Tag Archives: Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint: The Insider

Nashville, 2010

Allen Toussaint—the producer, arranger, writer and regal living embodiment of New Orleans soul—sits alone at a piano onstage in the dark, empty theater. He plays leisurely, but he is focused and listening carefully. It is sound check and something isn’t quite right. The monitor is popping. To test it, Toussaint plays loudly.

“There’s a certain girl I’ve been in love with a long, long time,” he sings, the piano thundering in front of him. “What’s her name? Can’t tell you, no no.” Toussaint stops mid-song. He leans into the stage lights, his ringed hand above his eyes, peering out into the darkness for the soundman, who is adjusting levels on the board in the booth by the last row. He turns back to the keys, playing a soulful version of his “Southern Nights,” the 1977 No. 1 country hit for Glen Campbell. Then, a delicate minute of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” from Toussaint’s Grammy-nominated 2009 instrumental jazz album The Bright Mississippi. All this beauty, forty years of genius in just a few minutes, with hardly anyone here to hear it.

Toussaint stands and moves away from the piano as the soundman walks down the dark aisle to the stage to inspect the monitor. Toussaint’s road manager approaches. This might take a while. Toussaint smiles graciously, then walks through the wings and down the rickety stairs to the basement dressing room. He offers a bottle of water, motions towards a chair. He leans forward to greet the question, and then back as he takes it in. He sits quietly for a moment, thinking. Then, he answers.

I fell in love

“I grew up in a very humble neighborhood in New Orleans called Gert Town, full of shotgun houses and little single story doubles. Families lived side by side. The word ghetto was not thrown around then, so I’ll just say it was modest. After work in the evening, the old men in the neighborhood who had guitars would sit on their front porches and strum some old kind of bluesy song. There was lots of music everywhere, but I heard the radio first. I heard a lot of hillbilly music as a boy, which I love dearly. I grew up on that, and gutbucket blues. And my mother loved operas, so every Sunday, she played classical music on the radio, all day.

I started playing piano at age six. My parents bought one for my sister, and she didn’t take to it at all, but I loved it from as soon as I touched it. It wasn’t like picking up a trumpet for the first time. You touch a piano, you get the same thing out of it that the best pianists in the world get out of it. So I fell in love with this great big piece of furniture that was so kind to me at first touch. I fell in love! And I must say that early on I understood the structure of how it was set up. My sister was eight years old and she began taking piano lessons, and she was the first to show me that, ‘This E you are playing here is on the first line of the treble clef.’ And thus, theory started.”

Imitatin’ and emulatin’

“I was 15 when I first saw Professor Longhair. I was at a sock hop, a high school dance. This was before integration. I had been listening to him for years. I was already imitatin’ and emulatin’. When I saw him, he was playing a little Spinet piano. It looked like a toy. I had imagined him to be bigger than life. But I was totally awestruck. A couple years later, I saw him working as a stock room boy in One Stop Record Shop. I went to buy a record and they didn’t have it up front so they sent into the back to get it. And the guy who brought the box of records out into the store was Professor Longhair. It’s really weird to think that Professor Longhair was a stock room boy, but for some reason that didn’t matter to me. It was Professor Longhair! I left that store feeling very good.

I was around 19 when we actually hooked up and played together. The way he sounded on record is the way he talked, with that gravelly voice. And he took his music as seriously as the most serious classical musician. With the raggedy playing most of us do, a little mistake doesn’t matter much. But for him, to make a mistake was pretty bad. And it sounds like he is just wobblin’ all over the place, but he was always playing something in particular. He’s not just throwing it around to see where it sticks. He is sticking it wherever he wants it to stick.

He had a whole Professor Longhair way of life, in terms of philosophy and ideology and even vernacular, the way he talked. Music is about what’s going on inside you. All music can be written on paper. It really can. Everything can be written on paper—gravity forces, things out in the universe, even Professor Longhair’s music. But there is something that lives inside the people who are playing music. And the guys who let it live inside of them know it better than the people who are just trying to crowd the world with it.”

