Rest In Peace: Uganda Roberts

Uganda Roberts didn’t become friends with Professor Longhair til 1972. By that time the not-yet 30 year old drummer had already carved out a nice niche for himself in the New Orleans jazz community. You could see him around town at places like Lu & Charlie’s on Rampart Street where a pitcher of cold draft beer would run you $3 or Holly’s a few blocks away on Basin Street.

Gigging around town wasn’t exactly lucrative so Roberts applied for and became a bus driver for the City of New Orleans on January 26th 1968. No small feat as back then that good job had historically been forbidden to the black workforce.

But before he became a bus driving man, Roberts was getting a feel for the kind of music he would adopt as his own at La Havana Cuba Capri, a nightclub at 1601 Dumaine Street in Treme. Merchant Marines stocked the jukebox with artists like Celia Cruz, Mongo Santamaria, and Tito Puente. Young Alfred dug on all that in addition to taking a shine to Harry Belafonte who was a major pop star in that era.

He would get a chance to take these influences to the main stage when local mogul Quint Davis introduced him to Professor Longhair in 1972. It would become as Uganda reflects back “a beautiful friendship” and it was musical partnership that lasted for eight years.

Sometimes the two would go out as a duo; simply piano and congas with a couple bongo drums. Could you imagine sitting in a roadhouse in New Iberia in the early seventies with these two cats sweating out a hot set of rhumba boogie?

I’d gladly kill to hop in that time machine. If you like the sound of that setup, The London Concert (recorded 1978, released 1994) is just that, Uganda and Fess as a duo.

After Longhair’s death, Uganda toured with the Wild Magnolia, and Willie Tee until the mid-80s when he pressed pause and took a breather from the music industry. Years later in season two, episode 10 of Treme, Roberts appears briefly.

In August of 2018, I spent an hour sitting on the floor in front of Mr Roberts as he commanded a brace of conga drums at the Jazz Museum on the edge of the French Quarter on Esplanade Street. He laid down a subtle groove that had little old ladies quivering, and youngsters hopping up and down like they were at a Run The Jewels concert.

You could feel his greatness.

b. April 8, 1943
d. May 5, 2020

Short documentary on Mr Roberts

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