Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Corker of a Series

William Kent Krueger had turned 40 by the time his first novel was published in 1998. That book, Iron Lake, took the mystery world by storm, winning several major awards including an Anthony. Iron Lake also set the stage for a whole subsequent series (eight novels so far and all of them prizewinners, with more Anthony nominations and wins) featuring his lead character, Cork O'Connor, a sometime-sheriff of fictional Tamarack County and a devoted family man whose lawyer wife Jo and three spirited children are always figuring importantly in the novels too.

Cork is part-Irish and part-Ojibwe, and his Native American blood/spirit connections are a major force in each novel, situated as all are in the far Northwoods lakes region of Minnesota, near Lake Superior and the Boundary Waters wilderness area, with Ojibwe people (Anishinaabe in their language) always a part of the story, whether encountered on the Iron Lake Reservation or in Cork's town of Aurora.

Krueger is one splendid writer. His sturdy hero (both words seems particularly apt) is a decent, canny guy filled with love for the region and stubborn compassion for its people good or bad. The supporting characters all resonate. The plots are brilliant, with suitable twists and turns and agony as Krueger mixes upstate Minnesota humor, dogged detective work, and sudden terrible violence. He also exhibits a poet's touch in his descriptions of the natural beauty, the changing weather, the play of human emotions, and much more. (He has stated his own perceived indebtedness to Hemingway, Hillerman, and James Lee Burke.)

The review blurbs quoted on each book just keep getting better and better too as Krueger fine-tunes his unformulaic, evolving "formula"; and a reader who works through the novels in order can detect small, graceful improvements in his style. The later books, for example, seem to flow effortlessly through changing points of view whenever required, and the author's showing signs of a subtle, unexpected playfulness too.

His 2008 novel Red Knife, for example, has a heart-rending plot that draws on the AIM movement of the Eighties, rival gangs and drug wars along our borders, racial tension between Native Americans and whites, the hellacious school shootings in Colorado, Minnesota, and elsewhere, as well as Krueger's ongoing examination of honorable behaviour and the complexities of love in all its forms. Yet there are small moments of grace offsetting the violence and hatred, including scene-ending passages like these...

(Sheriff) Dross looked toward the lights on the far side of the empty field. "When you had the job, Cork, did you ever wonder if you were doing the right thing?"
"When didn't I?"
"Yeah." She smiled, but even in the dim light, Cork could see how weary the gesture was.
They separated, heading in different directions, both stumbling in the dark.

* * *
He thought it must be hard having a father like Buck, a man unloving and unlovable in so many ways. Yet Cork had the feeling that love was the one thing Dave Reinhardt desperately wanted from his old man. Hell, didn't every son?

* * *
After the others left, Cork stood a moment in the gathering dark. It was quiet on the long straight stretch of empty highway that burrowed through the pines. He wished he believed the quiet would last.

Or this domestic moment in the O'Connors' kitchen:

"I'm going back to the Kingbirds' this evening with George LeDuc."
"Whatever for?"
"There's something we need to talk to Will about."
"What would that be?"
"It's between Will and LeDuc and me."
"Now who's keeping secrets?"
Cork slipped the spatula under one of the sandwiches and lifted it off the heat.
"I think the grilling is done," he said.

After the book's tragic climax, Krueger even takes the structural step of projecting some characters' lives years into the future. Of Cork's daughter:

Annie O'Connor didn't go to Madison to play softball for the University of Wisconsin. The shootings altered her course and directed her down a different path....
She would grieve, yes--in a way, never stop grieving--but Annie understood that for her there was a way through grief, through sadness, through hate and anger and all the anguish and confusion of the world. It was a path that in a strange way led through the hurting hearts of others, a path that she believed always led to God. And throughout her life Sister Anne would follow it.

