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Lena Prima toots her late father’s horn in tribute show

During this year’s Academy Awards preshow, orchestra conductor Michael Giacchino wondered aloud how Louis Prima would want to see the Oscars presented. This segued into footage of Prima performing “Sing, Sing, Sing.”

Life goes on without Prima, but pop culture doesn’t. Three decades after the legendary jazzman checked out, his music swings on.

“The reason people still listen to my dad’s music is because it’s got such a great vibe and it’s so happy,” says Lena Prima, 45, who performs a tribute concert to her late father at the Cannery at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Louis Prima helped spearhead the acceptance of New Orleans jazz in the 1920s and big band in the ’40s. By the ’50s, he was the most popular lounge act in Las Vegas.

Younger audiences continued coming to him via “Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody,” ridden to chart success by David Lee Roth in the ’80s, and “Jump, Jive an’ Wail,” which the Brian Setzer Orchestra championed a decade later.

Ironically, what makes Prima’s music endure — its sense of fun — also is what got it rebuffed by many of his contemporaries.

“Some people in jazz didn’t consider him a true jazz artist because of his comedy side and his entertainer side,” Lena says. “They still don’t.”

Prima broke the cardinal rule of being a serious jazz musician: He wasn’t miserable.

“He definitely wasn’t,” Lena says. “He was a fun guy at home, too.”

Lena is the fifth of six Prima offspring. She and younger brother Louis Prima Jr. — who also performs their father’s music, most recently at the Las Vegas Hilton last year — were born to Gia Maione, Louis’ fifth and final wife. (Maione also sang with Prima from 1962 until his final concert in 1975.)

Following day jobs as a makeup artist and Greyline tour bus guide, Lena — a Clark High School graduate raised in the valley and New Orleans — began following in her father’s footsteps full time in 1991. (She also fronts a jazz band, Lena Prima & the Cool Cats, which performs semiregularly at both Arizona Charlie’s locations.)

In “That’s My Dad,” Lena — with a six-piece band and a backup singer — tackles all the recognizable hits. In between, vintage video is screened and personal anecdotes are dished.

“I feel great about doing the show, because I love my dad’s music and I’m really proud of this legacy he’s left me,” Lena says.

Louis Prima died in 1978, following a three-year coma caused by surgery to remove a brain tumor.

“He died just before my fifteenth birthday,” Lena says, “so I never really got to connect with him as an adult.

“But performing his music makes me get to know who he was.”

Contact reporter Corey Levitan at clevitan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0456.

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