Category Archives: Music

Encouragement, Support, and Exposure – The Lessons of Ellis Marsalis, Jr.

Article originally appeared as “Where Y’at” magazine’s 2007 Jazz Fest cover story, reprinted here on the learning of his passing (November 14, 1934 – April 1, 2020).

It would be logical to speculate that there must have been something in the water at the Marsalis residence. How else would you explain the fact that five of the most talented jazz musicians on the planet and a name that has literally become synonymous with the genre emerged from under one roof. Ellis Marsalis, Jr., the father of New Orleans’ first family of jazz is modest about his influence on the lives of his six children and on the musical careers of four of them, preferring to credit his wife Dolores. Clearly the couple had instilled in their children the consummate balance of enlightenment and respect.

“A responsible role model,” is how Jason Marsalis, percussionist extraordinaire and the youngest of six children, describes his father. “He’s someone that had command over being not only a father, but [with emphasis] a man…Someone you could go to for either information or advice. He’s someone that understands very clearly what is needed of any individual.”

EMarsalis_CCortello 01bYet to simply give credit to the elder Marsalis for spawning virtuosos would erroneously trivialize the monumental role that he himself has played in the history of modern jazz in New Orleans, and ultimately worldwide.

You see it was the events that preceded the musical careers of his children; his persistent search to find the instrument and the music that inspired him, his commitment to the nurturing of the development of modern jazz in a city that more readily embraced traditional players, his dedicated search for contemporaries who shared his exuberance for that music, and his commitment to a continuous dedication to lifelong exploration and excellence that made it all possible.

During our recent interview, he quoted the likes of George Carlin, Denzel Washington, and Marilyn Manson to illustrate his points. Throughout, there was a sense of a man who at the age of 72 retains an infectious curiosity – an unending desire to continuously re-conceptualize his thoughts and philosophies based on his observations.

Those qualities give a sense of how he has instilled in his children an approach to music that is not simply an attempt to add a new twist to what their musical predecessors have achieved, but rather an impassioned quest to understand the nuances of all players, styles, and settings related to the jazz genre and beyond. Such an approach enables each of those musicians to bring the complete arsenal of talents and understanding to every musical performance, conversation, and education experience.

“He always tries to be on top of what’s going on rather than letting the music pass him by, even if it’s watching American Idol, which I don’t watch, but he does,” added Jason. He also noted that Ellis made an appearance with Snooks Eaglin on a CD that was released recently (Sonet Blues Story, Verve 2005, recording date 1977), emphasizing that he knows about a lot of different styles of music.

Of the importance of having such a legend on the regular performance rotation, Snug Harbor’s George Brumat stated, “He’s the man who put this place on the map. He’s the franchise.” I had the privilege of sitting down with Marsalis prior to a recent Friday night performance, his recurring gig at the iconic jazz venue. I asked him to pick a defining moment when he knew that music would be his vocation.

“If I were to pick a…musical experience – in 1949, I think in the spring, I was in high school and the Dizzy Gillespie Band, the big band came through here, and I went to that concert,” he said. “I knew that that was what I wanted to do. I mean I didn’t have any idea how to do it. I wasn’t sure what they were playing. I just knew that that was what I wanted to do,” ending the statement with resonant laughter that punctuated our conversation periodically.

Early on, he stayed busy by playing R&B gigs, alternating saxophone and piano as required. Overwhelmed by the talents of tenor saxophone player Nathaniel Perrilliat during one of those jam sessions, Marsalis decided to cast his fate with the piano. He honed his skills considerably during his tenure in the Marine Corps, joining a quartet called the Corps Four that had a steady job with a TV show and later on radio in Los Angeles.

When his enlistment was up, he returned to New Orleans and reconnected with the guys with whom he had played previously.

“Very few places really accepted any modern jazz. The one place I started to play…was a place on Dauphine St. called Dominic’s Jazz Room,” he said. It was there that Marsalis, through a twist of fate, joined Ed Blackwell (drummer), Otis DuVernay (bass), and eventually Perrilliat.

