Interview: The Gabriel Family - Six Generations of New Orleans Musicians

The Gabriel family, with their roots in New Orleans and a strong foothold in Detroit, has seen six generations of musicians anchor and pioneer the musical styles of New Orleans. Like their ancestors, who were musically active before jazz was a household word, the current generation carries on the family legacy, not only upholding New Orleans traditions but also branching out into other areas of music. Gabriel family members currently belong to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as well as lead the Detroit-based Gabriel Brass Band. In addition, they run festivals, publish books, and lead music businesses and non-profits, as well as continuing to provide music for church services, weddings, funerals, and other joyous and sorrowful events that require music.

I had the chance to sit down with three musical rocks of the Gabriel family: Dameon Gabriel, Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow and Larry Gabriel, in March of 2018. Trumpeter Dameon Gabriel currently leads the Gabriel Brass Band, which includes family members as well as other Detroit-based musicians. Building renovations have begun for the opening of Gabriel Hall, a new home for New Orleans music and food in Detroit. Journalist Larry Gabriel acts as grand marshal of the band, having written a book about the Gabriel family called Daddy Plays Old-Time New Orleans Jazz, as well as performing a one-man show about New Orleans legend Robert Charles. Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow, a pianist and organist, acts as music minister of St. Augustine-St. Monica Catholic Parish in Detroit. In 1984 she produced the first African-American Catholic hymnal, Lead Me, Guide Me: The African American Catholic Hymnal. In addition, she runs 'Jazz on the Lawn', an annual jazz festival in Detroit – and with Dameon leads the Gabriel Music Society, a charitable organization providing free instruments and music workshops to students in Detroit.

As there are so many accomplished Gabriel family members, I’ve chosen to focus on these three musicians’ personal experiences of music within their family. A full family tree can be found in Daddy Plays Old-Time New Orleans Jazz, and an overview of which can be found at



L - Larry Gabriel

M - Marjorie Gabriel-Burrow

D - Dameon Gabriel

J - Molly Jones


This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.


J: I would like to hear each of you talk about your first musical memory.


L: An enduring memory in my mind as a child is my father’s bass. It sat in our living room, in the corner, and nobody was allowed to touch it but my father, because that was what my father used to go out and earn money. That was his tool, and he was a worker. And that’s really my attitude as I grew up with music: it was a skill, and musicians were workers. It was literally, go out and play music, bring the money home for the family.


M: My first memories of playing, my grandfather had a little bitty white piano. I used to go over on Scotten [ed: the family home] and play because we didn’t have a piano. My father bought a piano when I was about six or seven.  It was from Grinnell Brothers, it was a brand new Wurlitzer. When we got that, I’d already started taking piano lessons from a neighborhood lady. My grandfather watched over me, and I didn’t get that discipline that he gave to his brother, but he did watch me. And every time I came over I had to play whatever I was learning. When I started being able to read chords, he pulled the books out. He was trying to show me how to play that New Orleans music. It was like reading a foreign language. I really couldn’t get the hang of it for a long time, but I tried anyway. He’d get his clarinet, and we played together for many years, since I was a kid.


D: My youngest memory of music is probably my dad holding a horn up to my lips and getting me to blow into it. I heard a story; I’m the youngest of the generation, me and Marjorie are first cousins, while Larry’s up there in the generation above us. My grandfather was able to see all of his grandkids before he passed, and I must have been two years old when he passed, but my uncle said Dammit, this one’s going to play music. So I would get lessons. My dad’s primary instrument was trumpet, but he played multiple instruments. It really wasn’t until after he passed where I started taking the stuff that he taught me a little more seriously, but it wasn’t until even way later that I understood the history. Even though I would hear stories here and there, your grandfather did this, your great grandfather did that, it just went in one ear and out the other.


M: I grew up around a lot of music. My father was a composer. My father composed music that was popular music, and he was very good, he was very gifted.  My uncle Charles will tell you, Dad could write up a song in a few minutes. He’s a real creative mind.


J: Are the songs your father wrote still things you play?  Do you have the music he’s written out for them?


M: I have a couple of pieces. One of them was recorded by John Lee Hooker. It’s on one of his albums. Dad said when John Lee Hooker did his song, he didn’t even recognize it anymore. He said, “I didn’t even know that was my song.” My Uncle Charles has some of his music, because he was thinking about putting it on one of [Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s] newer recordings, when they do another recording.


