Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born and raised in the South and left it vowing never to return. Never say never. I came back. Sure I don’t like grits or football, but there’s something about the South that gets into your blood. I used to say I was from the South but not of the South. Ain’t so sure anymore.
Jack Normand: Grand Man
Early pictures of Jack Normand, almost always sitting at a piano, show a trim, dark man with wavy hair, unruly, bushy eyebrows and a dapper moustache turned up at the corners. He always has a smile on his face. There is a certain devilish Gallic flare in his look and attitude. As if he is about to deliver the punch line of some delicious joke. By the 1980’s, the moustache had turned gray and drooped, the wavy hair receded and the waistline expanded, but the smile and the affability, the larger than life qualities of the man, were undiminished.
For over 40 years Jack and his band played at the legendary Grand Hotel in Point Clear, Alabama. Jack had little formal training, beyond the few piano lessons his mother frog marched him into. During the Depression, he was making 50 cents a week working in a grocery store in New Orleans. Music was just a hobby, something he indulged in during free time. Then one night he and a friend got a job playing in a dive. Incredibly, they only knew three songs, but managed to pull it off. Later, he formed a trio and by 1940, they were playing the Fountain Lounge at New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel.
Then in 1941 Jack and his group were booked for the grand reopening of the Grand Hotel. It took them a while to even find the sleepy backwater on a map and to a man they couldn’t wait to finish their gig and get back to the bright lights of “The Big Easy”. Then World War II intervened and Jack joined the Army Air Force. After the War, he returned to New Orleans, but by 1951, he and his band were in permanent residence at the Grand.
Jack and his band played most nights. After a time, the management was forced to build a dance floor, as diners, lured by the rhythms and tunes, were dancing between the tables and bumping into them.
The band was dubbed the “biggest little band in town” because each of its three or four members played two or three instruments. Jack’s five children eventually joined the band, morphing it into the Normand Family Band. The band’s theme song was “Stars Fell on Alabama”, but Jack and his group could turn their hands to anything from jazz to contemporary rock.
The band became an institution at the Grand. Children of the original 1950’s diners came in during the 70’s. Grandchildren made appearances in the 1980’s. Children of diners would sometimes sit on Jack’s lap and tinkle the keys with him or hit a few licks with the drummer.
Jack died in 1990, at the age of 73 and it seemed the whole community mourned and paid tribute. In eulogizing Jack, a friend said, “He had a natural ability at the piano and the natural way to make people like him . . . Anything you can say about him would have to be good.”
He was indeed that rarest of birds, a professional musician who held the same job for decades.