Tim Laughlin: Swinging Son of New Orleans

Keeping the clarinet tradition alive in the Big Easy

Among the myriad delights of New Orleans’ Satchmo Summerfest—surely one of the world’s truly perfect jazz festivals—was hearing clarinet player Tim Laughlin in a variety of settings. I was also able to bring home Tim’s NOLA marinated music with his terrific album The Isle of Orleans (Gentilly Records).

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Tim Laughlin

The album’s 12 songs—played by the likes of Connie Jones, Lucien Barbarin, Tom McDermott, Matt Perrine, Hal Smith and Jason Marsalis—are all Laughlin originals. From “Restless Heart” to “The Isle of Orleans,” from “Crescent City Moon” to “Blues for Faz,” these tunes are as pungent as a bowl of steaming gumbo, as atmospheric as a dawn stroll through Jackson Square. Put simply, these songs are ripe for reinterpretations by future jazz generations. Just one example: “It’s My Love Song To You,” a beauty sung perfectly by Phillip Manuel, needs to be covered by Aaron Neville or Tony Bennett—yesterday. As a composer, Tim Laughlin is the real deal.

“One thing I wanted to do as a younger player was to separate myself from all the other clarinet players, both here and gone,” says Laughlin in a recent interview. “I decided the clearest way to do this was to not try to play higher, faster and louder but to play prettier and write songs for the 21st century. I began writing in the early ’90s and enjoyed the results. In a few years, I had a little over a dozen (songs) already written or being worked on. I finished and fine-tuned them, then hand-picked the musicians. It was 2002. I don’t know if any clarinet player from New Orleans has recorded an entire album of originals. One of the things I did was to hear the songs before recording them. In the studio, I told the musicians that they were pioneers on these tunes. There are no Armstrong or Bechet recordings to compare them with. I didn’t arrange too much on The Isle of Orleans. I wanted to make it sound like New Orleans bands had been playing these tunes for 75 years. Tunes like ‘Crescent City Moon’ are new melodies for the 21st century, and it was heard in the movie Coco & Igor. I wanted my humor and love for my city to be played and heard. Also, I made it a point not to change or recreate New Orleans jazz style. It’s not un-hip and there’s nothing wrong with it. So, as a result, I am getting known for my originals as well as my sound. That’s pretty cool. Now my tunes are working for me, not the other way.”

Born in 1963 in New Orleans, Laughlin is a true native son. What effect does the Crescent City have on Laughlin’s music? “Technique is a funny thing. Quite simply, it’s control of your instrument, especially with ballads or blues. It’s less about playing fast, which is fun. One can still play hot while not sounding frantic. I think the New Orleans state of mind is much like that. It’s a happy, joyful place. We’re not in a big hurry and we love people to death. The music reflects that. Some people, though, move here and try to change that. New Orleans jazz was originally dance music, but not swing or ballroom dance style. That was later. It’s more free-style, to fit the music being played at the moment, and it’s all about the movement. When I play, I think about the groove more, trying to paint a picture or tell a good story. It’s not all about playing the changes. It’s your sound and swinging hard. Playing in a great front line is a favorite delight for me. I love playing the role of the clarinet. Basically, New Orleans jazz is about the ensemble. Again, it’s dance music. Now, when jazz went up the river to Chicago, [Louis] Armstrong changed everything with his incredible solos. Nobody had really heard jazz played like that. It became more about the individuals and solos, which I equally love.”

How did the young Tim Laughlin discover the joys of the clarinet? “When I was 8, I had a friend who played clarinet. I used to go down the street to listen to him. I really loved the sound he got. He played legit and read everything, so I would hold the music while he played. On occasion, he would let me play his horn and he showed me how to get a good embouchure by flipping the mouthpiece ’round while he still fingered the horn. I begged my folks to buy me my own clarinet. I think they knew I was serious. I began playing it right away, having been shown how. I felt I had a nice head start. Shortly after, I heard a jazz clarinet being played on a radio program my father was listening to in the kitchen. I ran in and asked, ‘Dad, who is that?’ He told me it was Pete Fountain. I wanted to hear more. Jazz spoke to me. I somehow knew it was my voice.”

Like all great musicians, Laughlin had great teachers. “My first clarinet teacher was Bill Bourgeois from Werlein’s Music Store near my house. He was a great teacher, both kind and patient. I later found out he played with Sharkey Bonano’s Band and with Leon Prima. He was also childhood friends with Irving Fazola and Eddie Miller, both heroes of mine. Bill would later teach me alto sax and flute, my school professor requiring me to double and triple. I did OK but clarinet was my first love. My first gig was on a Mardi Gras float with schoolmates; I was 15.”