L: You know, we are resting on a bed that our older generations...people call us up, because we’re Gabriels! Somehow that Gabriel name has stuck with them as the people to call. Sometimes I’ll get calls from people, and they’ll say, well I called up such-and-such musician, and he said you gotta get the Gabriels to do this. But I started playing music when I was nineteen years old. Had never touched an instrument to play it before. I was at college and started hanging out with people who were into jazz. And they’d be talking about jazz people here and there, and I’d be like, I heard Daddy say something about that person, or, I heard Daddy talking about that before. Stuff that I just didn’t give any account to. That’s when I realized, oh, you know, I got the hookup. So I told Daddy, I said, Daddy I want to learn how to play bass. Blew him away, because I had shown no interest in music previous to that. I literally took the semester, I was in the Honors College at Michigan State, so I was able to arrange an independent study learning things from my father. I came home, went down in the basement, and Daddy...


D: Whooped you into shape?


L: I was reading music. What I didn’t do that I have suffered from only more recently is playing with records. The way it was taught to me was like, here’s the music on the page, read it.


M: My father had five brothers and we had my grandfather, they’d all come over to my house at the same time and they’d all be watching me. I was playing classical music, and I thought I was doing really good. The music was there, but I was playing it by heart, and my uncles started discussing the fact that I wasn’t reading the music. And I didn’t understand what the big deal was about me not reading music, because I’d learned it and I’d memorized it. They got into the biggest argument about this. Their discussions turned into arguments; they got very, very lively with their discussion. ‘SHE AIN’T READING THAT MUSIC!’ They got loud, and I’m a little kid, so that really scared me. That put a fear in me that has prevented me from being able to remember music now. I always need my music in front of me, even if I’m not reading it, I need it in front of me, because that was a really traumatic experience. Now if you go back to that article my grandfather has from that New Orleans magazine, you’ll see how much emphasis he places on reading the music.  He really stresses it, so he imparted that in me. He bought me books, he’d give me sheet music, he hand wrote all kinds of fabulous music for me, and he wanted me to READ the music. I still have the music he wrote for me.  It wasn’t until he had died, about a year later, all that New Orleans music that he was trying to show me how to play, it was all still so foreign to me.  Well one day at church, I was playing it. And in the middle of the song I said [gasp]: This is what my grandfather was showing me! I got it. It wasn’t until he was gone that I could really feel it.


J: It’s interesting because so many narratives about jazz music are, it’s by ear, you don’t write it down.


D: Well I think they had a hangup, because a lot of stuff they probably learned by a little bit of both. Nonetheless, I think they ranked people’s musicianship to if they could read music, ‘Aw man, they can’t even read music.’ So I think they also wanted to instill in their kids, yes to be able to play, but to read music. I think they ended up going overboard on being able to read music.


M: My grandfather was a historian, and he worked with lots of those musicians down in New Orleans. If I had realized what he was teaching me, I would have been taping him all the time. I always got a history lesson. I couldn’t just come to watch TV. I came over, I’m the musician, I had to learn. So he pulled a book out all the time, and he’d open the book up and he’d tell me stories about all these people in the book. I mean, real life stories about, these are famous musicians, but I didn’t know that at the time. Then we practiced. That’s what we did. And a lot of the cousins wouldn’t come over, because he tried to teach a lot of them.  Most of them didn’t want to hear it. I would listen because it was interesting, but I wish I had retained all these stories he told me, because he shared a lot of information. It was fabulous.


L: Actually, even with Uncle Manny, you guys took pictures. That’s one of the things that Walter Payton told me, when he saw my book, he’s like, You got pictures! And most of those pictures came from Uncle Manny’s family line, not the rest of the family. For some reason, they got a camera and liked taking pictures. They got a lot of pictures.


M: There’s a picture of my grandfather, it’s unlabelled, but there’s a picture of him in one of those old anthologies, those New Orleans books. He was playing drums at the time, Ma Rainey was the singer, Thomas A Dorsey was the piano player. And there’s a really nice picture, I have to find it.  That’s before he started playing clarinet and saxophone.


L: My uncle on my mother’s side was a drummer. He left New Orleans with Ma Rainey 1915. Uncle Dave! Frank’s father.


M: Oh wow!


