Allen Toussaint has been playing music since he was gradeschool age. He has been writing music since around age 12 – his first original was a duet, inspired by the two trombones he had heard on the radio in a version of Gershwin’s Love Walked In.
With decades of history, experience and untold influence to explore, where does one even start an interview with him?
At the beginning, of course.
In this evening’s Meet the Artist session with Festival resident critic Bob Blumenthal, Toussaint was asked when music first became part of his life. He recalled, “someone brought a piano over for my sister to play. We didn’t know we were poor. All kids are rich.”
Toussaint grew up in New Orleans listening to the radio. Attentively, apparently, and this early experience offers an unexpectedly revealing insight into the diversity and complexity of his performing range. Did he have favorite pianists, among the ones heard in that formative radio listening time? “Yes, everyone. I didn’t know there were specialists. I listened to hillbilly music, classical, opera…I thought everyone could play everything.”
So he emulated that misperception, teaching himself to play in all the styles he was hearing on the radio with special emphasis on the styles and players he liked the most. “Boogie-woogie caught me early. Pinetop (Perkins) and Professor Longhair – I didn’t want to be like him, I wanted to be him. I love all the pianists I’ve ever heard. I was a Liberace fan, too. I thought Liberace was killer!”
On composing, Toussaint humorously confessed having mixed feelings about the computer program he uses occasionally to assist with composition. “Things always look good on the computer. But we all know how that is. Trash in, trash out.You can come back to something a week later and ask, ‘who sneaked in here and did that!?’ ” He continued, “You know we all have wishbones and feathers waiting around to become a chicken.”
Clarinetist/sax man Don Byron, a collaborator on The Bright Mississippi, also joined today’s Meet the Artist session. He talked a bit about some of his first musical experiences growing up in New York City, surrounded by fellow clarinetists like (now bassist) Marcus Miller. Byron laughed, noting how most of the other musicians had eventually gravitated to other instruments, while he “ended up staying on clarinet like a fool.” It’s a joke, but role models were few and far between in popular culture at the time. “I want everyone to know I always wanted to be on the Lawrence Welk show. It was the only clarinet on TV!”
Byron also had a few thoughts to share about the elder statesman Toussaint. “There are all kinds of musicians I play with but only a few of them are architects. Allen Toussaint is an architect. Out of respect I put on a shirt with a collar to play with him.”
The two men have at least one common element in their musical backgrounds – classical music. Toussaint’s mom and grandmother loved it, and they often listened together to opera on Sundays on the radio. Byron emphasized his lifelong experience playing classical music, starting with his first paid gig in a performance of a classical oratorio – Haydn or Mozart, Byron couldn’t recall which one. His compensation for the engagement, however, was still a sharp memory: $20.
Byron attributed his attraction to Latin music to the transition his NY City neighborhood underwent when he was still quite young. As the white population moved out, it was replaced by Dominicans. They had bands, but no charts. Byron made some income writing out charts for the groups, and it’s one of the many musical dialects that have colored his music. His omniverous musical appetite has also ventured into a long relationship with klezmer music, starting with a run in the Klezmer Conservatory Band waaaaay back in 1980. There’s some serious history here.
In the outstanding concert that followed the interview session, one of the highlights was a piano montage near the end that playfully ranged from snippets of Chopin and Grieg, to Chatanooga Choo-Choo and finally a soulful, upbeat version of Steve Goodman’s classic train song, City of New Orleans where the whole band kicked back in. Whether Toussaint or Byron, one thing I learned for sure today is that curiosity will take you far in the world and assure that the mind and spirit just keep on growing.
At 72, Toussaint has enjoyed a long, successful career as a producer, composer, and player. Bob Blumenthal noted that Toussaint’s role on his latest album, The Bright Mississippi, was focused on interpreting the songs in the collection suggested by producer Joe Henry, rather than playing his own originals. What kind of mental shift was necessary to approach a whole album of other peoples’ material? Toussaint response summarized a lifetime of diverse musical interests and pursuits: “If you just play the song, whoever you are should come along with it.”
Michael Chorney’s Sextet opened the show last night, seven members strong with the addition of the guest trombonist Andy Moroz (and eight with vocalist Miriam Bernardo who joined the group to sing a Sun Ra tune). There were memorable moments throughout, but the highlight had to be Kurt Weill’s smoky, syncopated Tango Ballade from the Threepenny Opera featuring hand-muted trumpet and a lovely doubled cello/violin duet passage. I also really enjoyed Chorney’s original, Non Nun, so named, Chorney said, “because they both have three words.” Fun, and always original – the Sextet/Septet/Octet offered a fresh opening for the night’s concert.