Papa Gets the Funk Out

What began as a simple jam session among friends has rapidly evolved into one of the hottest acts in both New Orleans and the national funk scene.

“Monday night was my night off so I just made some calls and one thing led to another,” said Papa Grows Funk keyboardist and founder John Gros with an infectious New Orleans drawl.

“After people continued to show up (at our shows) we started writing tunes and then getting calls for other gigs – next thing we knew we were doing a CD,” Gros said. “People were getting the word out around the country and then we were doing shows in San Francisco and New York.(Papa Grows Funk) got legitimate without us even trying,” said Gros via phone from his home in New Orleans.

A couple of hours later, Gros met his bandmates in downtown New Orleans at the legendary Maple Leaf Bar where PGF seizes the stage every Monday night for several hours of uninterrupted jam-intensive grooving. The set typically includes PGF funk originals augmented with standards such as Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon.”

“We get together and go for broke. We start playing around 11 (p.m.) and the club starts filling up with mostly locals and college students. We do one long set without a break until anywhere from 1:30 to past 2:00 (a.m.) depending on the crowd and who comes to sit in with us,” Gros said.

PGF took form a little more than a year ago. The band members boast a rich pedigree that includes having been, or currently being involved with, some of New Orleans’ brightest luminaries. Gros and drummer Russell Batiste (formerly of the Funky Meters) still perform on occasion with George Porter Jr. Guitarist June Yamagishi – who in addition to playing mean chicken-scratch funk licks can also lay down searing Eddie Van Halen-esque solos – was in Wild Magnolias. Jason Mingledorf was the original sax player for Galactic and Marc Pero is the young blood on bass.

“It was easy (getting the band together). I just called them and said, ‘Hey, you wanna do a Monday night gig? We’re just gonna screw around and jam on some tunes,'” Gros said. “I always wanted to play with everyone in the band. I had played with all of them before, but never all at one time.”

PGF’s ultra-funky debut disc, Doin It, was one of the biggest sellers at last year’s world-famous New Orleans Jazz Festival.

“All the songs (on Doin It) came from jamming on Monday nights. We get an idea and just sort of go with it. When we got to the studio we just had to make the songs a little more concise,” Gros said.

Multi-platinum producer Tracey Freeman (Harry Connick, Jr.) produced the album.

“I’m good friends with (Freeman). He loves New Orleans music and comes to see us play all the time,” Gros said.

Gros, who holds a degree in music from Loyola University, is extremely proud to carry on the deep-rooted musical tradition of his hometown. Gros has been greatly influenced by talented Crescent City keyboardists such as Professor Longhair, Dr. John and Art Neville – internationally renowned artists who were serenading the streets of The French Quarter before Gros came of age.

“Art (Neville) came and sat in with us once when we were playing San Francisco,” said Gros. “He was in the room – so we were gonna make him play. He had a ball. All four of the original Meters have sat in with us on separate occasions.”

The endearing affection Gros exhibits for his native city teems with sincerity.

“The greatest thing about New Orleans – as a musician – is that you get to play with the greatest musicians in the world and you get availability to work seven days a week, ” Gros said.

“This is the only city in the United States that has the cultural history that this place has. (New Orleans) is completely unique from anything else America has to offer. The people here are great – close knit, the locals really support each other and share a love for the city’s culture,” Gros said with conviction.

Having played with PGF in front of sold-out crowds from L.A. to New York City, Gros senses the voracious appetite nationwide for the brand of music to which his fellow New Orleans natives have grown accustomed.

“We get a little better response when we play out of town. The people here – we’re a little spoiled,” Gros said. “Every night of the week there is something going on in this town that is world-class.”Although band members still keep their hands wet in side-projects, Gros insisted that PGF are here for the long haul.

“The chemistry is just right with us … there are a lot of gigs that come and go, but this one we knew immediately from the first night, we loved playing together,” Gros said.