L: He was on the road with Bessie Smith; when Bessie Smith had the accident and was killed, he was the bus driver. She was driving separately in a car with her husband, but he was the bus driver for the band. He played the last of the tent shows, the travelling blues tent shows, like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, he played on that circuit when he was first getting out. And he was the first teacher for Earl King, the drummer who created the famous New Orleans backbeat. Earl King was the session man. He was a dancer in one of the old tent shows, and his mother was my uncle’s girlfriend, so my uncle was the drummer, and he was teaching the kid how to dance with the beat, and that later became the drummer Earl King. He was on numerous sessions, Little Richard, many of the great sessions. But that’s on the other side of the family.


J: How did you feel about being part of this family where people contact you because your family is at the center of all of these movements?  That seems beautiful but also like a lot of pressure.


L: Yeah.  For me, there was always pressure because before I’d even hardly done anything I’d meet people and it’d be like, oh, Gabriel, you’re a great musician, and I’d be like, well I haven’t done anything yet. I met Jay McShann the piano player, Dad used to be on the road with Jay back in the 40s, and in the 90s he came to Kerrytown Concert House, and I went there, and I started talking to him and said I’m Percy Gabriel’s son, and the first thing he said was, well what instrument do you play?  So that’s kind of the thing. They have this expectation.


M: Dameon’s keeping it going.  He’s carrying on the tradition, which is really important.


J: What are some of the things you consciously think about when you think about how to pass things on?


L: You know, for me, Marjorie has done church music.  And she’s like a rock with that. You’re very solid and wonderful person with that music.


D: And really made tracks in doing that.


L: She put together the black Catholic hymnal.


M: That’s the first one, actually, in the world.


D: And all-black Catholic choir, right?  And they’ve done some pretty substantial things, like playing for one of Mandela’s celebrations, one of the Popes.


M: We’ve done a lot of things.  I’ve been kind of a pioneer for that.  I’m one of the elders now. When I started playing in church, it wasn’t because I picked to play in the church. My pastor, Father Charles Moffatt, he lives in Boca Ridge, Louisiana, he’s still alive; he walked over one day and talked to my father, unbeknownst to me.  He asked my father if it’d be okay if I played at church. I was about fourteen. ... I did start playing, and then I got a little choir together, I figured we could do some better music, and so I always started working on getting us more soulful music in the church.  When I left from there I went to kind of a diverse choir, but when my uncle came home, I asked him to come play with me. He’s been watching me all these years, he’s waiting for me so I can be his musician on the road.  Well I was like Dameon, I never saw anybody making a lot of money. Sometimes they were paying us with beer and popcorn, playing for college. We wanted to play so bad, but you come home at three in the morning and you’re a college student, you’re dragging through classes, and I said, I don’t know how I’d make a living with this.But when I started working for the church and this opportunity came up for the first black Catholic hymnal, they had done a whole year’s study before I even began. And I was in on that because I was the administrator for the Office of Black Catholics. When we had that first meeting they thought we were going to do everything in one weekend. [laughs] I said, I think your ambitions are a little bit too high. It took us about three years to get it done. .. It came out in June 1987. It’s like the first and only baby I ever had. It’s over thirty years old now. The shock, it’s over thirty years old.


D: You see it everywhere, too.


J: To wrap up, if you could each talk about something you think is important for people who are learning the music to keep in mind.


D: I think the secret to learning anything is...people act like there’s some magic way or a magic shortcut, but it’s time.  It’s time with your craft, time with your instrument. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re going to be Wynton Marsalis. I think true genius happens when you have those people who are just naturally gifted and talented and when it meets that time put into it, then you have those special people like that.  But if you want to be proficient and good, time with your instrument, and something a lot of musicians don’t learn until later, the sensitivity. It’s like 80% listening when it comes to being good and not showboating, and knowing how to blend and play-with vs. it all being about yourself.


M: I agree with that.  Practice. Practice is key.


L: And with this New Orleans music, you actually have to listen to New Orleans music.  For me, New Orleans music isn’t Louis Armstrong after 1925. It’s basically the cats who were in New Orleans playing what was New Orleans traditional.  Louis Armstrong didn’t play New Orleans traditional after he went to Chicago and had the Hot Five and Hot Seven. It’s basically a regional folk music, and you have to listen to it.  You can look at a chart and see, yeah these are the chords and these are the notes of the melody, but you don’t have a feel for the way those people played it.


D: And if you don’t feel it, it ain’t right.


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