by Uncle Dave Lewis
When Henry "Kid" Rena's (pronounced ruh-NAY) name comes up, albeit
infrequently, in the annals of New Orleans jazz, he's usually identified as
a 'must've been' or an 'also-ran'. "Must've been' in the sense that New
Orleans legend records that he was able to play up around high "c" for eight
minutes or more without coming down- if so, nothing of this ability appears
in audible documents of Rena. And an 'also-ran' in that New Orleans legend
is rife with anecdotes about Kid Rena backing down in cutting contests with
other legendary Jazz trumpet voices, namely Buddy Petit and Chris Kelly.
One such story has Rena bowing out to Kelly in an impromptu bout held in a
But unlike Petit or Kelly, Rena's playing survives on record, and Rena was
an important figurehead in New Orleans Jazz in the crucial decade of the
1930s, when Jazz in New Orleans nearly died out completely.
Henry "Kid" Rena was born on August 30, 1898 and is said to have taken
lessons from Manuel Perez. When Louis Armstrong took a job on the S.S.
Capitol, Rena replaced him in Kid Ory's band. Rena was with Ory until the
latter departed for Los Angeles in 1922, then Kid Rena began his own
"dixieland band" later that year. Shortly the Rena band won a loving cup at
the Jerusalem Temple from Celestin's Tuxedo Jazz Band. Rena's Dixieland
Band played every hall in New Orleans in the coming years and even made the
trip to Chicago three or four times in 1923-4. At some point he took over
leadership of the Eureka Brass Band, and departed from them when he founded
his own Brass Band circa 1932.
Times got hard, and by the mid-thirties Rena was having lip trouble, but
somehow he kept it together in a discouraging 1930s New Orleans atmosphere
where gigs were drying up, the jukebox was taking over and nobody wanted to
hear that 'old' music anymore. He was engaged with a small group at the
Gypsy Tea Room in 1936, and played regularly at a Canal Street jitney called
the Brown Derby for the remainder of his active career.
In the summer of 1940, Heywood Hale Broun, Jr., motivated by the recent publication of the book "Jazzmen", set out to New Orleans to record a traditional jazz band and decided to build the band around Kid Rena. This was the first "revivalist" recording session to take place in the Crescent City. After some abortive attempts at recording rehearsals by this band, the final session of eight tunes was achieved at radio station WWL in the Hotel Roosevelt on August 21. The issued records were avidly sought by collectors after the Second World War. Like most 78s directly marketed to jazz collectors, the Rena items are not considered so highly valuable today. Yet the recordings themselves are well worth knowing, as they exist as direct representatives of the sound of traditional New Orleans jazz as it was played in the 1930s, an era which is otherwise nearly totally lost on record.
By 1942, the New Orleans Jazz "Revival" was officially underway; christened
by a series of recordings of Willie 'Bunk' Johnson. Unfortunately the Kid was not to face the microphone again. Kid Rena had always been a big drinker, and by 1947 his health was poor to the extent he had to stop playing. On April 25, 1949 Kid Rena died at age 50, and outside of what must've been a HELL of a funeral parade in New Orleans, the passing of Kid Rena commanded little attention. Rena remains to date one of the most obscure and enigmatic figures in the annals of recorded New Orleans Jazz.
The complete recordings of Kid Rena are on one excellent CD, "Prelude To The
Revival vol. 2: Kid Rena 1940" (American Music AMCD-41). It may be ordered
Special thanks to Frank Powers for his help with this article.