Just having a good time making music

“I love Fats Domino. He was inescapable for everyone in the world, and we were glad and proud he was from New Orleans. We all played the Fats Domino songs, because they were popular, and he had a formula that was easy to imitate. See, the doowop groups played the triplets—tink, tink, tink—up here. But in New Orleans, we played the triplets down here. That’s a big difference.

So we all played Fats Domino, but when Fats sat down and played, we all went, “Oh! That’s how it’s supposed to really go!” Dave Bartholomew called me in to play on a couple Fats Domino records and I played on three songs like Fats would have played. One of the highest compliments in my life was eight months later, after the record had been out for a while, Fats told me one day, ‘I don’t know whether that is you or me!’

There was no way for us to know the impact we were having. For one thing, most of us were just having a good time. I was 15, 16, 17 when me and Dr. John, Mac Rebennack, were playing in the studio. He was always playing guitar. And I was just having a good time. And a little later on, I got to be in charge. I wasn’t just a sideman. I was really calling the shots, but still just having a good time and making music, with no idea the impact it would have on the world.

When ‘Mother in Law’ became a hit, I didn’t pay any attention to it. We lived the same way every day. We were just doing what we were doing, and it was out there. And I would hear every now and then, ‘Oh, it’s doing really good.’ And I sort of knew it was out there, but me and Willie Harper and Calvin LeBlanc and all of us, we would all be in the same room the next day, drinking Coca Cola and having potato chips and doing some more songs, with Irma Thomas or someone else. Irma Thomas was the only girl in that room with us. And like the rest of the artists, I would write a song for her, or whoever was in there, Aaron Neville or Benny Spellman or whoever else, and then we would record it just like it was. Just like that. We did the same thing every day. I felt a very special connection to the artists I worked with, but I didn’t pay much attention to what happened after the record left us.”

We never tried to keep up with any America

“I haven’t ever lived anyplace else, but I’ve always thought that in America, these special pockets are everywhere. There is something very special happening in Memphis. And there is something very special happening in Nashville. And in Texas. But I do know we feel very special in New Orleans as well and very tight knitted. I think one thing that has held New Orleans closer to each other than some other places is our stubbornness about the pace we move at.

We never tried to keep up with any America, or how fast things were going, or how big the amps were getting. We like the acoustic world very much, and I think the brass bands have something to do with that. When you march up and down the street, that has to be acoustic, of course. So we have stayed closer to an earthier concept than some other places that plugged into the big hum. And I’m not saying that is better or worse. It’s nice to have all these different gardens in America, and New Orleans is one of them. And I am glad that I was fortunate enough to be from that one.

Today, New Orleans is great. New Orleans is up for the task. The guys are in front of Jackson Square right now, jamming, and the trombone is sliding and the hat is on the ground with some dollars in it and they can have a second line band parade any time. In fact they had one a few days ago. We are up for it and the spirit is very high. The spirit didn’t get drowned. The spirit got baptized. Very solid things got drowned, but not the spirit of New Orleans. Everyone didn’t come back on the same train–never does. But everyone is coming back. One way or another.”

A knock on the dressing room door stops Toussaint mid-thought. The road manager walks in. Time’s up. Toussaint stands. He offers his hand. He walks up the stairs to the stage and takes his place at the piano. The monitor is fixed. Everything sounds great.

–Ari Surdoval

Second Line: Hard Times in the Big Easy

Four years have not lessened the horror of what happened in New Orleans during the first week of September, 2005. Spared a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, which veered to the east and dropped from a Category 5 to a Category 3 storm before making landfall in southeast Louisiana, the city was decimated when the levees and federal flood protection system failed in more than 50 places. Eighty percent of the city flooded, killing more than 1800 people, leaving tens of thousands more stranded for days—trapped in attics up to their chins in toxic flood water, abandoned on highway overpasses and rooftops in the sweltering heat, packed into the storm-ravaged Superdome and Convention Center. The vision of hell unfolded in real time as global media captured the images of bodies in the street, orphaned children, and the elderly and the sick, slumped in wheel chairs, waiting for rescue and fighting to hold on.

