How jazz spoke to Lars Edegran across time, distance and cultures

On his first day in New Orleans, Lars Edegran went straight to Preservation Hall.

It was a midafternoon in August 1965 when Edegran, a 21-year-old from Sweden who loved American music, peeped through the closed gates of the traditional jazz venue on St. Peter Street.

He saw Preservation Hall owner Allan Jaffe inside and a band rehearsing for a recording session. Edegran and Jaffe started talking, and Edegran explained that he was a Swedish musician who’d just gotten in town. Jaffe invited him in.

“He even let me sit in with the band,” Edegran said. “That was amazing. What a difference from Chicago and New York. People were so open and so friendly here in New Orleans. So, I said, ‘This is the place for me.’ ”

Since that summer day, except for a five-year stay in New York as pianist, musical director and arranger for the off-Broadway hit “One Mo’ Time,” Edegran has called New Orleans home.

A multi-instrumentalist, Edegran’s nearly five decades of New Orleans-based musical activities include his late 1960s work with Andrew Morgan’s Young Tuxedo Brass Band and old-time trumpeter Sharkey Bonano, 1970 participation in the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, tours with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, New Orleans Joy Makers, several years with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and recordings with Danny Barker, Doc Cheatham, George Lewis and De De Pierce.

Edegran was just 20 when he left Stockholm for Chicago in 1965. Too young to enter that city’s jazz clubs, he frequented Chicago blues clubs instead, hearing Buddy Guy, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightnin’ Hopkins and more future music legends.

”It was really fantastic,” he said. “But I missed hearing jazz. So I took a trip down to New Orleans. I immediately met a lot of people here in the French Quarter. And I had a chance to play with people right away.”

In those early years, Edegran went to Preservation Hall nearly every night. The mid-’60s were a golden era for the venue, featuring such regulars as Sweet Emma Barrett, George Lewis, Punch Miller and Kid Sheik.

“It was just fantastic to hear all these guys,” Edegran recalled. “I had heard most of them on records but never in person, which was quite a different thing.”

Jaffe got Edegran signed up with the musicians’ union or, more precisely, the city’s black musicians’ union. Edegran, a pianist, guitarist, banjo player and clarinetist, had to join a union to appear in a television program filmed at Preservation Hall.

“Allan had me and a couple of other Europeans sit in with the band,” he explained. “He wanted to show that people come from Europe to learn about the music.”

Edegran had grown up hearing American blues, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley, Shreveport folk-blues singer Lead Belly and Cajun music in Sweden.

“Basically American music, we were inspired by that,” he said.

The “we” included Edegran’s future “One Mo’ Time” collaborator, Orange Kellin. Friends and fellow American music lovers, they co-founded a New Orleans-style jazz group in Sweden in 1961, the Imperial Band. The group played dances in its homeland until the Beatles changed the world’s music landscape in 1964.

“Jazz kind of disappeared as dance music,” Edegran said. “I decided to move to America.”

With the exception of the year he spent repairing roofs following the devastating landfall Hurricane Betsy made a few weeks after he arrived, Edegran has kept busy at music.

At 68, he plays Saturday nights at the Palm Court Jazz CafĂ© with 101-year-old trumpet player Lionel Ferbos — considered New Orleans’ oldest working jazz musician — Sunday nights at Preservation Hall and Wednesdays at Palm Court with vocalist Topsy Chapman.

And since June 2011, Edegran’s day job has been running the GHB Jazz Foundation, which includes the jazz record label founded by George H. Buck Jr. in 1949.

“I had not planned to stay here for the rest of my life,” Edegran said. “I ended up staying here because I got so busy on the music scene. I feel blessed that I was able to make a living playing music. And I’m still playing lots of gigs.”