A year ago today Allen Toussaint died. He was one of the greatest musicians ever to come out of New Orleans.
I remember the date because it was the day I first listened to his album The Bright Mississippi. The trumpet playing by Nicholas Payton, Toussaint’s sublime piano, the percussion and the unearthly clarinet performance by Don Byron knocked me out. I said to myself, “I want to play that.” It didn’t matter that I hadn’t picked up my trumpet in 20 years and had not significantly practiced it in more than 30, I was determined to play the songs Egyptian Fantasy, West End Blues and Dear Old Southland, tunes that Allen Toussaint selected.
A child of the 60s and 70s, I didn’t really “know” Allen Toussaint. I didn’t know he wrote Java, a big hit for trumpeter Al Hirt, but every high school band trumpeter knew Al Hirt and Java. I didn’t know he wrote Mother-in-Law, Ride Your Pony, Get Out My Life Woman or Workin’ in a Coal Mine but I sure heard those records played on KVOL (the Voice Of Lafayette).
So I pulled by Bach Stradivarius trumpet out of its case, oiled up the valves and began to practice because I wanted to know what Allen Toussaint knew. As I practiced, I began to learn about jazz, the Louisiana music I had taken for granted. Not modern jazz, but the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden, Larry Shields, Joe “King” Oliver and Sidney Bechet.
I once owned a Cajun music honky tonk and booked Beausoleil, Zachary Richard, Rockin’ Dopsie, Clifton Chenier, Shorty Sonnier and the Scott Playboys, Hadley Castille, Sonny Landreth, Tommy McClain and the Muletrain Band – just about everyone who was playing south Louisiana music at that time. I even hosted a memorable concert by avant-garde jazz musician Dickie Landry, but I never “heard” jazz (or music for that matter) the way I heard it on The Bright Mississippi. Everyone knows New Orleans invented jazz but I never made the connection between Louis Armstrong’s 1920s jazz, the bop of Miles Davis and Chick Corea’s fusion. Repeated listening to The Bright Mississippi invited me to learn about Pops, Sidney Bechet, Bix Beiderbecke and Johnny Dodds.
Allen Toussaint must have known all the great musicians who came out and went into New Orleans. Now I know him just a little bit better. I continue to practice and put together a group of musicians, young and old, billed as the Florida Street Blowhards. I’m trying to spread Allen Toussaint’s message which I believe is, “If you love music, everything will be allright.”
Because jazz is America’s music, I’ll leave you with Toussaint’s version of Paul Simon’s American Tune.
Many’s the time I’ve been mistaken, and many times confused
Yes and I’ve often felt forsaken, and certainly misused
Ah but I’m alright, I’m alright, I’m just weary thru my bones
Still you don’t expect to be bright and bon-vivant
So far away from home, so far away from home And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered or driven to its knees
But it’s alright, it’s alright, for we live so well, so long
Still, when I think of the road we’re traveling on
I wonder what’s gone wrong, I can’t help it I wonder what’s gone wrongAnd I dreamed I was dying, I dreamed that my soul rose unexpectedly
And looking back down at me, smiled reassuringly
And I dreamed I was flying, and high up above my eyes could clearly see
The statue of liberty, sailing away to sea, and I dreamed I was flying But we come on a ship they called Mayflower
We come on a ship that sailed the moon
We come in the ages’ most uncertain hours and sing an American tune
And it’s alright, oh it’s alright, it’s alright, you can be forever blessed
Still tomorrow’s gonna be another working day and I’m trying to get some rest
That’s all I’m trying, to get some rest.
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