“One day the piano player got in an argument with the club owner, and at some point left the piano, left the gig, the whole thing,” said Marsalis. Blackwell convinced the club owner to hire Marsalis to play there with the trio. Eventually, Blackwell also convinced the owner to hire Perrilliat and they formed a quartet. Those four musicians were among the players that would later form versions of The American Jazz Quintet, which also at times included legendary locals Alvin Batiste and Harold Battiste.

With a limited market for modern jazz locally, Marsalis later supplemented those aspirations with work in Al Hirt’s band, as the house band at the Playboy Club in New Orleans, and as an educator with the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), the University of New Orleans, and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Throughout, Marsalis remained true to his vision of modern jazz, as evidenced by a session recorded in Las Vegas in 1968, later released as a CD entitled Afternoon Session. The impromptu gathering during his tour with Al Hirt was a result of Marsalis’s friendship with Drummer Lee Charlton and provided a brief interlude from the traditional formats that put Hirt on the map.

And that persistence was critical as the next generation of aspiring jazz artists emerged. Ellis Marsalis and his peers had laid the foundation for a new era of New Orleans jazz, had formed a network of mentors to provide guidance on every instrument, and had exhibited the passion for the music that would inspire young students (including his sons) by example.

Regarding the temptation of some parents to attempt to pressure children to follow a specific career he stated, “My view of that had to do with first understanding that being a professional musician is difficult enough without trying to make somebody do that.”

“I don’t believe in making them do it anyway. I think what needs to occur is the encouragement, the support, and the exposure,” condensing the magical formula of parenting down to its essence. “But when they [Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo, and Jason] decided one by one that they wanted to do that [pursue music careers], then I was in a position to know from a local standpoint, who was probably the best teacher to get to really learn the instrument.”

“My wife was a lot more involved in the discipline aspects of what was taking place in the house, and for the most part, I spent a lot of time consistently trying to learn how to play this music, which is a very narcissistic and selfish endeavor,” he added. “So consequently, I would be cooperative on the periphery.”

Expanding on the topic of parental guidance, Jason said of his parents, “They raised us to be successful at whatever it is we wanted to do, but it wasn’t like we had to play music. It was just something the four of us chose.”

“To me there’s nothing wrong with somebody who has played a musical instrument and is not going to do it for a living becoming the CEO of a major corporation, and there’s a ton of that,” added Ellis. “There needs to be mandated arts for graduation.”

In terms of the essence of what he wanted to instill in his students, he noted, “Basically, you have to learn how to practice, for whatever your aims are, on whatever your instrument is. I was lucky having teachers that helped me to learn how to practice.”

Ellis and Jason will be working on a CD of Thelonious Monk’s music in a quartet format beginning in April, and Ellis shared his approach to tackling the arduous task of conceptualizing Monk’s genius.

“There are a couple of ways to play anybody’s music in jazz. One is to play the melody of their particular song, and then do whatever you do with that,” he said. “The other way is to develop as much of an awareness of style of playing, and then when you play the solo, you emulate the style, sort of paying homage and respect to the style, realizing that you’re never going to get where this person is. And that’s basically the kind of thing that I try to do.”

“If you’re really serious about trying to emulate the style, it’s a lot of work.”

In making the greater transition from being simply a technically proficient player to a musician who plays melodically and with emotion, Marsalis believes that it’s important that each individual finds something that inspires them and speaks specifically to their musical soul.

“When I was really developing as a piano player, I had one recording that I would play periodically,” he confided. “It was Stratford-Upon-Avon (Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearian Festival, Polygram 1993, original release 1956). Once I put that on, it would let me know immediately where I was. And it’s different for everybody. But you see I found that. And everybody who’s serious, they find it.”

Yes, Ellis Marsalis found it indeed. And the New Orleans community should be extremely grateful and proud that he did.

Born to Be Blue: Ethan Hawke as Chet Baker

born-to-be-blueI watched the movie Born to Be Blue this weekend, the stylish film depicting a specific period in the life of jazz trumpet great Chet Baker. Rather than try to chronicle the entirety of Baker’s life and career, the movie focuses on a brief period when the brilliant, yet tragic musician recovered from an altercation with his drug dealer that left his mouth damaged, prompting a period of rehabilitation of both his playing and his heroin addiction.

