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.

Remembrances of a New Orleans Music Community

I wrote this piece for the New Orleans Publication Where Y’at magazine 18 months after Hurricane Katrina, interviewing 3 musicians who were still displaced from the city.

Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina devastated our community, many of our city’s musicians remain scattered around the world. Three of those performers reflected on the New Orleans music scene and their collective affinity for the community of artists for whom they now have an even greater appreciation.

Henry Butler

Like so many New Orleanians, Henry Butler (Basin Street Records) is monitoring the recovery from afar, hoping that if the Road Home program and insurance issues are resolved, he can be home in a matter of 1-2 years. His frustration with the lack of progress and leadership is clear.

Butler 001Butler spent ten days in Northern Louisiana as the Katrina drama unfolded, left to go on tour to stay busy, and eventually settled in Colorado. He admits that he, like so many others, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, causing him to immerse himself in his work for therapeutic purposes.

Perhaps the diversion that music offered was only a temporary respite from the emotion of the events that destroyed his lower ninth ward home, as evidenced by a story he candidly shared. “I did a New Year’s broadcast in Boston at Berklee School of Music. We were on National Public Radio, and the guy asked me a question about my piano. I guess it was the way he asked it, and all of a sudden I just broke into tears,” he recalled. “I turned myself around so that most of the audience couldn’t see it. The guy was smart enough to realize that it was time for us to play some more music.”

In terms of the brotherhood of New Orleans musicians, Butler adds, “New Orleans musicians are in touch with each other a lot. When [musicians] are in touch with each they know what these people offer musically. They know how they want to work with each other.”

Butler noted that camaraderie can quickly turn to competition when musicians venture outside of the Big Easy. “In the bigger cities, people are concerned that the people who replace them might keep the gigs,” he concluded. “That’s why it’s getting harder and harder for new people to break into places like New York, Los Angeles – maybe a little easier in Nashville.”

As a well-traveled performer and a New Orleans native, Butler provides a broad perspective and a qualified voice on the New Orleans music community and the lack of structure with respect to the business side of music. “You’ve got a whole poor class of people who have spent their whole lives just loving music and just loving art and not really caring much about whether they make money or not,” notes Butler. “You’ve got people in other cities who do care about making money because the cost of living is higher and they don’t have a lot of people who would want to feed them if they showed up on their doorstep. It’s a different culture. It’s a different ball game.”

Butler adds, “There’s no place like New Orleans – The passion, the enthusiasm of the musicians, the true love that the musicians have for what they’re doing. Sometimes it’s to their own detriment.”

Like so many New Orleanians, Butler is hopeful for a better city after the rebirth. “I love the city, I love what I’ve gotten from that city, and I love my foundation. It’s my hope that we’ll find a way to build a new and more resourceful New Orleans for everybody.”

Pete Alba

Pete Alba is a jazz and blues guitarist residing in Seattle post-Katrina who came to New Orleans (1993-2005) to nurture his craft. Like so many who have spent time here, the city has become a part of his musical soul. “I came to New Orleans from Pennsylvania in the early ‘90’s to find myself musically, and N.O. is a great place to do that, like no other city I’ve ever been to,” says Alba. “Music is important to some people here, but in general, I don’t think that music pours out of the veins of Seattle like it does in New Orleans.”

musicians-village 001Alba performs with his own jazz trio, and also recently joined the blues-oriented Groove Messengers. He’s starting to find his way into the music scene, but it’s been challenging.

“People are a little bit more protective of their gigs,” Alba said, echoing Butler’s sentiments. “There’s no real unity in the music scene. There’s a lot of work here, and generally the pay is more than I made in New Orleans which is a plus, it’s just getting into the inner circle is a lot more difficult. Even if you’re a player, there’s just a very protective attitude.”

Pete noted the friendship of the late Tim Guarisco, guitarist of the 1990’s funk bank Smilin’ Myron, as a shining example of the openness of the network of New Orleans musicians. “He was the person who helped me bridge the gap and really got me inside of New Orleans,” said Alba. “He knew all of the local places, all the cool music joints. He was a huge influence on me. He ran a late night jam at the Maple Leaf, and I got to meet some really cool people.”

Although Alba has established new roots in Seattle, it’s clear that he misses the opportunity to visit the city that endeared itself to him. “I’m torn. I definitely feel the call sometimes and it’s tough.”

