sent in by Dean Burridge
His name was originally Pierre Dewey LaFontaine, Jr., and he was born on N. White Street between Dumaine and St. Ann in a small Creole French frame house that sat right on the street in New Orleans. His father later changed his own name, and Junior followed suit.
He started playing clarinet as a child at McDonogh 28 City Park Academy on Esplanade Avenue. As a child he was very sickly, frequently battling respiratory infections due to weakened lungs. He was given expensive medication but it proved to be not very effective. During a pharmacy visit, his father began a discussion with a neighborhood doctor who was also there shopping and talked with him about his son’s condition. The doctor agreed to see the boy the following day. After a short exam, the doctor confirmed the weak lung condition and advised the father to try an unorthodox treatment: purchase the child a musical instrument, anything he has to blow into. The same day, they went to a local music store and given his choice of instruments, he chose the clarinet (after first wanting the drums, which his father declined per the doctor’s orders). At first he was unable to produce a sound from the instrument, but he continued to practice and eventually not only made sounds and eventually music, but greatly improved the health of his lungs.
He took private lessons but also learned to play jazz by playing along with the phonograph records of first Benny Goodman and then Irving Fazola. Early on he played with the bands of Monk Hazel and Al Hirt. With his longtime friend, trumpeter George Girard, He founded The Basin Street Six in 1950.
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