Local trumpeter remembered

Published 12:03 am Sunday, June 20, 2010

NATCHEZ — Musician Willie McCoy said if you tried to play your trumpet against the late James “Jimmy” Rowan Jr., it had better be good because Rowan was always ready to play.

McCoy, who now lives in Yazoo City, returned to Natchez to attend services for Rowan, 84, after having been separated for approximately 60 years.

“I came because I saw it in the paper,” McCoy said. “We played in a number of bands together. We were always musically friendly.”

Ralph Jennings said Rowan, his friend, was often thought of as the King Oliver of Natchez.

“If you look at pictures of them both, you can see that they blew the horn similarly and lipped it the same way,” Jennings said. “As a man, I admired him, and he was a mentor of mine.”

Jennings said Rowan, who played Oliver in a 1987 Broadway musical, had met Louis Armstrong and had developed a similar style of music — New Orleans Jazz — which helped him land the role. But Rowan, who was always confident with his talents, wanted to land a bigger role in the play.

“In ‘Satchmo,’ Jimmy had inspired to blow the lead trumpet,” Jennings said. “But the play was about a period in Louis Armstrong’s life where he was in his thirties, so they were not looking for a guy in his seventies.

“So he ended up playing King Oliver, who was Armstrong’s mentor.”

Rowan heard about the auditions, which were held in New Orleans, while working a steady gig at the Under-the-Hill Saloon, where he landed after playing in many bands during the 1970s and 1980s throughout the country.

But it all started at Brumfield School, where he learned many different instruments.

“He played trumpet more than anything else, but he always recommended that people learn the piano,” Felicia Scott, Rowan’s niece, said.

Learning music didn’t start off easy, though. Jennings said Rowan struggled to develop musically after the Rhythm Night Club fire killed his high school’s band director and for years, the Brumfield High School did not have a band.

“He played professionally during this time, but without being formally trained, he struggled,” Jennings said.

Once he graduated in 1944, he was drafted into the U.S. Air Force, along with almost every male in his class, Jennings said.

“Jimmy was always proud of his service,” Jennings said. “He never talked about doing any fighting in the war, but he did talk about accompanying musicians to entertain the troops.

“He went all around the South Pacific inspiring the tired troops with his music.”

Before Rowan finished his degree in education at Alcorn State University, he got a job as the band director in Meadville.

“He said at first the school couldn’t afford to pay him, so he lived off of what the parents could spare,” Scott said. “But when the school saw how well he was doing, they started picking up his salary.”

Jennings said Rowan also spent many years teaching in the Baton Rouge area.

“Most of his contemporaries were band leaders in south Mississippi, but Jimmy gravitated toward Louisiana,” Jennings said. “His student band at Port Allen, (La.), won a lot of competitions.

“He would always talk about how he took a group of kids from disinterested to interested in music — many of whom were the same kids.”

Scott said her uncle, who never married or had any kids, always pushed his nieces and nephews to take pride in their education.

“When I finished nursing school as an adult, he made sure he had someone to bring him to the graduation,” Scott said. “When we were younger, we’d always send him copies of our report cards to show him we were doing well.”

Rowan had suffered with diabetes for many years and that was likely the cause of his death, Scott said.

Rowan will be buried Monday at 9:30 a.m. at the Natchez National Cemetery.

Survivors include two sisters, Gladys LaBeaud of New Orleans and Delores Brown of Hartford, Conn.; two brothers, Joseph Rowan and wife, Elaine, and Clarence Rowan and wife, Evelyn, of Chicago; a number of nieces and nephews, Sharon Herbert, Darryl, Pierre and Faith LaBeaud, all of New Orleans, Elnora Rowan of Hartford, Felicia Scott and husband, Johnny, of Magnolia, Katra, Lasharme, Conya and Gary Rowan, all of Country Club Hill, Ill., Natasha Clifton and Akilah King, both of Nashville, Tenn., Charles Rowan Jr. and Joseph A. Rowan, both of Chicago, Nile Rowan of Los Angeles, and Gregory Marsaw of Jacksonville, Fla.; two aunts, Nancy Lewis and Ethel Rowan; and a special brother-in-law, Levi Marsaw III, all of Natchez.