Within his new circle of friends, he finds comfort in occasionally meeting musicians in Seattle who’ve lived in or visited New Orleans, because it’s difficult to articulate that experience to others. Beyond music, the appeal is found in “The food and just the general demeanor of the people – the vibe. You can’t explain it.”

Evan Christopher

Because he has spent so much time in airports and on airplanes post-Katrina, it’s now hard to define where is home for jazz clarinetist Evan Christopher (STR Digital Records). He completed a 12-week residency in Paris in early 2006 for a French Foundation based in New York, the French American Cultural Exchange (FACE). He’s formed a band there, and he’ll be bringing that combo to New Orleans in the spring. I spoke to him during a brief stop in New Orleans before he hit the road with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.

Christopher 001Christopher is from California, but lived in New Orleans in the mid-90’s, and relocated here again in 2001 until he was displaced by the storm. “The first time I had been to New Orleans was on a bus tour with a singer-songwriter from California,” he recalled. “I’d never been to this part of the country, and I thought I was in another world. I told the band leader that I was going to move there when the tour was over, and I did.”

Christopher recalled his time in New Orleans, and particularly his regular Thursday night gig at Donna’s with great affection.

“The thing that I think I miss the most is the way the audience engages the music in New Orleans in terms of the interaction – being able to enter a musical experience on a lot of different levels,” he said. “There are people that come from Europe that are only looking at it from a historical perspective, there are some people that are coming because of their knowledge of the history of the instrument, there are some people that are just coming to have a party, there are some people that are coming because they’re looking for a cultural experience – they can enter it on any different level.

“I don’t find that in very many other places. I don’t find a willingness to engage the music as socially as the audiences do in New Orleans,” he added. “As a performer, there’s a whole new set of freedoms in what you’re able to do musically when you have a lot of different people coming to relate to the music from their different perspectives.”

“Music’s just been such a big part of the way people grow up here, musical families that go back generations, coming up through some of the schools together,” he said. “I came as an outsider. The community that I found was musicians that shared a similar set of values about how we creatively use the language of tradition, to create something new and have it be very open creatively and still have that same set of musical values. That level of community resonates internationally.”

The Future

A musician can take an instrument and a performance on the road, but you can’t just mobilize a musical community, especially one as unique as New Orleans. Music is undoubtedly our city’s greatest asset, and unless we do whatever it takes to give our musicians a fighting chance, we’ll never get back our city’s heart and soul.

Butler believes that the key is a unified voice of the people of our city demanding that we make it happen. “It would be nice for all New Orleanians to realize that there is strength in numbers. One person’s light is good, two peoples’ lights automatically give more strength, and the more you can merge other people’s lights and bring them together, the more listening power you will have. And the more you’re going to find that people in government are going to be interested.”

Why Jazz Sales Are Tanking…And Why Every Music Educator Should be Concerned

According to recent Nielsen data, sales of jazz music dipped below classical, essentially solidifying it as the bottom feeder in the music genre commercial success pool. There’s a lot of speculation regarding the reasons behind this continuing and disturbing trend. Theories include jazz purists’ inability to embrace the evolution of the genre, the marginalization of jazz crossover artists who infuse elements of pop, rock, funk into their music, and the suffering artist syndrome where the musician rationalizes that commercial success is invariably inversely proportional to artistic integrity, and therefore uses meager sales as confirmation of distinction.

Here’s another theory. How many Olympic sprinters go straight from the crib to the track without learning to crawl, stumble, and walk first? Obviously, those interim steps helps prepare the runner for their ultimate achievements. But they also provide a foundation that comes with it an appreciation for the talents and dedication of the world-class sprinter.

In my interview with Dave Wish, CEO/Founder of the Music Education non-profit Little Kids Rock (audio below), Dave discusses how children who learn even the most basic fundamentals of playing guitar (a few basic chords for instance) will never again listen to music the same way. As Dave says, “Just because I read Dr. Seuss to a child doesn’t mean I’ve confined them to a lifetime of reading rhyming books. It teaches them a love of literature at an early age.”

Exposing the wonder of music participation to children in great numbers virtually ensures a healthy pool of future candidates from which a consumer base with an appreciation for higher levels of accomplishment will emerge. As we continue to gut music education programs, we lower the baseline of music awareness, erode the pool of likely appreciators, and drive the masses of music consumers to the most primitive levels of melodic and harmonic sophistication.