In the lead role, Ethan Hawke shines by capturing the nuances of Baker’s voice and singing style, one which conveys the intimacy and loneliness that defined Baker’s music and life. Hawke gives an indication of his approach to the performance in an interview with AOL. “If you get locked into an imitation, then you’re not emotionally connecting to the material yourself. The real dream is to tip your hat to the iconography of it – the look, the sound…but also bring a piece of yourself. Finding the voice for me was so important. There’s something so fragile about it.”

Hawke indicated that he used Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Johnny Cash as a roadmap. “He doesn’t really sound like Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, but he embodies the mood and tone and experience of listening to Johnny Cash. If you put the albums side by side there’s no comparison – one’s Johnny Cash and one’s Joaquin Phoenix, but in the movie I was very moved (by the performance). He got inside the music in a way, and that’s what Robert (Budreau – Director) challenged me to do.”

In an equally compelling interview in the series called Hollywood Masters, Hawke revealed that he finds fascination in movies that are not focused on plot but rather those that capture the human experience, with the passage of “time” as the substitute for a clear storyline. Such an approach lends itself to a certain realism that’s missing in the “cookie-cutter” style of filmmaking. Certainly one of the most ambitious examples of such an effort came in the movie Boyhood, a 12 year effort where Hawke once again worked with his frequent collaborative partner, writer/director Richard Linklater.

The underlying message here as I perceive it from the movies and the interviews that I’ve watched is that everyone is looking for magic in life, but the magic is life itself. This brief scene from Boyhood, an exchange between Hawke as the father and his young son Mason captures the underlying sentiment of the film, and of Hawk’s outlook on filmmaking:

MASON:
Dad? There’s no like… real magic in the world, right?

DAD:
What do you mean?

MASON:
You know, like elves and stuff. People just made that up.

DAD:
Well, I don’t know. I mean what makes you thinks that, that elves are any more magical than something like…like a whale?

DAD (CONT’D)
You know, I mean, what if I told you a story about how underneath the ocean, there was this giant sea mammal that used sonar, and sang songs, and it was so big that its heart was the size of a car? And you could crawl through the arteries? I mean, you’d think that’s pretty magical, right?

MASON:
Yeah. But like… right this second, there’s like no… elves in the world, right?

DAD:
No. Technically no elves.

U2 in New Orleans: Deserving Stewards of Musical Privilege

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I attended the U2 concert in New Orleans on September 14, 2017, a stop along their Joshua Tree tour that celebrates the 30th anniversary of the album’s release. The concert was everything you’d imagine from the iconic band. The band’s greatest hits are ideally suited to serve as arena rock anthems. Songs start modestly and build to a dramatic crescendo, provoking frequent “hair standing up on your arms” moments – Simple chords, a distinctive sound punctuated by the cutting riffs, harmonics, and delay effects of The Edge’s guitars and Bono’s vocals, and a stage presence that demonstrates that the band is comfortable in their skin as the greatest rock stars of their generation.

The musical excellence is greatly enhanced by the impact of technological advances of the concert experience. The stunning graphics canvassing the screen that traverses nearly the entire width of the Superdome floor provide a sense of the greatest live music video ever seen and heard. The band has the resources to take those technical capabilities to another level, superimposing live shots of the band members visually enhanced over pre-recorded graphics ideally suited for and meticulously synchronized with the music.

Add to all of the above, the backdrop of the Louisiana Superdome – a venue of last refuge for desperate Hurricane Katrina survivors, the band’s participation in the post-storm revival as well as their obvious affinity for the city and it’s musical influences, and you have the recipe for an unforgettable entertainment collaboration between artist and audience.

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As I left the stadium and approached the bottom of the ramp near street level, I looked up at the mammoth building structure that seems even more colossal against the backdrop of the downtown structures that punctuate the Superdome’s surroundings. I watched as the sea of contented fans filtered out onto the streets. I couldn’t help but think what it must be like for the band members to drive up to a venue of this magnitude knowing that enough people to fill the building to the rafters are willing to flock to see them. Success at this level is a unique combination of talent, charisma, hard work, dedication, faith, luck, and other elusive intangibles.

It’s also a tremendous responsibility and privilege to attain success at this level in such a high-profile profession. As fans and as citizens, we can only hope that the musicians who achieve that level of fame and success serve as deserving stewards of those rewards.