Rather a subtle way to announce her religious decision! The novel soon ends with a beautifully bittersweet passage:

(Stevie) ran past Cork, his arms pumping hard, his small strong legs carrying him away. Cork slowed and, as he watched his son, his beloved son, racing way from him, he was struck with an overwhelming and inexplicable sadness. In only a moment, Stevie had sprinted out of the sunlight, entered the shadow of the deep forest ahead, and disappeared from his father's sight.

(I think one might add F. Scott Fitzgerald to Krueger's preferred list of writers. Think of the rhythms and movement as Gatsby ends.)

In a few months, the ninth O'Connor novel will be published. The trade paperback of Red Knife includes the Prologue to forthcoming book Heaven's Keep, and it's a grim, shattering preview that promises much. More hard terrain and harder, life-altering events--more terrible tragedy--await Cork and his family, his Iron Lake and Aurora friends.

I've ordered mine.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Folks say he's a hero..."

One of the very best folk-rock/roots/Americana CDs of the last quarter century is one I didn't know of until three weeks ago; flat out missed it a decade back. But here's how I got enlightened...

Walking into a used CD store just as it was opening one morning, I said hello to the lone clerk, who remarked that it was time to put on his favorite early-in-the-day album. I paid no attention, went about the store browsing for nothing in particular, but gradually began to realize that something really exceptional was playing on the system--rocking, in-the-groove arrangements backing a fine baritone voice singing songs that were mostly originals but sounded instantly familiar, like folk tunes a hundred years old.

I went back to the counter, asked to see it, studied the cardboard packaging-- Blackjack David by Dave Alvin, released in 1998 on Hightone Records...

Well, dog my cats, as Walt Kelly might say. It was the cool and
way-hot, always brilliant lead guitarist of modern rockabilly/r&b giants The Blasters--whose brother Phil did all the singing in the days of that late-lamented, all-stops-out rock band. Known more for squabbles with Phil (shades of the Everlys!) than for speaking out, I knew Dave had carved out a solo career after he left The Blasters, and I even own a copy of Public Domain, his Grammy award-winning CD of traditional songs, but nothing had prepared me for this years-earlier, clarion-call announcement of classic greatness, using the old English folk ballad as his springboard theme--Blackjack Dave indeed, stealing the listener away to mysterious gypsy music!

The "gratitude" paragraph on the digipac ends with these words: "Thanks for waiting so long." Turned an instant believer, I wasn't willing to wait any longer. I asked the clerk if there was another copy, and if not, could I buy the store's? Reluctantly he agreed to sell me the one playing...

And I've been spinning it every day or two now ever since, with no let-up in enthusiasm. Anyone remember Self Portrait, the weird and disappointing two-record set Dylan issued in 1970, where he seemed to be trying to sing, even croon? Now imagine a first-rate baritone voice (sometimes raspy, sometimes as smooth as Elvis) singing a similarly eclectic array of songs, with a solid rocking back-up including slide and pedal steel, accordion and fiddle, dobro and banjo and drums, played by alt.country stalwarts like Greg Leisz, Bobby Lloyd Hicks, Dillon O'Brian, Chris Gaffney, and Brantley Kearns. That, my friends, is what awaits you on Dave Alvin's 1998 album.

Not only that but, aside from the beautifully reworked title track, the eleven songs are all Alvin originals, or co-writes with established pros like Tom Russell ("California Snow") and Gaffney ("1968"), worthy of Jimmie Rodgers' or Woody Guthrie's best. I'd forgotten or maybe never even noticed that silent Dave was the writer of all the classic Blasters numbers--"Marie, Marie," "Border Radio," "American Music," "So Long, Baby, Goodbye," "Red Rose," "Long White Cadillac," and plenty more.

As fans know, his lyrics for "American Music" handily summed up what The Blasters were about:

It's a howl from the desert
The screams from the slums
The Mississippi rolling
To the beat of the drums...
We got the Louisiana boogie and the Delta blues
We got country swing and rockabilly too
We got jazz, country western and Chicago blues
It's the greatest music that you ever knew.

