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heinä 31, 2013

The Finnish Connection to Jazz in New Orleans

Leroy Jones (with trumpet) and his band in Preservation Hall. Toivola is at the far left.

For a total of 18 years, Finnish born trombonist Katja Toivola has been involved with the jazz music in New Orleans. In a recent visit to the Crescent City, my wife Grace and I were happy to meet Toivola at her regular Friday night performance of The Preservation Hall Jazz Masters Series featuring Leroy Jones.

Apparently not known in the Finnish-American community, Toivola is well known in Finland. So much so, that she has a loyal following of fans and YLE-TV and the Finnish press have written extensively about her accomplishments. Here in the United States, she has appeared on the HBO production Treme - a drama series that takes its name from the Tremé neighborhood of New Orleans and focuses on its residents and how they coped and adjusted to life after the levee failures and floods brought on by Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. The show documented the life of musicians such as Toivola and her husband and life partner Leroy Jones with whom she has been together since 1997. Toivola and Jones are homeowners in the Tremé neighborhood since 2003.

Toivola was born in 1975 in the city of Helsinki and studied at the University of Helsinki majoring in ethnomusicology. She made her first Katja Toivola with her trombone.visit to New Orleans in 1995, and now divides her time between her two hometowns: Helsinki and New Orleans. Toivola has been leading her own bands; the New Orleans Helsinki Connection and the Spirit Of New Orleans since 2001 and has performed around the world - in New Zealand, Switzerland, Fiji, France, Germany, Estonia, Australia, Brazil and Norway and on most of the Finnish jazz festivals.

In a recent article appearing on ( Toivola shared about her life in New Orleans:

“New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and the 50-year old Preservation Hall is the Mecca of jazz. Often when we go for a gig at Preservation Hall, there is a line of people from all over the world for over 100 meters. There are Japanese, Koreans, Argentines, Brazilians, Americans, Germans, French, Spanish. Many of the people come here every year. They come back to New Orleans because of the music. Many of the fans have become known to us, and we have developed a worldwide circle of friends and acquaintances. Of course New Orleans has more than music – great food, beautiful scenery and a nice atmosphere. But the main reason is music, and Preservation Hall is my regular workplace every Friday.”

In meeting with Katja and Leroy on July 19 at Preservation Hall, we learned that they had returned from Finland the day before. Katja has a band in Finland that stays there, while they return to New Orleans and play with Leroy’s band here. The experience at Preservation Hall was simply fantastic. The venue provides for a great homey atmosphere. The room is surprisingly small and shows its historic significance immediately. Several benches are provided for the audience, with flat pillows in the front of the room for children and adults who want to be close to the band. The back of the room is for standing room only. The band performs three sets on a Friday night – 8, 9, and 10 pm. Band members play their music from memory, with no sheet music, and each set provides a variety of different pieces. A fan from the audience called for “Play the Saints (When the Saints Go Marching In)”, to which Jones encouraged people to stay to hear the piece in a following set. A highlight for me was the playing and singing (by Jones) of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. As to their recent return from Finland, it was no wonder that Toivola and Jones seemed a little tired – with the time change the eyes get droopy – but then again, I wonder if professional jazz musicians may be able to play in their sleep. This is their life and being – and Toivola is genuinely happy in it. If you visit New Orleans, be sure to check out Preservation Hall on a Friday night!


Mika Roinila

Mishawaka, IN