The return of the New Orleans Saints NFL football team to the Superdome in 2006 after the horrific events of Katrina was as cathartic an experience as any of the post-storm recovery activities. While a halftime concert might seem merely symbolic to outsiders, the citizens of the city can attest to the impact of the moment and the affinity for the anthem “The Saints are Coming” crafted by Green Day and U2 for that night. I couldn’t help but look up at the ceiling of the Superdome occasionally and think back to the darkest days when rain and a glimmer of light penetrated the weather torn panels of the roof. It gave the concert a sense of triumphant return to the city – so much so that a friend described the night as spiritual in nature.

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Courtesy NOLA.com

The Edge conceived the founding of Music Rising, an effort to ensure the replacement of musical instruments destroyed in the storm to those in the Gulf Coast region. The organization continues to this day, administered by the non-profit Mr. Holland’s Opus, as the mission has expanded across the country to those affected by natural or economic disasters.

But the band’s concern for humanity is of course as global as their musical acclaim. Bono is one of the most well-known and accomplished philanthropists and social activists that the music industry has ever known. His ability to reach out to a diverse group of leaders of religious organizations, government, business, entertainment, and media has garnered him recognition as an effective agent of global change. His understanding that polarizing criticism rarely brings about the long-term, effective reforms that partnerships and outreach can achieve has distinguish him among celebrity social activists. Though too numerous to mention, some of the issues that Bono and the band have taken on include world hunger, HIV/AIDS, women’s rights, third world country debt relief, disease, and fair trade.

You’d think that those tackling such daunting issues might convey a somewhat pessimistic tone. Yet U2’s message articulated by their leader throughout the concert was one of hope and possibilities, prefacing a signature song among many with the message, “There’s nothing that we can’t accomplish, if we work together as ‘One.’”

The band U2 defines what it means to be rock superstars aware of their impact as global citizens and consciously attempting to live up to that responsibility. And New Orleanians as much as any population are thankful for and connected to their generosity, sincerity, and devotion.

The Freedom of Musical Expression

I picked up a copy of local New Orleans entertainment publication Where Y’at magazine recently. There’s a “Where Y’at Chat” feature page where locals from a cross-section of professions are asked 5 random questions and their responses are shared.page_1

In this edition, respondents were asked the question, “Happy Independence Day! When do you feel most free and independent?” I was struck by how many of the responses turned to musical expression and freedom:

“When I play the horn (Euphonium – baritone horn). It’s moving and freeing.”

~ Norman Robinson, Award-winning Radio/TV Broadcaster

“On the stage.”

~ Johnny Sansone, Award-Winning Blues Guitarist

“Singing a song with my guitar in front of an audience.”

~ Greg DiLeo, Trial Attorney

“Blaring the radio with the windows down.”

~ Mavis Larrimer, Respiratory Therapist

For Love or CountrySometimes it’s hard to imagine and therefore important to remember that there are places and there have been times where such freedoms of expression are not a way of life. Music/artistic expression and free speech are as precious as any rights we afford our citizens, and must be protected even when, or perhaps especially when, those perspectives, expressions, and points of view are counter to those of the majority.

The movie For Love or Country documented the plight of jazz trumpet player Arturo Sandoval whose homeland of Cuba prohibited jazz. Swing Kids is the story of teen aged jazz/swing aficionados of the early days of Nazi Germany who used music and dance as a vehicle of defiance. In both cases the narrow allowances of only state-sponsored music served as a way to repress dissonant thought among the citizenry.

Swing Kids 002Tennis player and 12-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic who grew up in war-torn Serbia articulated those sentiments in his book Serve to Win… 

“Growing up in wartime taught me another crucial lesson:  the importance of keeping an open mind and never ceasing to search for new ways of doing things. As a people, we were controlled by a government that kept information from us. The consequences of that continue to this day. Even though we have recovered from the war, we haven’t recovered from the mindset that communism instilled:  that there is only one way to think, one way to live, one way to eat. Tennis, and my studies with Jelena (Jelena Gencic, Novak’s youth tennis/life coach and mentor) opened my mind, and I was determined to keep it open.”