In my own experience as a guitarist, it was only after I realized the limitations of the minor pentatonic scale when venturing outside of the basic 3-chords structures of rock/blues guitar that I came to explore the theory of music with greater harmonic variety. Had I never played an instrument and reached that level of frustration that prompted me to delve deeper, it’s not likely that I would have developed such a level of appreciation for the virtuosos I admire like Dave Frishberg, Joe Pass, Donald Fagen, and the like. While I’m sure that there are devout fans of jazz who never picked up an instrument or glanced at music notation, it’s safe to say that a lion’s share of jazz aficionados are those who appreciate the mastery of the artist through their own journey of musical expression. As Dave says…


Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga: Climbing the Wall Together

Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga at the GRAMMYS (courtesy

I read a business book once that said (paraphrasing) that increasingly in the 21st century, rather than competing against each other to see who can climb the wall of success first, businesses will join hands and scale the wall together (I apologize for omitting the reference, but now that I’m AARP eligible as of last week, I suppose instances of memory loss will become more frequent). The metaphor essentially emphasizes the importance of collaboration in our economy, for a number of reasons – ease of purchase from the customer’s perspective when multiple businesses offer a wider array of services, project teams with a broader perspective generating ideas, greater geographic reach, cross-training, etc.

Perhaps the greatest advantage of collaboration is the ability to reach out to new customers by sharing customer and contact lists. The introduction to new customers through your business collaborators brings a sense of credibility.

Take the case of Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga.

The duo’s collaborative effort, the recently released Cheek to Cheek album has hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts. According to USA Today, the joint jazz album sold 131,000 copies in the week ending Sept. 28 (Nielsen SoundScan), making Bennett, 88, the oldest living act to earn a No. 1 album.

Lady Gaga’s youthful fan base and her pop success might have given older generations pause when she crossed over to jazz standards, categorizing her as simply the next passing trend in the pop world. But Bennett’s seal of approval provides a reason for mature fans to take a closer look and listen with an objective ear. Conquering different genres can be a key to longevity for many in the music industry (Elvis Costello, Christina Aguilera, Elvis, Sting, Pat Benatar, to name a few).

Likewise, Lady Gaga’s participation brings a continued sense of “hipness” to jazz standards, and exposes Tony to a new generation of potential fans.

Have you thought about collaborative partners for your business or artistic endeavor?


Early American Idol Sentimental Favorite: Naima Adedapo

I’ve never been one to jump at trends, so I must admit that I didn’t watch the first 3 years of the show American Idol. But soon thereafter I became hooked. As commercially overblown as the show has become, it is so very compelling because so much is at stake and such young performers must give it their best on the spot several times over.

This season I can’t help but root for Naima Adedapo. I must admit my affinity for jazz makes these sentiments far from objective, as her absolutely sultry performance of the standard “Summertime” was scintillating. She works as janitor, which is hard to believe when you seen her perform – and how can you not root for her. The judges avoided a grave injustice (well as grave as a singing competition decision can be) by allowing her to enter the sing-off and compete for a “wild-card” spot in the finals after the voters had failed to vote her in. She then gave an emotional performance on the verge of tears, and showed why she is such a compelling performer – she has emotion to complement her skills.

Here’s the link to Naima singing “Summertime”

Wynton Marsalis on Jazz, Romance, and He and She


Wynton Marsalis’s album He and She is music interspersed with poetry, and a poignant take on relationships and romance. In this excerpt from an interview with, Marsalis discusses the respectful approach that jazz takes toward courtship:

“There is so much in jazz music to be studied and to be learned, and so little education. I could go on and on and on, just about what Duke Ellington did. And, also the romantic connotations of the music. The music had the effect of liberating a lot of the people from this Victorian image of sexuality. But, for some reason people still think they need to be liberated from that. This is something jazz music was doing around the turn of the century. And, now it’s degenerated in the modern era to the type of vulgarity that is represented by rock and roll, which parades under the guise of giving you sexual freedom, when it’s really, truly, sexual repression.

“Sexual freedom is found in the sensuality and the romance and the lyricism of the great songwriters like George Gershwin and Cole Porter and Duke Ellington, and of the great instrumentalists like Louis Armstrong and Lester Young. These people had a truly romantic conception that was based on elevation of the relationship between a man and a woman, rather than the denigration of it into just some abusive adolescent sexual discoveries.”

To read the entire transcript go to
To sample Wynton Marsalis’s He and She album, click here.
To read my review of He and She for Where Y’at magazine in New Orleans, click here.
To read my interview with Wynton’s father, Ellis Marsalis, Jr., including his thoughts on raising children, click here