Allen Toussaint: The extended interview

Allen Toussaint: The extended interview
Photo by Michael Wilson

In this week's print edition of City Pages, freelancer Rick Mason interviewed legendary New Orleans songwriter and producer Allen Toussaint, who is headlining the Twin Cities Jazz Festival tonight in Mears Park. Rick's interview with Toussaint went much longer than what we could fit into print, and we wanted to give readers a chance to delve deeper into their conversation -- here is the rest of the the interview transcript.

City Pages: What did you hear growing up that had an influence on you?

Allen Toussaint: As a youngster I was listening to whatever was on the radio, and there were things like boogie-woogie, and popular songs and even a lot of hillbilly music-Red Foley, Jimmy Dickens, Ernest Tubb. On Sundays my mother would play classical radio all day long, so I heard a lot of that. And it all seeped in. I can recall feeling when I first started playing, I thought whoever played piano played everything that I was hearing. And I thought everyone knew that except me. I attacked everything that I heard, and ever so humbly, of course, in most cases. I tried to play everything and every genre. Of course, later I learned that there were specialists who played this and not that. But that early innocence helped me to develop a taste for a wide range of music. But I was hearing mostly what was on the radio generally as opposed to pursuing the jazz idiom.

CP: You would have had to pursue that because it wasn't played as much on the daily airwaves. Was there an emphasis on New Orleans stuff on the radio?

Toussaint: I certainly heard a whole lot of Smiley Lewis and, of course, my Bach of rock, Professor Longhair; Cousin Joe and all of the New Orleans people who were recording. I heard them quite a bit: Paul Gayten, and my definite immediate mentor, Dave Bartholomew. Whatever he was doin' was very, very important to me.

CP: Does Professor Longhair stand above everyone else as an influence?

Toussaint: As a pianist, yes, by all means. I'd say first and foremost. When I first heard Fess I guess I was about eight or nine. That was the most shocking thing that I had heard and the most exciting thing. I tried to keep up with him as he went along. Whatever he would come out with new I was right on top of that. I'm still amazed by Professor Longhair.

CP: I understand you've done symphonic versions of Longhair material.

Toussaint: Yes, I did, for my own amusement at home. I have a good time with that.

CP: Will anyone else ever hear it?

Toussaint: I don't know. I've thought about that, but I'll see what happens there. When you begin to bring things out like that, there's a lot of business involved and that can muddy the water.

CP: Is there any one Longhair tune that's the key to him, do you think?

Toussaint: With one such as myself who goes back to "Hey Little Girl" and "Hadacol Bounce" and various other rhumbas that he did, I couldn't pick one. But if I was to give an example for someone who had never heard Professor Longhair before, I would play some "Tipitina" and "Big Chief."

CP: You've done some fantastic versions of "Tipitina": the minor key variation "Tipitina and Me" [from the post-Katrina benefit album Our New Orleans], and then a variation that became part of "Ascension Day" on The River In Reverse. It seems there's so much emotion packed into those versions.

Toussaint: Well, there is. For one thing, I'm very emotional about Professor Longhair. And when Elvis and I got together and I did the track, I'm so glad that Elvis could hear as well as I the melodic line that I played up front before we got to the actual "Tipitina" section of "Ascension Day." Cause the melody that Elvis is singin' up front is the melody that I'm playing, which is what I considered "and me." If you listen to that melody, it was definitely inspired by Professor Longhair but it is a different melody than what "Tipitina" is. But it just goes to show you the strength and inspiration that Professor Longhair invokes.

City Pages: To me, the minor key "Tipitina and Me" seems to sum up the bittersweet essence of post-Katrina New Orleans. Did that enter into your thinking when you were doing it?

Toussaint: No, but I certainly know that there are some things that happen that's subdued somewhere but has to come out. So that could very well be the basis.

CP: You did a wonderful thing with Fess and Tuts Washington, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. [ A documentary film by the late Stevenson Palfi, it got three generations of New Orleans piano players-Longhair, Washington, Toussaint-together to work out ideas on three adjacent pianos. Fess died shortly after (in 1980), and the film concluded with his New Orleans-style funeral.] What's most memorable about that session with those two giants?