DjokerDjokovic has ascended to the top of the men’s tennis game in large part because of his insatiable appetite for methods that will give him the mental, physical, and nutritional edge to compete at the highest level in the most competitive era his sport has ever seen.

So if you’re a musician, professional or recreational, or a music enthusiast, take a moment this week to appreciate the freedoms of expression of all kinds that we often take for granted.

7 Tips for Overcoming Songwriter’s Block

The brilliant jazz composer/pianist/vocalist Dave Frishberg once wrote a song titled “My Swan Song” in which he ruminates about the challenge of continuing to come up with new song ideas. Frishberg sings, “It’s the final cry of a dry imagination.”

If you’ve ever put pencil to staff paper or simply tried to hum along a new melody to a few chords on your acoustic guitar, I’m sure you know the feeling. I broke out of a personal songwriter’s slump late last year and pumped out a few tunes. Here are a few things I learned that might help you if you’re struggling with composition:

Rewriting is Easier than Writing

Beatles Abbey RdPaul McCartney woke up in the middle of the night with the idea for the song “Yesterday.” But as he tells the story, he used the title “Scrambled Eggs” instead. He was simply trying to pen lyrics to match the song so he wouldn’t forget the idea, knowing he’d rewrite later. Don’t get hung up on the song trying to find the perfect lyrics. Write something with roughly the appropriate number of syllables and go back and rewrite later.

I’ve written and published 2 books and probably 60-70 songs. In both cases, I’ve found that it’s easier to get ideas out and edit later than to try to make them perfect from the outset.

Capture Every Idea

I have a voice memo function on my smartphone, and I’d imagine most of you do as well. Every time you have an idea, even a couple of lines or a few chords with a melody, capture it. You never know which one can blossom into a full song, but if you plant enough seeds, one will grow into something beautiful.

Walk Away and Come Back

Sometimes a little time away can recharge your batteries or help you look at a song or an idea differently. I’ve had songs that I walked away from because I wasn’t pleased with them. After some time away, I had new ideas – change the tempo, change a few chords, or reverse the order of the verses.

There’s a Reason They Call it the “Creative Process”

In Steven Pressfield’s book The War of Art, he speaks of how the artist doesn’t take criticism too personally. They understand that they aren’t defined by any particular piece of art, but rather each work is part of a creative process. They’ll wake up tomorrow and go to work again. Some days/works will be better than others, but each is a step forward.

Write Some Bad Songs

Don’t be deterred because something you wrote doesn’t necessarily live up to your standard. Go ahead and see the work through to completion. Maybe you’ll revisit and improve the song later, but maybe not. You’ll feel better about yourself and your creative abilities if you see ideas through to completion every once in a while, even if you’re not completely happy with the song, rather than just a collection of half-finished songs that leave you frustrated.

Change Your Routine

I typically start composing by strumming chords on the guitar (or piano), then I’ll try to find melodies that fit, and finally lyrics to match the song after the chords and melodies are complete. But I was in a rut using that technique for a long time. So I just started writing lyrics one day. It unlocked my muse, so to speak. Shortly thereafter, I returned to my usual methodology, but changing my routine got me back in a rhythm again, and the ideas started to flow again.

Learn Something New/ Listen to Something Different

Paul McCartney speaks of a Minor 7th chord at the start of the Bridge of the song “From Me to You” as a real breakthrough. Remember that many of the early songs of the Beatles like “Love Me Do” were very simplistic musically and the band was influenced by many of the 3-chord songs of early rockers like Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins. McCartney also suggested to Producer George Martin that they try a piccolo trumpet solo in the song “Penny Lane” after seeing a BBC performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s second Brandenburg Concerto.

When you consider how far the Beatles took popular music from the late 50’s and early 60’s to albums like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Abby Road, it really puts their accomplishments into perspective. If you’re a rock or pop songwriter, listening to new genres might not turn you into a jazz or classical musician, but it might make you better at what you do.

Expand your music vocabulary to give you a broader foundation of ideas to draw from.

John Lennon Knew the Source of the World’s Troubles

lennon-001“One thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside.”  ~ John Lennon

Every day I watch the news and I’m saddened by the fact that we as a society spend most of our time dealing with symptoms and not the problem. Crime, war, abusive behavior, addiction, appetite for power, depression – they’re just symptoms. Inability to deal with one’s human emotions is almost always at the heart of these issues.

