Leon Roppolo (March 16, 1902 – October 5, 1943) was considered a genius by his contemporaries and like Bix Beiderbecke and Buddy Bolden he was another of the tragic young men of early Jazz. He is remembered as being a pioneer of the jazz solo, as opposed to the collective improvisation of most New Orleans bands and for his lyrical and modern clarinet and alto saxophone playing.
He was born in Lutcher, Louisiana, upriver from New Orleans. His family moved to New Orleans about 1912 and within a year or two he was playing music professionally at Lake Pontchartrain and Bucktown. At age fifteen he went on a vaudeville tour with Bee Palmer, the Shimmie Queen. He later played music with Carlisle Evans on the Mississippi River boat bands where he was reunited with his boyhood friends Paul Mares and George Brunies. In 1921 the three young men journeyed north to Chicago where they joined the Friars Society Orchestra which later became known as the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
The band was together for about a year and a half and in that time they served as role models for many young White Jazz musicians like Bix Beiderbecke, and the Austin High Gang. When New Orleans Rhythm Kings broke up in 1924 Mares and Roppolo went to New York and played in Al Siegal’s Orchestra in New York City. Roppolo apparently made some recordings with the Original Memphis Five and California Ramblers but the sides were presumably unissued, or if issued unidentified.
In the summer of 1924 Roppolo took off for Texas where he joined Pecks Bad Boys. He then went north again and played in the Carlisle Evans band on a river boat that ended up in New Orleans. Back home he reunited with Mares who had put together another version of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and recorded with Abbie Brunies’ Halfway House Orchestra.
In 1925 he went insane and was confined to a mental institution for the majority of his life, but continued to play and organized a band in the institution. He was released briefly in the early 1940s and played a few gigs in New Orleans before going back to the institution where he died in 1943.