For this solo album Dave eliminated the howl and the screams and his own amazing, flailing rockabilly guitar, but the rich Americana remains. These are truly story songs too, each one telling a tale worth hearing: the sorry woman trying to hold her life together, hopping a bus and hoping for the best ("Abilene")... the thumping lover's lament called "Evening Blues," with accordion bearing his sadness and a repeating chorus, "Oh I wish that I could hear/ The blues you sing to yourself"... The old-style murder ballad with the singer tricked and trapped by blind love ("Mary Brown")... the gentle lost-love, letter-that-won't-be-sent musing titled "From a Kitchen Table"... the haunting and beautifully composed "California Snow," with a border guard examining his life, recalling an illegal-immigrant tragedy in the treacherous, unexpected weather ("The California summer sun will burn right through your soul/ In the winter you can freeze to death in the California snow...").

And then there's the swaying, night-song solitude of album closer "Tall Trees," and the perfectly played (channelling Guthrie and the Carter Family), folk-rocking story of Johnny and Joe, country boys gone to "1968" Vietnam, with only one coming home, and him lost ever since in guilt and sorrow:

Tonight in this barroom
He's easin' his pain
He's thinkin' of someone
But he won't say the name
Folks say he's a hero
But he'll tell you he ain't
He left the hero in the jungle
Back in 1968..."

I'll bet anyone discovering this classic set, which some cite as Alvin's best album, will have as hard a time as I did resisting the just-right rhythms and extraordinary sound and Dave's got-to-sing-with lyrics. He and producer/player Leisz and all the other musicians really delivered the goods.

But I'm searching for Alvin's other albums. What if this Blackjack lightning struck twice?

Friday, June 19, 2009

From Light to Dark

Ian at the now-renamed Midriff jazz blog recently wrote a pair of posts devoted to the 50th anniversary of Duke Ellington's deceptively simple soundtrack music for Otto Preminger's classic film Anatomy of a Murder, starring Jimmy Stewart and Lee Remick. Filmed in bleak b&w, this excellent close-on examination of a courtroom murder trial is set in the isolated Upper Peninsula region of Michigan, with Marquette and Ishpeming standing in for fictional towns "Iron Bay" and "Thunder Bay."

By a small coincidence I am currently reading a multi-prizewinning mystery series by William Kent Krueger--his "Cork O'Connor" novels, which are terrific character studies as well as beautifully written books. These are set in the far north of Minnesota on the shores of Lake Superior (the town is named Aurora), with forays into the Boundary Waters wilderness region, Michigan's U.P., and nearby Ontario--where there is a real Thunder Bay; one Krueger novel takes that as its title. Northern Midwest smalltown life features wonderfully in all of them.

This confluence of theme and place got me to thinking of my teenage years during the Eisenhower Era. Partly the result of all the uprooting and school changes my sisters and I were going through as military brats, I was a classroom "brain" but socially inept. So my lifelong escapist tendencies emerged in those years: preferring reading and music to real people; maintaining a lone-wolf, in-control attitude; having few close friends. And I began a lifelong love affair with the movies--sitting in the dark, dwarfed by a giant screen, the music and action carrying me away...

Four films from those years seem to encapsulate what movies meant back then, especially to one young teen: Boy on a Dolphin, Vertigo, Anatomy of a Murder, and Psycho; romantic adventure, suspenseful mystery, courtroom drama, and psychological scare fest, respectively. Only the first two were color films; stark black and white photography still seemed closer to "truth" back then. All four were graced with brilliant soundtracks that collectors still seek out today. And all had one other feature in common which will probably become clear as I write about each of them.

From 1956 to 1958 we were stationed in Izmir, Turkey, an historic port on the Aegean Sea, with the sun-drenched Greek Islands fairly close by. Boy on a Dolphin (filmed mostly on Hydra, released 1957) concerns an archeologist searching for Classic Greek artifacts, particularly the statue described by the film's title, with hero Alan Ladd immersing himself in the company of sultry sponge diver Sophia Loren (her first American film role). The plot was pretty silly, I imagine--can't remember most of it--but the Greek Islands scenery was spectacular, as was Ms. Loren dry or wet, but especially when she had just emerged from the sea. (One such moment left the director and crew thunderstruck and made Sophia a two-pointed star.) The music, by Hugo Friedhofer, was haunting and sort of familiar to us in Izmir, drawing as it did on Greek folk melodies--vaguely Middle Eastern; exotic, tuneful and repetitive; suitably mysterious for the undersea scenes.

