Farewell, my friend Pierre Dewey LaFontaine Jr. On Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, you were likely smiling down on us as we sent you off in style, starting with a packed St. Louis Cathedral, followed by a hundred musicians waiting outside to second line you down Royal Street in the French Quarter. We were saying goodbye to the heart and soul of New Orleans, and everybody there wanted to be a part of it. It was my honor to be asked by your family to play “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” at the service, using the same clarinet—Ol’ Betsy—that you originally used to record it. The eulogies were heartfelt, with many of the stories and quotes only familiar to those closest to you. A repeated phrase was “That’s so Pete.”
Your Half-Fast Walking Club celebrated 57 years on Mardi Gras Day, and at the service, many of the members dressed in full regalia in honor of you. I spoke with one of the wives of an officer of the Club. She spoke of the friendship, love and generosity you showed him. I learned that when you found out he was diagnosed with cancer, you went to his house unannounced, armed with a sack of oysters. For the next two or so hours, you shared his two favorite things in the world, oysters and your friendship. You shucked the entire sack, until they were all gone. That’s something only you would do. “So Pete.”
When I would listen to you play, I felt as though I was listening to a great storyteller. Players like you are rare. You took the best from Irving Fazola, Eddie Miller and Benny Goodman and made it your own. You showed me how to not sound like them but to think like them, like reading the great philosophers. Your sound was pure joy, and you made the listener want more. After all, as you told me, “Try to get the prettiest sound you can get. People will listen to you all night.” Louis Armstrong knew this. That’s why he asked you to join his All-Stars in 1952.
Class was a big part of your brand, and it was no effort for you, being old-school. One fond memory always comes to mind. You were playing at your club, and there was a loudmouth in the audience who wouldn’t stop. He wasn’t loud enough to stop the show, but you knew it was disturbing good-paying customers. During your solo, you stepped back off the mic, naturally exposing his volume until the audience shushed him. When he piped down, you stepped back to the mic, seemingly by design. Thunderous applause followed. “So Pete.”
I’ll miss all these things. Thank God I have the memories, the records and your friendship.