We’ve made incredible advances in medicine, technology, our universe. And yet as a society, have we had any success reducing violence, divorce, suicide, or increasing our levels of happiness or meaning in our lives? We have an intense curiosity when it comes to exploring the world outside of us – and a paralyzing fear when it comes to exploring the world within.

And until we make the same advances in addressing human emotions in a constructive manner, we can never build enough jails, pop enough pills, conquer enough kingdoms, or fill our lives with enough gadgets and creature comforts to make our problems go away.

There’s a saying that emotions will always find an outlet. If you don’t find a constructive one, they’ll find a destructive one for you. And we see it on the news or in our lives every day.

…And John Lennon knew it.

With that thought in mind, my latest original composition, “Tales of the Emotionally Blind.”

When Clowns Were Good Guys, Bourbon St. Daiquiris, & City Soldiers in Song

dsc_0245In the late ‘80s, I tended bar at a Daiquiri place on Bourbon St. in New Orleans on weekends and during college breaks. Saturday nights were hectic as you’d image and we made good money for college students, but I really enjoyed working daytime shifts. You had more time to converse with people, find out where they are from, and generally observe the interesting cross-section of life that passes through the city on a daily basis.

Street performers add to the uniqueness of the French Quarter experience. There was a clown back then who would walk the street and offer to make little balloon animalsdsc_0252 for the kids for tips. Seems like fun, until you think about 8 hour days in the outdoors in New Orleans in the summertime in full makeup and costume. Typically temperatures reach 94-95 degrees with 90% humidity. He’d often walk into the bar to get a break from the weather and ask for a cup of ice water.

I recall watching him once as he stood at the bar exhausted, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the dripping sweat from his forehead. I could see his makeup beginning to melt away, and I could see the fatigue in his eyes. I realized under the makeup that he was of an advanced age, certainly not immune to the physical effects of his environment and of the demanding nature of his work.dsc_0271

I gained an appreciation of the sacrifices of the cast of performers and characters who roamed the area and put a smile on peoples’ faces on a daily basis. With this in mind, years later I composed a song as a tribute to the street performers of New Orleans titled “City Soldier,” including the line:

“There’s a clown with a tattered costume roamin’ through the square today. He never says a word, but he makes balloons for the children every day. It’s a long way from the big top, but he doesn’t really seem to mind. The smiles on their little faces help him forget about those dreams he left behind…”

Here’s City Soldier, featuring Romy Kaye on vocals and Tony Dagradi on saxophone.

“Bring Two Pairs of Shoes” – Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural of Buckwheat Zydeco (1947-2016)

This article originally appeared as a cover story for Where Y’at magazine in 2009 and reprinted here on the day of Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural’s passing.

buckwheatzydecodNow that zydeco music is established with the Recording Academy as an official GRAMMY category, it is only fitting to reflect back on one of its master practitioners and foremost international ambassadors. Stanley “Buckwheat” (Buck) Dural, Jr. and his band Buckwheat Zydeco celebrate their 30th year as one of the most renowned artists of the genre with a new CD, Lay Your Burden Down.

Once considered a regional musical phenomenon, zydeco music has garnered international attention, thanks in large part to Buckwheat Zydeco’s ambitious schedule. The band was formed in 1979, and began touring Europe in the early 80’s.

Thirty years later, the band boasts a list of accomplishments would have been difficult to envision at the outset. Presidential inaugurations, Olympic ceremonies, national television commercial and motion picture recordings, talk show appearances, and GRAMMY nominations top the exhaustive resume. Not bad for a band leader who was reluctant to embrace the music early in his career.

Throughout his childhood, Buck was inspired by Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. “There was so much energy. It was very inspirational.”

“When I first played music, there was nothing like it,” recalled Buck. “I just knew that this was what I wanted to do. I knew that from an early age.”

Buck was always very appreciative of the opportunity to play music, and getting paid to do so was simply lagniappe.

“I’d make four or five dollars, and I thought I was the richest guy on my block,” he laughed. “A little kid making that kind of money! Just to see people dancing. It still touches me now.”

