When younger generations around the world look at their favorite artists from various musical genres, they no doubt view one person or another as the standard bearer for that genre. All too often however, casual music enthusiasts and super-fans view a particular artist as the representative of that genre simply because they are popular at the moment, or worse, just controversial enough to always be in the news.

In truth, in order for a musician to be considered a true standard bearer, a true Godfather to a genre, they have to possess a soul that seems as though it could have given birth to very genre itself. When these criteria are taken into consideration, the list of people that could be considered pioneers, trailblazers, and trend setters dwindles rapidly.
For Creole cultures throughout the Caribbean, the man that embodies jazz music is Luther Francois. In person he might not be an overpowering figure. A tall slender gentleman with humble appearance and laid back style, once he picks up an instrument and begins to play there is no mistaking him as a legend of jazz music in the Caribbean and around the globe.

From the Soil of St. Lucia

Luther Francois

Luther François at launch of his new CD ‘Castries Underground’. Photo: Adian Clarke/Woodshed Entertainment

Luther Renaldo Francois was born in Castries on the island of St. Lucia on 15 December 1952. Unlike some of today’s modern musical artists, Mr. Francois completed his full course of schooling as a young man to become a well-rounded individual with an understanding of his art and his world. He attended Methodist Infant and Primary schools before graduating from St. Mary’s College.

As a young man, both in school and afterwards, he had the natural talent and sharpened ability to perform with a variety of musical instruments. The violin, guitar, keyboard, and double bass were just a few of the instruments through which he would release his love of jazz. As a full time musician after college, he began to focus his efforts on the saxophone and flute.

Knowing that his natural talent and love of jazz music could only go so far, Mr. Francois sought a greater connection to the fundamentals of some of the Creole culture’s greatest genres and artists. He would spend two years at the Jamaica School of Music studying the likes of Melba Liston, Peter Ashbourne, and Cedric Brookes, and their contributions to music in the region as well as around the globe.

Bringing a Genre to Life

Before he even arrived at the Jamaica School of Music, Mr. Francois had begun his endeavor to bring great jazz music to the people of his native St. Lucia. In 1977 he performed the first ever public jazz concert the island nation had seen. Jazz holds a very unique position in the Caribbean world. Many indigenous people don’t view jazz as a whole to be a true art form of the Creole cultures of the Caribbean. Perhaps that would be more accurately amended to state that most don’t view mainstream jazz as native to the region. It is baffling to many in the Caribbean that while some 30 jazz festivals are held on islands across the region each year, very few are representative of the local cultures and populace.

Mr. Francois is one of the few to have embodied a jazz form that is indicative of his culture, his background, and his own personal flare. Unlike other genres, such as calypso, reggae, and samba, jazz is not a popular form among local populations. Jazz is widely considered as having roots in blues music which was born out of African slavery. But musicians like Mr. Francois have been able to nurture Creole jazz on islands across the Caribbean to give it a local flavour.

Following up on the success of the public jazz concert in 1977, Mr. Francois not only helped drive jazz as a local art form in St. Lucia, but also branched out to work with artists on the nearby islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. While living and working on the French islands, he directed the West Indies Jazz Band through two CD releases containing some of the best Caribbean jazz.

In 1991 Mr. Francois gave the Creole jazz world one of its greatest annual events. He was a driving force behind the founding of the October Jazz Festival on St. Lucia. Although the event was eventually taken over by the island’s tourism industry and turned into the St. Lucia Jazz Fest, it remains one of the few jazz festivals in the Caribbean that features a rich variety of local jazz artists and draws a local crowd.

Defining Caribbean Jazz

Jazz music offers an interesting combination of emotions that are unique to the New World in which jazz was born. The classical music preferred by European settlers to the New World was listened to and enjoyed by the human mind, while the drum beats and rhythms of the music brought over by African slaves was enjoyed by the soul.
Because jazz music was born from cultures that combined European and African backgrounds, to name a few, jazz is uniquely positioned to represent the people of the Caribbean. The cultures of the Caribbean are a mixture of many from around the globe, just as jazz is a mixture of musical genres from the Old World and the New.

Now a respected composer, musical teacher, studio musician, and performer, Mr. Francois has helped define jazz in the Caribbean throughout his illustrious career. In one of his most recent performances, he was in his native St. Lucia to participate in the 2013 St. Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival; a celebration he gave birth to decades ago to celebrate Caribbean jazz as a musical genre unto itself.