That Ladd was only 5'4" while Sophia was a robust 5'8" meant that he had to stand on low boxes, or she had to walk in a special ditch beside him (all this came out much later, of course). Still, I had no trouble imagining myself in his, er, sandals and swimsuit.

Released a year later and a much better movie, Vertigo also played Izmir before we left, and it had a major impact on my psyche. I was already somewhat in thrall to the blond-bombshell beauty of sullen Kim Novak (thanks to Picnic and Pal Joey), so seeing her play two different characters--or the same character twice, actually--and watching her die twice (that clothed but curvaceous body!), was an unwelcome experience. (William Kent Krueger's novel Blood Hollow also has a young woman dying twice, but "she" is actually two different lookalike girls.)

Sure, it was only a movie, but detective Jimmy Stewart's fear of heights, his obsession with Kim, his anger and despair, plus composer Bernard Herrmann's complex and eerie music, and director Alfred Hitchcock's use of odd lenses and camera angles and long, slow, suspenseful tracking shots, all added up to a psychological hammer-blow of some sort that the film has never lost and that most viewers still experience even just screening it on DVD.

I'm jaded, cynical and 66, and it still affects me, anyway.)

By 1959 when Anatomy of a Murder was released, we had moved on to Tacoma, Washington. I had read the novel, and its plot and actor Jimmy Stewart are what persuaded me to try the film too, with then-little-known Lee Remick proving a beautiful bonus. I was too callow to appreciate Duke Ellington's music, but it wasn't used that much anyway. Director Otto Preminger seemed unsure what to do with the Duke's brazen, non-scene-specific themes, composed as pieces of music adding up to a suite rather than Hollywood's typical brief cues or "stings."

Besides, Preminger had other fish to fry. He loved to push the social envelope--think The Moon Is Blue, Carmen Jones, The Man with the Golden Arm--and this story had rape, a revenge killing, and a rather amoral atmosphere, including snide battling lawyers and Stewart carefully coaching his client (defendent husband Ben Gazzara) while half-way falling for flirtatious Lee himself. (Not for nothing were two of Duke's pieces of music called "Flirtibird" and "Happy Anatomy"; Remick/Laura's youthful, careless sexuality and a pair of her panties entered in evidence were prominent features of the film.) The viewer is never sure whether she was brutally raped or was a somewhat willing partner, and whether her husband acted as a cold-blooded killer or a crazed man not fully aware of his actions.

The music, which can be heard in more depth and with more clarity on Columbia's official 1999 CD reissue, has its own smoldering sensuousness (Johnny Hodges' alto at work, plus the clarinets of Russell Procope and Jimmy Hamilton)--sophisticated, making no judgments, sometimes upbeat or shrill but more often tinged with sadness. The Midriff write-up uses the word "lugubrious," but I wouldn't go that far; instead I hear elements suggesting smalltown America, tired roadhouse blues, the sound of a dreary Fifties existence lived unadorned--in harsh black and white, as it were--in the desolate far North. (But of course that's me looking back 50 years later; in 1959 I was simply titillated by Remick and puzzled by the film's callous, casual amorality.)

Psycho was a summer 1960 release. Hitchcock fans (and I was one already, having been convinced by Vertigo and The Man Who Knew Too Much) knew only that the film was b&w and reported to be intense and shocking, featuring name star Janet Leigh, best known for high-bodice costume drama. I was 17 and driving by then, and I got a speeding ticket zipping along some backroads route to the theater downtown, but nothing was going to keep me from that August midnight screening...