Today, the people of New Orleans are still fighting—wracked by psychological trauma and the devastating Diaspora of a city destroyed, not to mention the corruption and cronyism that have marred the no-bid contract recovery efforts. And just as the long, painstaking struggle to heal the deep wounds began to make headway, the city was struck again—this time by the global economic crisis that hobbled the city’s crucial tourism industry. It was an unexpected and quietly devastating blow. Today, the city is reeling from job losses, rising costs of living and a disturbing escalation in violent crime. But the people who returned to claim their home are determined to preserve the city’s deep roots and extraordinary culture. Leading that fight, in many ways, is New Orleans’ tight-knit and hard-hit music community.

The birthplace of jazz and Louis Armstrong, New Orleans is a musical hot house that has incubated and nurtured the greatest traditions in jazz, blues, soul and rock and roll. From Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver, to Fats Domino and Professor Longhair, to Dr. John, the Neville Brothers and the Meters, the Marsalis family and Harry Connick, Jr., to Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Lee Dorsey and Louis Prima, to influential lesser known legends like Snooks Eaglin, Ernie K-Doe, Earl King, Guitar Slim, Willie Tee, and others—not to mention Dixieland, brass bands, Zydeco and a vibrant hip-hop scene—the problem with listing the incredible musicians of New Orleans is that you can never stop without fear of a glaring omission. Their contributions to American music seem almost infinite. Not bad for a city of less than 400,000 that sits below sea level and the poverty line.

“It’s a different place here,” says four-time Grammy Award-winning producer John Snyder, the program director for the music industry studies program at Loyola University. “It’s a certain thing in the air. I don’t know what you’d call it. A soulfulness and an earthiness. It’s got that tropical vibe, where people seem to be conserving energy all the time. It is more about conserving energy than expending energy. It’s in the music and it characterizes all efforts—academic, entrepreneurial, legal, you name it. A lot of effort has to be expended just to get to the point of doing something. It has lived in a different century every century it has been in, and it is never the future. It’s always in a historical context of culture and booze and music and architecture and dilapidated elegance. But after Katrina, everything changed.”

“The music community in New Orleans was so neighborhood based,” say Reid Wick, senior project coordinator for The Recording Academy, who helped administer MusiCares’ Hurricane Relief Fund and Music Rising’s instrument replacement program. “So much of it was learning how to play in the bars and churches of your neighborhood. After Katrina, that was totally disrupted. Some entire regions of the city are vast wastelands, still—and not only poor areas. Everything from the neighborhood where you used to live, to the club you used to play on Saturday night and the church you played on Sunday morning, are just not there anymore. So when those clubs aren’t there, and those neighborhoods aren’t even there, a lot musicians are just going to be struggling and out of work.”

But even in the darkest days after the storm, the musical community worked together to help each other, and their city. They were matched with a vast outpouring of compassion and support from life-changing assistance programs like MusiCares and Music Rising. Following Katrina, the city had the sympathy of the world, and while volunteers streamed in to help rebuild, the city’s musicians found themselves in greater demand than ever before.

“The storm brought a lot of attention to the music community,” says Snyder. “It created work as well as displacement. It created new opportunities as well as destruction and loss. It is like everything else. It is not all one thing. In this situation you have to look for the good and make the best of it.”

“Many musicians were able to come back and for awhile there was actually more work than there had been in the past,” agrees Scott Aiges, director of programs, marketing and communications for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “You had places tripping over one another to hire New Orleans musicians to help support them. But that has died off now. The number of gigs has decreased significantly and the pay scale has gone down significantly, so it is much harder to make a living as a musician—much harder. And it has always been challenging. It’s a city so famous for its music that people think musicians here have it made—but musicians by no means have their livelihoods guaranteed in New Orleans. In fact, we did a study back when I was working for the mayor’s office before the storm and musicians were making on average about $21,000 a year. So we referred to the musicians a lot of the time as the working poor. They are working very hard. They are most often parents and they struggle extremely hard to make ends meet.”

Compounding the destruction and displacement wrought by the storm and its aftermath was the long-term damage done to New Orleans’ tourism industry, a vital part of the city’s economy and the economic lifeblood of the music community. While the city’s struggles to attract visitors began to pay off a few years after the storm, they were suddenly and dramatically undercut last year by the global financial crisis.