Toussaint: That was the most memorable: that here these two guys are-Professor Longhair and Tuts, I knew them both-and what a fine idea, for me to be here in this number with these guys. And I was just sittin' there, I remember, thinkin' so many times, there's very little for me to say here. After Professor Longhair has spoken and after Tuts has spoken, there's very little for me to say. I just thought it was grand to be in the presence of these two guys and three pianos. I mean, that just doesn't happen. Two doesn't happen often, that's why there was the phrase, piano players rarely ever play together. And here is three.

CP: Could something like that be put together today?

Toussaint: Yes, it could. As far as who you would pick to do it, if I was doin' such a thing I would certainly include Davell Crawford, also Henry Butler, and someone else, homegrown New Orleans..

CP: Mac [Rebennack]?

Toussaint: Oh, Dr. John? That would be good, yes! That sounds good. That sounds as if it would be right.

CP: So four pianos

Toussaint: Well, I don't know who the fourth one would be.

CP: Henry, Davell, Mac and you.

Toussaint: Well, no. I've already had mine.

CP: Yeah, but now you're Fess.

Toussaint: OK, I would be Tuts or Fess. But Mac and I, we got started about the same time. Mac and I were playin' in the studio when he was a guitarist and I was a pianist. So it's not like one come after the other. We're sort of parallel.

CP: Well, that'd be all right, wouldn't it?

Toussaint: Oh, yes. I don't mind the parallel. It could just be me and Mac. Anything with Mac as far as I'm concerned would be fine. I think he has just been wonderful at his art and skills, and such an ambassador.

CP: I had forgotten about Henry Butler.

Toussaint: Oh what a giant. Of course, don't let him play first because there's no keys left.

CP: Do you have any favorites as far as artists you've worked with or songs you wrote?

Toussaint: If I was to say songs that I wrote for myself I would say "Southern Nights." I could say that without thinkin'. But not for other artists because for each one I was like a tailor. I was trying to tailor-make the songs for the artist at the time. Maybe I'll have a favorite song I wrote for that artist. For Irma Thomas a favorite song would maybe be "It's Raining" and "Ruler of My Heart." For Lee Dorsey I would think "Yes We Can Can" and "Can I Be The One." If I was to think of a song that I think the most of in my life, it wasn't heard by anyone but me and the artist, and that was Lou Johnson; a song called "Transition."

CP: What happened to the song?

Toussaint: Nothin'. Absolutely nothin'. It was on his album [1971's With You In Mind], of course, but it wouldn't be one that would be remembered or even heard by most. But that happens.

CP: A few significant New Orleans music people have been lost in the last few months. Any random thoughts on [guitarist] Snooks Eaglin or [singer-songwriter-pianist] Eddie Bo?

Toussaint: Snooks was amazing. The word genius is thrown around sometimes just because people are good, hard workers or become rich. But I would reserve words like that for such as Snooks Eaglin. I met him when he was seven years old. And he was pretty close at seven years old to playin' like he was playin' when he was 40. It was just shockin' to hear that. We were close to the very same age and to hear a little boy playin' like that was quite a weird thing to witness. We started a band when we were 13, and Snooks was the guitarist. I spend loads of time with Snooks and he was quite a help in my early life gettin' to know things that he was able to hear and decipher before me. If I heard somethin' on the air or a new record and couldn't uncrypt it, Snooks could sit at the piano and just press it out. And I'd look to see what it was and now I have that thanks to Snooks. Eddie Bo was a jazz player around town before doing the funk things. He had two lives because he got out of music for a long time. And he re-entered with a new outlook and he certainly pleased a lot of people including himself. And of course [singer-songwriter-guitarist] Earl King passed on not long ago [2003, actually]. Time flies but it doesn't seem that long ago cause he spent so much time with us. But he was one of our best poets. Most groups loved Earl King dearly because his music was so profound. Such a story teller.

CP: So how are things in New Orleans? Are things bouncing back?

Toussaint: It feels really good here. We bounce at a slightly slower pace than some might expect, but it's our pace and it works. People are involved, and in vigorous ways, many of them. It's a very good time for us. The spirit of New Orleans is very much alive and well. And there are musicians right now out in front of Jackson Square and jammin'.

CP: So the New Orleans music legacy, the piano legacy in particular, is in good shape and being passed along?

Toussaint: Oh, yes. People like Davell Crawford and, of course, [David] Torkanowsky, who is outrageously wonderful. The homegrown things of New Orleans are still bein' born and growin'. The garden is flourishing.

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