It's Carnival Time! Volunteer Profiles: Gerald French & Missy Bowen

Published on: February 14th, 2024


Gerald French


Missy Bowen. Photo by Katherine Johnson.

--Written by Melissa Milton

Gerald French

Everywhere else, it's just another Tuesday. Nowhere else are the days from Twelfth Night, January 6, to Fat Tuesday, whenever that moving holiday falls, the kind of magical celebration that they are here in New Orleans.

For Gerald French, leader of the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band and host of our Friday Trad Jazz show (9-11am), Mardi Gras means family, always has and still does. "My aunt Georgia loved the parades. She'd take us kids out to them all. We'd come back and there'd be food, fried chicken and red beans and everything else, and everyone together."

Born and raised here in the Crescent City, Gerald is a fourth generation New Orleans musician who grew up immersed in the city's many musical traditions. "One day my father (bassist/singer George French) was playing "Handa Wanda" and he said, 'That's me, I'm playing bass on this.'" Gerald had been listening to Mardi Gras Indian music since he can remember, but this time, hearing that first ever studio recording made by The Wild Magnolias, knowing the family legacy that it meant for him, profoundly moved him. He soon sought out Big Chief Bo Dollis St. and asked if he could mask with his tribe.

Gerald masked as Flag Boy of the Wild Magnolias for twelve years. "The feeling of putting on that suit, walking through the streets, there's nothing like it. Nothing compares to it. There's a special magic when you wear that suit," says the acclaimed drummer who's played for audiences all over the world. "It was like a dream come true. To actually get to know the man behind those iconic recordings. And to learn sewing from a true master of the craft."

Missy Bowen

For show host Missy Bowen, whose first Mardi Gras was in 1995, it wasn't love at first sight. "I kinda thought it was a bunch of plastic trinkets and a lot of money that could have been spent on better things."

It wasn't until 2006, the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras, that the spirit of Carnival captured her heart. "Things were so grim and so dark. We didn't even have power in our building, and here we are talking about having Mardi Gras. I was against it. And then stuff started happening. I was taking a friend to the ferry, and I drove by a pickup that had an Indian headdress with the incredible bead work and all the feathers, all hanging out the back of this rundown car, and I thought, wow, that's pretty important. Nobody had feathers, everybody had lost all their stuff. A whole tribe was getting together to be able to have one suit."

"It was New Orleans at its finest. Doors were open to apartments, and people you didn't know would welcome you in. Maybe we didn't have king cake, but somebody would have ham and cheese sandwiches and a bottle of voka. It was us in the streets, and then the parade started, and it was that creativity and political satire at its finest. We laughed, we cried, we were amazed, we hugged. At that moment I became committed to Mardi Gras."

The former skeptic is now a Carnival believer. "I love the parades. It's the downtown walking groups that really nail it. I love the pageantry, and the creativity more than anything. The colors, the sounds, the music, the artistry, and the cleverness."

Even after 30 Carnival seasons, Missy can attest that there's always something new to enjoy. "I rode in my first parade this year! I was super excited to ride in Freret. It was misting very aggressively, but I rode with a really wonderful group of people, and if I can have that much fun in the pouring rain, I want to do it when it's dry!"

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