“It seemed like we were really starting to see some improvement in the local economy,” says Mark Fowler, manager of Tipitina’s Music Office Co-Op in New Orleans. “The local tourism industry was really starting to get back into good shape. And then we had this big economic crash that just derailed everything. People just aren’t having conventions like they did. And a big convention isn’t just about the people in town going out and spending money—there is all the auxiliary support business, whether it is people in restaurants or cab drivers or audio-video tech guys, all the people whose work is related to that stuff. So all the people in the local economy don’t have money to go out and do stuff either. It impacts musicians on a lot of different levels.”

“The convention business drove so much of the economy of New Orleans, in particular the music industry,” says Wick. “It just hasn’t really come back to the level of what it was. It could be ten years if it ever comes back. And it is hard to track that—a restaurant that would hire a trio or a pianist, when the tourism dollars stop coming in, the first thing they are going to cut is the music budget.”

In addition, the wealth of talent in New Orleans seems to compound the problems. Though the community is surprisingly uncompetitive and supportive—just listen to the warmth and respect when musicians talk about each other during interviews on the incredible WWOZ, one of the best radio stations in the country—their sheer number drives down the fees they can command.

“Music is everywhere,” Snyder says. “Everyone is a musician. The way up North people carry briefcases, down here they carry instruments. But musicians have never made money here. People don’t like to pay for music. They might pay a little bit, but not enough to support it. If you go out in New York City and go to a jazz club, it’s going to cost you a hundred bucks for two people. Nobody would pay a hundred dollars to hear music here. If you ask for ten, you might get people to go. So there’s no money in playing music and there is no infrastructure to speak of, no publishing companies or record companies or management companies.”

“The money thing is very problematic,” says Fowler. “There are so many people competing for the same jobs. It is a buyer’s market. The pay at a lot of places is probably $25 a set, so $25 an hour, which for a day job is pretty good. But when you think about potential income, it is a job more than anything else.”

Of primary importance for those fighting to preserve and protect New Orleans’ musical traditions is to pass along an understanding of the business of making music—from marketing to publishing to legal issues—and a greater understanding of the income potential of licensing.

“One of the things we are trying to do at the Co-Op is to get people to not think just about gigs but all the other things you can do with your music,” Fowler adds. “Get stuff licensed to be used in films and advertising, television shows, more lucrative situations. That is where the bulk of the money is made these days, because there is actually money there. We’re like, ‘We all love playing gigs, but you gotta think of this other stuff.’”

Much like the musical traditions the community is trying to preserve, the recovery and relief efforts are marked by an intense level of creativity, generosity, humility and versatility. Wick’s deep ties to the hardest hit members of the community allowed him to see the need for an organization to help coordinate relief efforts, which lead to the founding of Sweet Home New Orleans.

“Sweet Home New Orleans is an umbrella organization for 14 different relief agencies,” Wick says. “There are probably 5,000 musicians in New Orleans and many of them live in a totally cash world. They’ve never had a checking account or a credit card, so they have no credit history established. With Sweet Home we tried to help with housing issues, and wound up being a case management and application service to streamline the application process for 14 different relief agencies, like MusiCares, Society of Singers, the Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the Musicians Clinic, and three of four other agencies that were springing up. We’re still going strong three or four years later.”

“Still going strong three of four years later.” It perfectly encapsulates the hope and heartbreak the community balances. How extraordinary that there is the generosity, dedication and compassion to keeps these relief efforts alive—and how painful to realize they are still so necessary so many years after the tragedy.

Today, there are still many, many ways to help the city’s citizens and musicians. From financial donations to instrument donations, there is still tremendous need and many devoted organizations to contact for a better understanding of how to contribute. But for Aiges, one answer is simple.

“Come to New Orleans,” he says. “Bare witness. Understand there is still a struggle going on, but the culture of New Orleans remains intact and it remains a tremendously joyous place to experience. Everyone who comes to New Orleans takes a little piece of it with them when they go. And the more that is spread throughout the world, the more people are aware of how special New Orleans is. And you can’t predict how that will resonate and how that will change things for the better.”

–Ari Surdoval

You can help. Click here:

Sweet Home New Orleans

Tipitina’s Foundation

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation

New Orleans Musicians Clinic

Listen to WWOZ!