Well, the experience was literally life-altering. As we know now, viewers experienced definite nail-biting suspense leading to sudden shock violence. (This was the tame Fifties, remember, long before chainsaws and 13ths and excessive gore.) Screaming string music, again courtesy of Bernard Herrmann. Embezzler-thief Janet in her bra and half-slip as the film begins, and later watched by creepy Tony Perkins (and us audience voyeurs) as she undresses--and then standing naked and helpless in the shower as she is graphically knifed to death in 40 seconds of frantic quick-cutting (to coin a phrase). And this only a third of the way into the picture!

There were other jolting shocks ahead, yet they induced fewer post-screening nightmares; maybe unnerved viewers had become instantly inured. But for years afterward, no matter where I was, I felt a frisson of fear every time I closed any shower curtains, and I took to locking the bathroom door beforehand.

But I suppose these four films (one could add The Searchers earlier and The Apartment a bit later) also unlocked some intellectual capacity, induced some critical thinking, in me and other young people of the era. We saw that the world was rich and varied, beautiful and difficult, sexual and dangerous and sometimes deadly. That Krueger novel mentioned above has a pertinent passage:

Cork had been young once, in Aurora. He remembered the explosive feel of summer nights, when, at fourteen or fifteeen or sixteen your heart was big and your head was forgotten, when you believed you had it in you to do everything, when you felt like you'd never die, but if you did that was all right, too, because it couldn't get any better than this, or any worse.

And the unidentified feature that I mentioned above, found in all four films? Well, what's still guaranteed to claim the close attention of any curious teenage male? (Duke Ellington would likely smile. Duke Wayne as Ethan maybe wouldn't.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Granz Scheme of Things

Yesterday I was idly wondering why I'd never seen a book about great Jazz impresario Norman Granz. The man was no shrinking violet, by any definition; instead he was firm and opinionated, a stubborn, in-your-face veteran of the concert/record wars for four decades, protective of his client artists, generous with the fees and salaries he paid them, quick to decry any signs of racism they encountered, determined on their behalf to accept nothing less than first-rate treatment. Industry people, meaning record company execs, rival producers, concert hall owners, critics, and even some fans, seemed to admire Granz and disparage him in equal measure. One imagines that he must have loved to be hated--at least, by those he deemed unworthy of respect.

So I checked the new/used on-line book sources (including the Abebooks data base of independent bookstores) and discovered one volume that piqued my curiosity sufficiently that I ordered a copy--Norman Granz: The White Moses of Black Jazz, published in 2003 by Urban Research Press. (With a worrisome $40 price tag, so I'm definitely hoping for the best.)

"White Moses"? Even those two words carry a whiff of controversy, suggesting Granz's Jewish heritage, and his out-front efforts at leading jazz musicians (especially black ones; the words seem to play off the Black Moses album by Isaac Hayes) into some holy land of prosperity and respect, and yet also implying that a white-knight "Stormin' Norman" was the only one who could make it all happen. Well, from 1943 through his retirement from active touring (1973) to his final withdrawal during the mid-1980s, the man did all that and more--producing and promoting, managing and demanding, creating and directing record companies, leading far-ranging international tours.

And it all grew out of his single idea--a fairly simple one, it would seem in retrospect, but he was the first and certainly the best at it--to stage concerts that allowed blacks and whites, musicians and fans alike, to sit down together and listen to exciting jazz created in a live, jam-session atmosphere. The first major event was held at L.A.'s Philharmonic Auditorium in 1944, and when the printer serendipitously omitted the last word of the venue's title, the "Jazz at the Philharmonic" name was born: first for concerts, then recordings capturing the excitement (and sometimes the clams) of live performances, then U.S. tours, and then "JATP" around the world, a landmark global phenomenon.

