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 of his death. My mother told me many 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-grandparents, Octave Janvier Bocage and Germine Haydel Gayaut, had 21 children, with six surviving to adulthood. Octave was not musical, but his sons Leopold “Paul” and John Anthony both played guitar. Paul, a semi-professional musician, played with the Pickwick and the Jim Dorsey bands in the New Orleans area. Paul married Emilie Elizabeth Lamothe and their oldest surviving child, Peter Edwin Bocage, was a trained violinist. Peter also taught himself to play the cornet, trombone and xylophone, and wrote and arranged music for his many bands.
In 1918, Peter helped renowned musician Fate Marable organize the first ten-piece Black orchestra to play on the S.S. Capitol that traveled up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Red Wing, Minnesota. During the winter months they played weekend dances in New Orleans for whites only. But in the spring of 1919, Peter didn’t want to be away from home, so he found his replacement: the up-and-coming Louis Armstrong. Louis played for three seasons on the Capitol. Peter helped launch Louis Armstrong’s jazz career.
“Paul” and his wife Emilie’s third son, my grandfather Charles Leopold Bocage, played banjo, rhythm guitar and violin, all by ear. He was also an occasional vocalist. When he joined the Armand J. Piron band as a banjo player, he played with his brothers Henry on bass and Peter on trumpet, as well as my great-uncle Augustin Lorenzo Tio Jr. on clarinet and tenor sax, and Piron on violin, among others. They played every night at Tranchina’s Restaurant in New Orleans until 1928.
The Piron band was the first Black group to play the Cotton Club in Harlem in May 1923, as well as the first Black band to record for Victor Records in December 1923. Grandfather Charles sang the falsetto lead on the “Kiss Me, Sweet” recording. They also recorded for Columbia and Okeh Records. They were the first Black band to play at the Roseland Ballroom in Harlem, as well as the Lafayette Theatre, and Club Deluxe. They broadcasted regularly from WJY starting on January 11, 1924.
In 1928, Charles joined his brother Peter in the Creole Serenaders, along with my great-uncles Henry, Lorenzo Tio Jr. on clarinet, and other noted musicians. They played at the Old Absinthe House in the French Quarter every night for three years, their jazz performances broadcasted on the local radio station WWL. The Creole Serenaders became popular in a lot of small rural towns, particularly those within a day’s drive of New Orleans. Occasionally they played as far away as Pensacola, Florida and Mobile, Alabama. It is unclear when and why Charles quit playing, but he left the music he loved to work as a train porter. He died at 63 years in New Orleans in 1963.
The Bocages were highly regarded by their peers. Professor Alden Ashforth 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 said, “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 where everyone sat in the living room 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 his in-laws made to New Orleans music. They may not have been a big commercial success, but they were very rich all the same because of the admiration of their peers. 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.
Author: Charlotte Marie Bocage is a full-time professional genealogist with more than four decades of experience. She is the Bocage Family genealogist and historian tracing one line of her paternal family back to 17th century Europe. She has published three family history books. She has taught at Family Tree University, and the UCLA Osher Lifelong Learning Program. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Southern California Genealogical Society and Research Library, and as First Vice President of the Pasadena Area African American Genealogical Society. She was a Vice President and Program chair of the California African American Genealogical Society. Charlotte lectures at societies and conferences across the United States.
Charlotte graduated from UCLA with a BA in Communication Studies.