Charles “Washboard Chaz” Leary started playing music at the ripe old age of eight in his hometown of Brooklyn, N.Y. His first instrument was the bugle, which he played in a drum and bugle corp., a musical marching unit similar to a marching band. Generally, participants in the corp. were between the ages of 13 and 22, but Leary couldn’t wait, and has now been playing music for almost 55 years.
“Music grabs you, you don’t grab music,” Leary said.
Leary wasn’t always known by his Washboard Chaz moniker. He played both the bugle and congas before discovering the washboard.
“As far as the washboard goes, I was playing the congas and I was living in Key West for a brief time…there was a guy there who was a really good washboard player,” Leary said. “I really enjoyed what he did so we exchanged lessons, hung out, and it was kind of one of those things that called me.”
The Washboard Chaz Blues Trio, one of four bands in which Leary belongs, has been together for 11 years. The band has gone through some changes, but currently includes Leary, Andy J. Forest (harmonica) and St. Louis Slim (guitar). Just like Leary, none of the members of the Blues Trio are originally from New Orleans, but they all now call it home.
“New Orleans is one place where people tend to stay for generations and generations,” Leary said. “A lot of people that have come down over the last 20 to 30 years have become a part of the city.”
Together the Trio plays acoustic blues, covering the Delta style as well as Piedmont and Chicago blues styles. They have been nominated for several awards including the Best of the Best Blues Award and Offbeat Magazine’s Best Emerging Blues Band for 2004. The Trio also has five albums, been featured in the first season of the highly-acclaimed HBO series “Treme” and can be found playing live every Friday night at the Spotted Cat (623 Frenchmen Street) and every Saturday night at the Blue Nile (532 Frenchmen Street) in New Orleans.
“We got a few fans,” Leary joked. “We got people that come to see us that are from out of town and they know where we are performing. We will actually have about 10-15 people waiting to get in. When you play music like we do, there is a lot of structure, but a lot of improvisation, so it’s different every night.”
Leary has over 100 albums under his belt and has traveled to places like the Caribbean Islands, Canada, Japan, Paris and Switzerland to play music. In fact, one of Leary’s other bands, The Tin Men, will be traveling to his favorite international destination to perform.
“The Tin Men are going to Italy in March to play with another band. We’ll be over there for about 18 days. We got about 14 performances,” Leary said.
While in New Orleans, however, most of Leary’s gigs seem to be on Frenchmen Street, which is always buzzing with activity. Along with his performances with The Washboard Chaz Blues Trio, Leary plays with the Tin Men on Wednesday nights and the Palmetto Bug Stompers on Sunday nights at D.B.A. (618 Frenchmen Street).
“I got to have music in my life every day,” Leary said. “I never get tired. This is what I love to do. It’s my job, but I would do it even if it wasn’t my job. I think that I am the most fortunate person to be able to play blues and jazz washboard for a living.”
For more information about Washboard Chaz, The Washboard Chaz Blues Trio, The Tin Men, The Palmetto Bug Stompers and Washboard Rodeo, Leary’s fourth group, go to http://www.washboardchaz.com.