George H. Buck Jr., an unabashed devotee of traditional New Orleans jazz and a music and radio entrepreneur, died Wednesday at his home in New Orleans. He was 84.
Buck was best known in New Orleans as the co-owner of the Palm Court Jazz Cafe on Decatur Street, which is run by Nina Buck, his wife of nearly 30 years. But behind that lively scene stands a veritable kingdom of jazz recordings and old radio archives that Buck presided over with a connoisseur’s touch.
Buck moved to New Orleans in the 1980s and purchased the building that houses the Palm Court, a former French Market warehouse, to house his vast inventory of records and to function as the headquarters for his many record labels. The complex also includes a recording studio, besides the jazz club and Creole restaurant on the ground floor.
Through the auspices of the George H. Buck Jr. Jazz Foundation, Buck operated nine record labels, selling traditional music to fans around the world through his mail-order business. The labels included Jazzology, focusing on traditional Chicago-style jazz, and G.H.B. Records, dedicated to New Orleans traditional jazz.
“If you were a jazz fan, you were his friend,” said Jon Pult, a longtime friend who also worked as a writer, editor and producer for the foundation. “He followed one true religion, which was traditional jazz, even though he hated that term. He called it ‘authentic.’ ”
Buck, a native of New Jersey, began his career as a traditional-music preservationist in 1949 in New York City. He produced his first recordings of his favorite musician, the cornet player Wild Bill Davison, accompanied by Tony Parenti and the New Orleanians. But his career in the music business had begun two years earlier with “Jazzology,” a radio program.
He saw the potential for success in radio and began acquiring radio stations. From his headquarters in Atlanta he controlled a stable of stations in mid-sized American cities, eventually including WTIX in New Orleans.
His heart, however, remained committed to recording and preserving the traditional sounds of American music.
“What I loved about George was that he had a childlike devotion to the music; it was new and shiny every time he heard it. That devotion became kind of an evangelical fervor,” Pult said.
Using the profits from his radio stations, Buck began acquiring older, often floundering, labels. These included American, which was founded in New Orleans by William Russell during the 1940s traditional-jazz revival and memorialized the work of founding jazzmen like Bunk Johnson and George Lewis.
Through his dogged efforts to preserve the music of the early 20th century, Buck created what is arguably the largest collection of recordings of music from the 1920s to the current day. He produced more than 1,000 albums. “I don’t think people really understand how much stuff he put out,” Pult said.
Perhaps his greatest gift to fans of traditional American music was his decision to transfer the assets of his businesses to his foundation. By doing so more than 20 years ago, he ensured that the music would live on after his death. According to an obituary on his website, Buck organized his foundation to “insure that the catalog of music he assembled would remain in print eternally.”
Besides his wife, Nina, Buck is survived by a son, Bo, and four stepchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.