Singer and banjoist Narvin Kimball grew up during the golden age of New Orleans jazz and outlived virtually all of his contemporaries. Active in the Louisiana jazz scene during the 1920s, he enjoyed a lengthy comeback that began in 1960 at Preservation Hall and lasted until 1999. Narvin's father was Henry Kimball (1878-1931), who was among the first people ever to play jazz on the string bass. When he was a boy, Narvin made himself a ukulele out of a cigar box. This kind of resourcefulness was not uncommon in New Orleans, where young George Murphy (later "Pops") Foster and his brother Willie constructed a "home-made bass" out of a section of a flour barrel, pieces of scrap lumber, nails, and lengths of twine rubbed with rosin and wax. Foster would later name Henry Kimball as a primary influence. The entire Kimball family was musically inclined, and Narvin soon learned to play banjo and piano, experiencing his first public performances with a school ensemble at the Pythian Temple. By 1926, he was gigging professionally with jazz and dance bands throughout the region. This led to his being hired to work with his father in Fate Marable's band on the S.S. Capitol, a steamboat that navigated the wide Mississippi. A meticulous disciplinarian who insisted upon clarity and precision, Henry Kimball advised his son to always place himself in a position to play with pride and dignity, and Narvin was still quoting that wisdom at the close of the 20th century.
In 1927, young Kimball became the banjoist for Oscar Papa Celestin's Tuxedo Jazz Band, with whom he toured and made phonograph records. He married Celestin's pianist, Jeanette Salvant, and continued to work the riverboats where he initiated a lifelong friendship with clarinetist Willie Humphrey. When musical styles changed during the early '30s, Kimball retired his banjo and took up the more modern-sounding guitar. He also played string bass with trumpeter Sidney Desvigne's big band. In order to survive during the lean years of the Great Depression, he initiated a 36-year involvement with the United States Postal Service, handling mail by day while continuing to gig at night, often leading his own group billed as Narvin Kimball's Gentlemen of Jazz. One day in 1945 he received a phone call from Louis Armstrong who was seeking a short-notice replacement for his indisposed bassist Arvell Shaw. When Kimball explained that he was on the mend after undergoing a tonsillectomy, Pops replied "You don't play the bass with your tonsils! I'll give you a drink and you'll feel fine." After the Second World War, Kimball teamed up with Alvin Alcorn, Louis Barbarin, and Fred Minor to form a vocal harmony group known as the Four Tones. Anyone seeking context for Kimball's almost aggressively old-fashioned chortling during his final years of professional activity needs to take into account this leg of his career, as well as an African American vocal harmony tradition that reaches back to well before the beginnings of jazz.
During the '50s, Kimball led a small swing band that also played what was now being called Dixieland (although he never approved of the term) at tourist-packed clubs on Bourbon Street like the Paddock Lounge and Dixieland Hall. In 1960, Kimball resumed playing the banjo and soon became one of the mainstays around the corner at Preservation Hall on St. Peter Street. A founding member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (along with his old friend Willie Humphrey), he toured with that world-famous ensemble for many years, dazzling audiences with his left-handed single-string technique and warming hearts with his old-timey vocalizing -- Kimball's feature song was always "Georgia on My Mind." His final performance with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band took place in 1999 when he was 90 years old, after which a succession of strokes put an end to an unusually lengthy career. In 2005, with Hurricane Katrina advancing upon New Orleans, Kimball and his second wife Lillian were evacuated first to Baton Rouge and then to his daughter's residence in Charleston, SC where he passed away in exile on March 17, 2006. He was interred back home in New Orleans one week later.