In 2008 I had the pleasure of interviewing Pete Fountain for the cover story of Where Y’at magazine. One of the most accomplished musicians in the history of New Orleans, Pete passed away this morning at the age of 86 (Photo credits Carlton Mickle Photography).
It was the mid-1970’s, and the applause from the audience was electrifying. The band members’ smiles hinted of both joy and respect for their dazzling colleague. What I remember most was the reaction of the host, iconic Tonight Show legend Johnny Carson. For the 30 years that the show ran, Carson had a distinct affinity for great comedians and great musicians. His reaction to this performance, one of roughly 60 Tonight Show invitations that Pete Fountain would ultimately oblige, was genuine. Johnny Carson, a man who you would think had seen it all, was quite simply blown away.
For more than a half century, Pete Fountain has been the face and the sound of traditional New Orleans jazz, though he has taken that genre to another level. His alluring demeanor and engaging smile give audiences an uncanny sense that Fountain is amenable and approachable, and his music has that same endearing quality. As clarinetist Tim Laughlin states it, the first time he heard Pete Fountain play, “It was like every note had a smile on it.”
I sat down with Pete Fountain and his agent/son-in-law Benny Harrell recently to reflect upon an extraordinary career, one cultivated at the “Conservatory of Bourbon Street,” as Fountain describes his music education. After Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of what he owned and heart bypass surgery sidelined him shortly thereafter, Fountain is living proof that the greatest fuel for resilience is the satisfaction of a life spent in the pursuit of that which you love.
Fountain recalled with fondness his memories of the Broad Street Carnival Club from the age of 8 or 9. The group marched every Mardi Gras and planted the seed that would inspire him to form his own Mardi Gras marching group years later, the Half-Fast Marching Club.
Fountain’s father played drums and a little violin, but leaned more toward country music. His love for music was infectious however, and he took satisfaction in Pete’s progression as a student of music. “He never did push me, but he enjoyed me playing,” said Fountain.
A testament to his rapid progression in music, Fountain was invited to play in the Warren Easton High School Band even before he was old enough to attend the school.
Fountain describes his style as a cross between New Orleanian Irving Fazola and Benny Goodman. One of his earliest breaks was his stint with Lawrence Welk’s band from 1957-59, a move that granted him the recognition that would pay dividends for years to come, especially in terms of album sales. “It was a good thing for me,” he said. “From then on it just blossomed.”
After two years in North Hollywood, however, the pull of the Big Easy began to overwhelm Fountain and his family. He had three small children, he and his wife Beverly were homesick, and the inevitable return to New Orleans followed.
Fountain had a live music club at 800 Bourbon St. throughout most of the ‘60s, and he played a frenzied schedule of three shows a night, six days a week. He later moved to 231 Bourbon St., a club that held nearly 300 people, allowing him to pull back to a more manageable two shows a night.
Harrell added that Fountain and trumpet player Al Hirt had a great mutual respect for each other’s talents. If Fountain finished his set first, he would often head down to Hirt’s club to join him on stage, and vice-versa.
“If they [musicians] could keep up with Al Hirt, they could keep up with anybody, because he was a player. He was a gorilla,” Fountain said with a laugh.
It was a magical time for jazz on Bourbon Street, an era of “good feelin’,” as Fountain recalled.
In 1978, Fountain moved to his club at the Hilton Hotel, a venue that seated 500 people. Throughout that era, Fountain’s guest appearances on the aforementioned Tonight Show helped increase Fountain’s visibility and drive album sales. Fountain has released an astounding 96 recordings during his career.
Now semi-retired, he plays Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, MS.
Harrell is a first hand witness to the love and admiration that Fountain’s fans share with him after each show, as he accompanies Pete.
People come up to him afterwards and say, “You brought me back to another time,” said Harrell of Fountain’s fans. “People are so gracious with their memories and what Pete’s music has meant to them.”
Don’t be fooled into thinking that this is simply a nostalgic encounter, however. Fellow musicians affirm that Fountain still has the magic in his clarinet.
Laughlin is one of those musicians, and perhaps the person best qualified to articulate Fountain’s musical impact. Laughlin was invited to join Fountain’s band at Jazz Fest a couple of years ago, an invitation that he was honored to accept. In the same manner that Fazola influenced Fountain, jazz historians might view that Jazz Fest performance as a symbolic “passing of the torch” to Laughlin.
“There’s no better clarinet player in the country now,” said Fountain of Laughlin. “He’s all New Orleans. Whenever I have the opportunity, I like to bring Tim on stage. They love to hear both of us playing.”
Laughlin’s first encounter with Pete left a lasting impression on him. “The first time I heard Pete (age 9), I knew he didn’t belong in any category like traditional jazz or any other category for that matter,” said Laughlin. “He wasn’t trying to be a ‘throw-back.’ It was such a great, unique, and swingin’ sound, but I knew he was from New Orleans.”
“The thing I do try to copy is his professionalism and class,” he added. “He comes to play… not to tell jokes and stories between songs. His charm onstage is his clarinet and the things he does with it. I simply loved hearing one great tune after another. That’s really respecting your audience. It’s what they came to hear.”
“Once you get to know him, you get the feeling it’s not all about him,” said Laughlin. “It’s about the music. Anybody that knows him feels lucky to know a legend and such a good and decent man.”
Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club is approaching 48 years together, with 200 members and a 17 piece band. “He lives for Mardi Gras,” said Harrell, adding that passing up this Fat Tuesday ritual is one bit of doctor’s advice with which Fountain simply can’t comply.
Fountain was also recently inducted into the Delta Music Museum in Ferriday, LA, which focuses on the history and culture of the Louisiana-Mississippi Delta region’s music. He was honored with an exhibit dedication and a star on the museum’s “Walk of Fame,” with the induction taking place at the Seventh Annual Delta Music Festival on April 5th.
As for the upcoming Jazz Fest performance, Fountain said that Laughlin will likely join him again. In terms of what the audience can expect, the answer was simply, “A great band and happy music.”
Every note with a smile.