set trends, while her concert bands were demanding and precise. At a time when women were more likely to be home economics teachers, Miss Busch chose to guide her students through the complexities of music. And they responded. A short list of these students reads like a who's who among New Orleans musicians including; James "Sugar Boy" Crawford whose musical legacy includes "Jock-A-Mo," later covered as "Iko Iko;” drummer Herb Taylor, himself an educator and working drummer named one of New Orleans' "Living Legends of jazz" in 1993; Ernie Elly, one of the top jazz drummers in New Orleans; James Rivers, whose movie soundtracks have earned him international fans and of course, Herlin Riley high school trumpet player turned. James Black, the late, great jazz drummer who went on to play with Cannonball and Nat Adderly, Horace Silver, Lionel Hampton and John Coltrane once said that because of Miss Busch, "instead of just being a drummer, now I'm a musician."

At age 12, Yvonne Busch was on the road with the "Swinging Rays of Rhythm," an all female orchestra started as the "International Sweethearts of Rhythm." Traveling throughout the Midwest and South, the "Swinging Rays of Rhythm" often played to record crowds. Earl "Fatha" Hines was so impressed with Yvonne that he sought out her parents Edward and Bertha Busch in New Orleans to ask if he and his wife could adopt Yvonne. Upon graduating from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Miss Busch began her life as an educator in the New Orleans Public Schools and for the next 32 years she nurtured in her students a love of music that continues for many of them to this day.

That brings us to this jam session at Donna's. Organized by one of her former students, Leonard Smith, III the free form, “open-mic” set celebrated Miss Busch's contribution to the New Orleans music scene. Featuring James Rivers and Julius Handy on tenors, Chris Severin on bass, Ben Singleton on trombone, Clyde Kerr, Jr. and Jerry Green on trumpets, Theron Lewis on guitar and piano and Herlin Riley on drums, the size of the band easily over-powered the small stage at Donna's. This was a night of jazz. From the opening selection of "Song for my Father," it was evident that while these musicians did not play together often, they did share a common bond - a love of music and a love of Yvonne Busch. Rivers and Handy traded solos throughout the evening, while Kerr provided the nuance and introspect developed through years as a performer and teacher.

One of the highlights of the evening was a solo performance of "Misty" by trombonist Ben Singleton. As he effortlessly explored this Errol Garner classic, a hushed silence filled Donna's making the sound of his horn even more poignant. Singleton, Riley and Handy can be heard on Deacon John's new release "Deacon John's Jump Blues" from Vetter Communications.

This was truly a classic jam session as members of the audience could sit in or just simply listen to former classmates and band members play and talk about their teacher. Sessions like this are a mainstay at Donna's and a tradition in New Orleans music.

Smith plans a documentary on the life of Yvonne Busch and the musicians who performed this night will figure prominently in its production. Hers is a life built around unselfishly educating students and turning them into musicians. In a biography of Yvonne Busch, written by New Orleans writer Al Kennedy, Herlin Riley states, "Miss Busch was a lot like jazz. She was intense, but she was relaxed. She had rules, but she would give you the freedom to explore. She stressed discipline, but she encouraged self-expression." What more could you ask of a teacher?

Until next time, see you `Round About New Orleans.

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