Buck’s father had an affinity for zydeco music, and encouraged him to explore the music of Clifton Chenier, one of the iconic performers of the genre. Buck remained steadfastly opposed to that notion, preferring to stay true to his early R&B influences and his Hammond B-3 organ.

“Clifton Chenier and my father were best of friends,” Buck explained. “My dad would always tell me that I needed to play accordion like Clifton Chenier. I was invited to one of his gigs to perform as an organist.”

He approached that gig convinced that he would remain stubbornly opposed to opening his eyes to the music.

“I stayed over two years with Clifton,” Buck admitted. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” he added. “I had never seen a washboard like that (played by Clifton’s brother Cleveland). At the house, my dad would always play with the same washboard that we washed clothes with – the one with the wooden frame. This cat had that thing strapped around his shoulders like a bullet-proof vest. He played with bottle caps on all fingers.”

It was Chenier’s command of the accordion, his vitality, and his ability to integrate other influences that really hooked Buck on the potential of zydeco music.

“The music was of his own invention,” said Buck. “We played four hours non-stop. That’s how you play with Clifton. That was inspirational to me.”

After his run with Chenier, Buck knew that he wanted to learn to play the accordion. That transition took about nine months and was not without its challenges.

“It gave me the blues,” said Buck of the learning curve that came with his newfound instrument. “You’ve got to inhale, exhale, pull and push, pull and push – The coordination with the left hand and the 140 buttons. I flipped it over, turned it around, put it down, and got so upset.” On the verge of quitting, Buck issued an ultimatum to that accordion and threw down the gauntlet. “It’s you or me,” he said, and eventually he conquered the beast.

Buck continued to bring both instruments to his gigs but found it too easy to revert back to the Hammond B-3 organ as somewhat of a security blanket. It wasn’t until he eventually “parked” the Hammond B-3 that he began to really embrace the accordion.

The band’s commitment to tour internationally exposed their music to a broader audience. Doors began to open up for Buckwheat Zydeco, most notably a major record label deal that was a breakthrough for both the band and for the genre.

“You always keep your fingers crossed and you hope and pray that good things will happen,” said Buck. “My manager Ted Fox called and said, ‘How would you like to record for Island Records?’ I dropped the phone. I said, ‘What do you think? Man, that is great.’”

Buck was aware that Bob Marley had been discovered by Chris Blackwell of Island Records, and knew of the label’s commitment to roots music.

Buckwheat Zydeco is also known for their affinity for allowing kids to join the band on stage during live performances, a trait that only enhances their reputation for appealing to a broad audience.

“We have to give something to our children,” said Buck. “There’s so much corruption and destruction leading them the wrong way. When I [bring kids on stage], these kids always remember. My music is for all generations. Mom and dad don’t have to leave kids home. They can take their kids with them.”

While numerous generations and artists contributed to the lobbying efforts to have zydeco music recognized as a GRAMMY category, it is understandable that it’s a source of pride for Buck.

“It’s a good feeling,” he said. “I’d like to think that I had something to do with it – Taking my inspiration from Clifton Chenier and all of the older generation guys that played before me. I’ll just hand it down to the younger generation.”

The band tries to maintain a healthy balance by integrating multiple influences into a synthesis that is uniquely their own. “Everybody likes different things,” Buck explained. “That’s why I put so many different things in my repertoire. But I’m never going to get away from the roots of my music. It’s like a gumbo. You have to put all of your ingredients in.”

The band’s new album is a perfect representation. “I’m doing some cover tunes and some of the Buckwheat Zydeco repertoire,” he said. “I like to take that challenge to arrange and make sure that I do a good job with anybody’s music that I cover. Whatever you do, you can’t just be a copycat.”

Lay Your Burden Down is produced by Steve Berlin of Los Lobos fame, with guest appearances by Sonny Landreth, Warren Haynes, JJ Grey, Trombone Shorty, and Berlin himself.

Buck had only one thought for those coming to see the band live at Jazz Fest. “When you come to a Buckwheat Zydeco concert, bring two pairs of shoes, because you might burn one pair out.”

As for the irony that he has accomplished so much in his career by playing music that he was particularly reluctant to embrace, he closed with a universal lesson.