What are the particular delights of being a 21st century jazz musician? Says Laughlin, “The biggest delight is knowing I am continuing a great tradition of keeping a timeless art form alive. New Orleans is known for its great clarinetists, starting with Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone, [Sidney] Bechet, Albert Burbank, Irving Fazola, Eddie Miller and (Pete) Fountain, as well. They were all known for their big sound and that’s what perked my ears up when I was young. Nobody wants to just play clarinet anymore, so guys like us stick out. I like being dedicated to one instrument, especially one that’s difficult to master. I guess I rebelled against my generation and listened to New Orleans Jazz and swing.”

Conversely, what are the particular challenges of being a 21st century jazz musician? “I don’t like handlers or the idea of having managers, so selling myself and my music can be challenging. I’ve always believed that playing is more about the music and not about me. Getting my name out there is less important than improving my sound. I’ve been lucky here in New Orleans and abroad. I’ve had 30 years to build my brand, which is my sound. I believe younger audiences today have no point of reference. They didn’t grow up listening to the greats, like we did. Therefore, mediocrity has crept in with both audiences and some younger players coming up. I’m hoping I can find a 12-year-old I can mentor one day. But he or she has got to want it.”

When asked about his clarinet heroes, Laughlin replies, “Pete Fountain was the first clarinet player I heard. I’ve known him over 30 years and he’s become a dear friend. We talk once or twice a week. His sound is sublime and his sense of time is amazing. Of course, he got me listening to Fazola and Bechet and Dodds. [Benny] Goodman was also a big influence, as were Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern. Kenny taught me sound and playing hot, and Bob taught me to start thinking lyrically. [Cornetist] Connie Jones taught me a lot about how to lead a band, as he learned from his time with Jack Teagarden. So did [Pete] Fountain. Connie also taught me about the use of space and how less is more. He’s a special player.”

Nat Hentoff expresses it beautifully: “The more I listen to jazz, the more I want to listen to jazz.” To a gifted musician like Laughlin, what makes jazz music so unique? “First, it’s never played the same as before. Jazz is real—of the moment and not processed like pop music. Second, it’s telling a good story and somehow using completely different words and inflections not heard before, and yet the story remains the same. Playing in different keys keeps it fresh and also keeps you from playing pet licks over and over. Third, the best jazz musicians play for themselves and the musicians around them, not the audience. The audience gets its nourishment from eavesdropping on our conversation. Jazz musicians should acknowledge and feed off the audience, but never perform for it. Once they do, each will settle for mediocrity. Lastly, listening to jazz is like having dinner with an Italian family. It’s loud at times and everyone talks at once, but there you are, taking it all in, eavesdropping and having more fun than anyone—because it’s happening in the moment and it’s real.”

There are many musicians with whom Laughlin enjoys sharing that metaphorical Italian family meal. “I think [cornetist] Connie Jones keeps me on my toes more than anyone. When I play with him, I find myself starting to think like him, with phrasing and ideas. Clarinetist Jack Maheu was another mentor I enjoyed playing with. I was able to bring him on a couple of my tours in Germany in the 90s—a brilliant player who taught me a lot. Pianist David Boeddinghaus is part of my trio; his knowledge of classic jazz is off the charts. Pianist Tom McDermott is another; his imagination makes every gig fun. He’s also a very good composer. Duke Heitger on trumpet is one of my favorites here in town. Because of his travel schedule, he’s a real unsung hero in New Orleans but he’s tops in my book. Drummer Hal Smith makes any band swing. He’s an encyclopedia of early classic drummers, from Baby Dodds to Jake Hanna, one of his best teachers. Jake was another of my favorites. Dan Barrett has become a good friend and my favorite trombone player to play with. I wish I knew half of what he knows about theory, harmony and the right changes. I played a bit with Al Hirt in the ’90s. Jumbo was known for being a trumpet showman, but he could flat-out play jazz. Playing with Pete Fountain was a highlight. Every note has a smile on it. Playing with legends is the coolest. Each of these guys has one thing in common: He brings my game up.”

Laughlin’s dedication to his craft, as well as his heart-on-sleeve zest for life, can be heard on his many albums. Along with The Isle of Orleans, my favorites include If Dreams Come True (with Connie Jones, playing and singing sublimely) (Inner City Records); New Orleans Classics by Tim Laughlin’s New Orleans All-Stars (Inner City Records); Blue Orleans (Good Time Jazz); and Straight Ahead (TLM Records). Do your ears a favor by ordering any (or all!) of these from your local shop or from Laughlin’s website.

What’s up ahead for Tim Laughlin? “I’m about to record a new album. It’ll be with David Boeddinghaus on piano and Hal Smith on drums. I’ve always loved the trio set-up ever since I heard Goodman use it, so I’ll call it The Trio Collection, Volume I. I’ve got two of the best with me for this kind of music. It’ll be a mix of standards, early pop songs and one or two of my originals mixed in. It’ll be many of the tunes that David and I have worked up at my gig here [in New Orleans] every Saturday night at the Windsor Court Hotel. We’ll record it in mid-December here in my house on Royal Street. We have a very nice Mason & Hamlin piano here and guys love to play on it, so why not? Things are staying busy here in New Orleans.”

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