Along the way, he licensed 78s to labels owned by Moses Asch and, later, Mercury, and then in the early Fifties started his own labels: Clef, Norgran, shortlived Downhome Music for traditional jazz, Verve (begun as a vehicle for Ella Fitzgerald; he'd become her manager) with eventually hundreds of Long Play albums--great and not-so-great, but always historically significant, including major work by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Benny Carter, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Stan Getz, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane (live albums released years later) and, of course, Ella Fitzgerald. (His fifth label, Pablo, was a latter-day effort, issuing scads of LPs--some fine recordings, yes, but many less compelling performances too, his stable of artists by then become as elderly as Granz himself.)

From the beginning, the Granz method on stage or in the studio was to bring together top "mainstream" jazzmen, make them comfortable, and then simply turn them loose to improvise with the tape running. This worked remarkedly well, often, but too many albums seemed scattered and loosey-goosey. (Were all those "Perdido/Mordido/Endido" jams anything more than raucous, excitable noise? Instead of solid jazz were they early precursors of rock 'n' roll, as some revisionists claim? Was Norman the Promoter prescient or just lucky?) Visual proof of the Granz system came in the ahead-of-its-time film Jammin' the Blues, produced in 1944 in conjunction with photographer Gjon Mili; and that was followed some years later by an unfinished and inadequately conceived sequal titled Improvisation, its pieces finally released a few years ago in a 2DVD set important mostly for footage of Charlie Parker and some Montreux performances led by Count Basie.

Even the packaging for his record releases became significant and collectable over the years--cover art by David Stone Martin for scores of albums; beautiful b&w and color photos by top lensmen like Herman Leonard and Phil Stern; and after Granz stopped writing his own brief and error-prone liner notes, scores of fine and elegant mini-essays by English jazz critic Benny Green.

While paying top dollar to his artists, Granz also managed to accumulate great wealth for himself; he made no bones about expecting to be well-compensated for all the hard work. Early on, he invested heavily in the varied art of Pablo Picasso, and he sold both Verve (in 1960) and Pablo (in 1987) for major millions. Between the works of art and all the jazz memorabilia accumulated, his home in Switzerland must have been a wonder.

As was the man--brusque and all-business, yet also charming and even witty when he chose to be; vain enough to hide his baldness with a comb-over/toupee, but also playful and canny enough to invent a non-existent, tongue-in-cheek, supposedly top-of-the-line "Muenster-Dummel Hi-Fi Recording" system (the words appeared on early Clef/Norgran labels); and most important, making great jazz happen for half a century...

Beyond all the JATP brouhaha, fans discovered Bird with Machito and Gillespie and (innovatively) strings; Diz with Stan Getz and both premier saxman Sonnys, as well as many gems from Getz as leader; solid releases aimed at keeping the names of Carter and Eldridge before the public; those three glorious duet albums of Satch and Ella, not to mention her "Great American Songbook" sets (jazziest with Duke); the later Basie band driving in high gear at full throttle, and Duke and his Ellingtonians staying as sly and tuneful as ever; unexpected classics by Lee Konitz and Jimmy Giuffre, Buddy DeFranco and Tal Farlow, bustling drummers Krupa and Rich; all the Anita O'Day albums needed to secure her reputation, and several that kept Billie Holiday alive if not well; the series of major sax LPs--alone or together--by Pres and the Hawk, Illinois and Ben the Brute, prickly Gerry Mulligan and laconic Johnny Hodges; plus more Oscar Peterson Trio LPs than the world could absorb, to put alongside the even more baroque series of albums recorded by Art Tatum, both alone and (almost) accompanied...

But enough already. There must be nearly two hundred true classics, and that's not counting the many career-revitalizing albums that appeared when Pablo got rolling in 1973. And they all owe their existence to the grit and grandiosity of Norman Granz.

I look forward to reading the more complete version of his amazing life story.

Postscript: The book arrived and is a disappointment, a sort-of vanity press collection of essays on jazz figures loosely associated with Granz, and with not much more on the man himself than I had already detailed above. Shucks. I guess the definitive book is still to be written.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Professors and Piano-Ticklers

(see text below pic)

Now that I'm no longer a part of Jazz.com, 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...