“I knew that I should have listened to my dad a long time ago. I’m very stubborn. I learned what you don’t understand, you don’t criticize.”

Pete Fountain (1930 – 2016): Every Note Has a Smile

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).

fj2-2008_Pete-FountainIt 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.

Pete Fountain 0005Fountain 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.

Pete Fountain 0009
(L-R) Pete’s Son-in-Law/Manager Benny Harrell, Craig Cortello, Pete Fountain, and former Where Y’at editor Chris Thacker

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.

Jimmy Fallon: The King of Late Night Music

I grew up as David Letterman’s career was ascending. When he began his run as a talk show host, it was a great source of pride for fans like me who had followed his career and connected with his unique brand of humor. It was as though he was poking fun at the genre, with quirky, offbeat guests and bizarre comedy skits. It was like one big inside joke that only Dave and his fans were in on. His irreverence self-deprecating approach to a TV show genre that was built on Vegas-like glitz and celebrity worship truly changed the landscape for those who followed.

THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON -- Episode 0187 -- Pictured: (l-r) Singer Harry Connick, Jr. during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on January 5, 2015 -- (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC)
THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JIMMY FALLON — Episode 0187 — Pictured: (l-r) Singer Harry Connick, Jr. during an interview with host Jimmy Fallon on January 5, 2015 — (Photo by: Douglas Gorenstein/NBC)

As Dave’s career winded down, Jimmy Fallon was a worthy newcomer to the late night talk show turf, having proven himself and honed his craft at SNL as a performer, writer, and Weekend Update desk jockey. Fallon’s affinity for music was apparent early on at SNL, as he used his guitar to deliver parody songs and impressions.

I recall watching Fallon’s first show in the “Late, Late” time slot when he first transitioned from SNL. He was clearly feeling his way and exploring the space, still looking slightly self-conscious and uneasy, though the elements of future success were clearly there. Like Letterman before him, he used that time slot where expectations are lower and experimentation is acceptable to find his groove.

As he moved into the “Early Late” time slot, taking over at NBC for Jay Leno, he came in as a confident performer with a clear vision of the format and tools he would use to conquer the new challenge.

And the key to his formula for success? MUSIC.

From the outset, Fallon chose a band that was worthy of the late night talk show platform, as Carson (Doc Severinsen Big Band), Letterman (Paul Shaffer), and Leno (Branford Marsalis and later Kevin Eubanks) had done before him. The Roots, led by Ahmir Khalib “Questlove” Thompson, were an astute choice for the times. The band has hip-hop sensitivities, but with jazz undertones and the musicianship to cross genres and back performers of any style. Their versatility is critical in backing the music-based hijinks of a host who amazingly seems to straddle music generations very adeptly.

Fallon migrates seamlessly from spot-on impressions of 60’s and 70’s classic performers like Neil Young, Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and Jim Morrison to a “history of rap” medley with Justin Timberlake. And somehow Fallon seems natural and authentic in both settings, a feat that few performers could pull off. He comes across as fun and hip, with a sparkle in his eye that seems to indicate that he can’t believe he’s getting away with it all.

Like the Rat Pack shows in Vegas in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is the coolest, modern-day party that everyone wants to attend. It’s the one that they’ll be talking about the next day.

Fallon recently challenged Ellen DeGeneres to a lip-synch battle judged by Justin Timberlake, another recurring skit on the show. And the fun of music participation lures celebrities who might otherwise foster an aversion to letting their hair down to join in the silliness (see “I Got My Tight Pants On” featuring Jennifer Lopez and Fallon).

But in the context of this blog that espouses the benefits of music education, I’m particularly fond of the skits where Fallon invites a musician with a hit song to join him and his band to create a rendition of the song using only classroom toy musical instruments.

We’ve discussed in this forum the fact that so many music students abandon music when they leave school because excessive marching and drilling associated with band programs leaves them burnt out. We live in an era where the tools for illustrating joy in music have never been greater – loop pedals, vocal harmonizers, multi-track recording software (I have an app with an 8-track digital recorder on my phone) are accessible and inexpensive (or free).

Fallon understands that the importance of music is that it simply provides a universal platform for fun.

And Jimmy Fallon has become the King of late night music.