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Music Inside Out: Tom Sancton

Jamming at Preservation Hall. l to r Slow Drag Pavageau, Dede Pierce, George Lewis, Tommy Sancton. 1966.
Jamming at Preservation Hall. l to r Slow Drag Pavageau, Dede Pierce, George Lewis, Tommy Sancton. 1966.

It’s About People Coming Together Over Barriers

In the early 1960s, New Orleans was like any other destination on the Gulf Coast — hot, steamy and segregated, sometimes violently so. But the irrepressibly vibrant music culture of the city inspired civil disobedience among musicians and fans. In 1962, veteran African-American musicians at Preservation Hall became mentors to little Tommy Sancton — a young white clarinet student and devotee of traditional jazz. For two years, Sancton and his parents exchanged hospitalities with the men that were expressly forbidden by law. But in the summer of 1964, the Civil Rights Act brought the nation to its senses and laid a legal foundation for friendships across the color line to grow.

As a teenager, Tommy Sancton went on to play regularly with some of the great African-American artists of the day — clarinetists George Lewis and Willie Humphrey at Preservation Hall, and along parade routes with Harold “Duke” Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. For Sancton, the experience was an education far beyond what he was learning in school.

“For a 13 year-old to be hanging around with, worshipping, learning from and laughing with and eating with and playing parades with guys in their 60s and 70s and sometimes 80s or 90s — this was an exceptional thing,” Sancton tells Gwen. “I think it enriched me as a human being.”

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Gwen Thompkins is a New Orleans native, NPR veteran and host of WWNO's Music Inside Out, where she brings to bear the knowledge and experience she amassed as senior editor of Weekend Edition, an East Africa correspondent, the holder of Nieman and Watson Fellowships, and as a longtime student of music from around the world.