Thursday, June 11, 2009

Professors and Piano-Ticklers

(see text below pic)

Now that I'm no longer a part of, the project I most regret not completing is the Dozens I'd started on New Orleans Piano Players. Here's what I'd drafted as the unpublished introduction:

In the beginning, King Oliver's cornet and Louis Armstrong's trumpet were the instruments that "jazzed" the original fans of New Orleans music. But ever since that interlocking brass sound moved up the Mississippi to Chicago and then New York, it's been the rhumba-related beat of second-lining piano that's defined the Big Easy--from Tony Jackson to Eddie Bo, Jelly Roll Morton to Fats Domino, Tuts Washington to, yes, even Randy Newman.

One could argue that NOLA's grandmasters of the keys have really been drawing crowds and high-steppin' dancers since the mid-1800s concert career of young Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who absorbed and then carried Congo Square's African rhythms and local Creole melodies east to Europe and Cuba and south to Argentina and Brazil.

And beyond that, New Orleans' geographic location in general meant that South Louisiana and the Caribbean actually swapped music back and forth for a couple of centuries--the habanera arriving from Cuba, for example, to become Morton's "Spanish tinge," then mixing with local ex-slave dances and back-from-the-funeral parade-stepping to shape the hitch-and-shuffle second-line... and
that Crescent City sound then soaring back to Jamaica over the airwaves from the late Forties on, helping to generate ska and reggae. It's a twisty story but one thing has been rockin' solid throughout... New Orleans piano.

Here are 12 of the musicians who played a part in that unbroken hundred-year history, this dozen delineating an entire tradition, several generations of masters and mentors, listeners and learners, professors and piano-ticklers--a few of them still not widely known outside "The City That Care Forgot," but all of them worth your while...

The half Dozens I did write covered the six leading and arguably most influential players:

1. Jelly Roll Morton (for my preferred versions of both Morton and Dupree, go here , then to the two italicized reviews in bottom third of the post)

2. Champion Jack Dupree (with Morton as above)

3. Fats Domino (go here)

4. Professor Longhair (here)

5. Allen Toussaint (here)

6. Dr. John (here)

I had also written a seventh, not-yet-submitted piece on the more obscure Huey Smith:

One measurably influential New Orleans pianist is only barely audible on most of his many regional hit records. While Huey "Piano" Smith wrote the tunes and established the groove, he chose to keep his vocalists and band the Clowns out front and his busy piano mostly buried. R&b fans didn't care because the Clowns usually included many local greats--vocalists Bobby Marchan and Geri Hall, guitarists Mac Rebennack and Earl King, saxmen Lee Allen and Alvin Tyler, drummer Earl Palmer, support keyboards by James Booker and Allen Toussaint, and so on. Loud, rhythm-driven, repetitious, the words often nonsensical and the vocals mostly chanted or shouted, Smith still managed to create some true classics, from "High Blood Pressure" and "Don't You Just Know It" to "Sea Cruise" and "John Brown" and his genius signature song "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu."

Smith's keyboard does resound in that last-mentioned tune--the arrangement still kept simple, mostly just staccato notes and chords, piano triplets repeating, the vocals riding on top, but followed by enough boogie-woogie stomp to satisfy the song title. It's a rare opportunity to hear Smith at work, edging closer (like most of his hits) to what later became identified with the Crescent City group called the Wild Tchoupitoulas--parade rhythms and beyond-sense chants about "flag boys" and "spyboys," big chiefs and fine funky fun. Listeners outside New Orleans back then just didn't realize that Huey's best work was giving the world a joyous, jump-up sampling of the Mardi Gras "Indian" tribes in street-fest mode--"don't cha know, jockamo?"

Others awaiting similar brief scrutiny were jazz pianists Ellis Marsalis (pater of the famous familias) and Harry Connick, Jr., r&b master Art Neville (his keyboards anchoring both The Meters and later Neville Brothers groups), and can't-be-pigeonholed players James Booker and Henry Butler.

I guess they'll all have to find some champion other than me--or two-fisted Jack, for that matter--to bring the piano story up to date. Me, cher, I got other catfish 'n' hushpuppies to fry...

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