Like so many famous New Orleans musicians, Louis Cottrell Jr. had a musical pedigree. His father was a great drummer in the city when jazz did not even yet have a name. Born into the elegant and refined Creole culture, the younger Cottrell grew up surrounded by musical masters such as Barney Bigard, John Robicheaux, and A.J. Piron. Cottrell learned the subtle ways of his culture's music from the great clarinet player Lorenzo Tio Jr. Tio instructed his student in the Albert system, the distinctive double embouchure method of playing that produced a mellow yet compelling sound.
Cottrell's light touch on the reeds was in contrast to his fierce activism on behalf of African American musicians in the city of New Orleans. Working passionately on the project since his teens, Cottrell was instrumental in organizing the New Orleans Colored Musicians Union as a chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. He later served as president of Local 496 and was revered just as much in New Orleans for his role in getting fair treatment for musicians, as for his own musicianship.
He was, however, a great musician. He got his start in the heady days of the 1920s with the Golden Rule Orchestra. He then joined Laurence Marrero's Young Tuxedo Orchestra, and went on to form his own group, the renowned Onward Brass Band. Its membership included some of the great names in music in the city of New Orleans: Paul Barbarin, George Lewis, and Baby Dodds.
The position of these brass bands in the culture is hard to overestimate. Their presence was essential at every event, from weddings to Saturday night dances to funerals, they were always ready with the appropriate tune for the occasion. It is a living tradition carried on to this day and it owes a great debt to Louis Cottrell Jr.
He served not only as a bandleader, but also as a sideman with many of the city's greats, such as Peter Bocage, Jim Robinson, and Sweet Emma Barrett, on whose records he appears. Together, they drew people from all over the world to the Mecca of traditional jazz, Preservation Hall. The listener can hear that music on CDs such as Sweet Emma Barrett and Her New Orleans Music and Jazz at Preservation Hall: Paul Barbarin & Punch Miller's Bunch.
Cottrell died after a short illness in 1978. He was 67-years-old.