Pianist/singer/producer Allen Toussaint has worked in almost every area of the music business and brings his wide ranging tastes to every project he undertakes. Perhaps Allen’s biggest inspiration is his beloved New Orleans, and although this Big Easy native was temporarily living in NYC, when we had this 2007 conversation for my Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired radio show, he said that he feels New Orleans is always in his heart and influences all he does.
Judy Carmichael: What was your first exposure to jazz?
Allen Toussaint: My brother had introduced me to Dave Brubeck’s quartet at the time he and Desmond were playing together, and Desmond’s solos were just so melodic and so wonderful and it all seemed like it had been done before, even though a lot of it, I guess most of it, was improvisation. It was so pure and organized. I couldn’t help but just love that. It was so easy on a young ear.
Judy Carmichael: A nice entrée into jazz.
Yes, yes very easy.
Growing up in New Orleans I think most people would think you were listening to jazz from day one. That’s what people who don’t live in New Orleans are thinking. What were you listening to as a child?
Well early on I heard boogie-woogies like “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie” and also Ammons’ various boogies. The early hillbilly music was very soulful as far as I was concerned. Early on I hadn’t distinguished – hadn’t gotten to know that there were specialists. I thought whoever played piano played everything that a piano played. So anything I heard I thought everyone knew this except me. Whether it was blues, hillbilly, jazz. And I remember my mother buying an Emerson record player. And during those days they used to give you some lagniappe when you bought something. Like if it was a record player, they’d give you two albums. And these two albums, one of them was, as I get to know now, easy listening music and the other one was light classics. Well, not as light as light can be, but classical.
And I remember one of them had on it Grieg’s piano concerto. And I had this old upright of course, that they had sent to my house for my sister to play, which didn’t happen because they started her out with a teacher who smacked her hands when she made a mistake. And she immediately hated him and the piano. I loved it because I guess I didn’t have a teacher that early. But this piano was an old upright that my aunt had given her. And of course, it was thus a half step out of tune and not totally in tune with itself. But I remember hearing Grieg’s piano concerto and I figured well I have to learn this because piano players are playing this – except me. To equalize A minor, because it hadn’t dawned on me that it was Grieg’s piano concerto in A minor. I just knew it was this classical music. So I had to play Bb minor to make it sound like A minor on the piano. And I figured “this is where this record is.” So I learned Grieg’s piano concerto off this record in Bb minor. Of course a most humbled version as I got to know later.
But I did the best I could with it. It’s quite an extensive piece. It’s not a verse and chorus and out. It’s a whole piece with movements and all. And I must say that I did learn the whole piece as playing by ear and in Bb minor. And I had a good time with it and I learned a few other things on that. There was Paul Weston’s orchestra playing stuff and I learned other pieces.
And then Benny Goodman-“Love Just Walked Right In.” So things like that. There was this trombone duet. This was two albums that my mother got with the Emerson record player that sent me off to another world of learning these pieces. I remember that. Then I began to hear other pieces in categories like that. So it was no longer just boogie-woogies or just “Nola” and “The Doll Dance” because my mother liked things like “Nola” and “Doll Dance” and “Moonlight Serenade.” When company would come, she’d have me to come play and “Nola,” play “The Doll Dance.” Some sort of way she got to see to it that I heard those pieces some sort of way. So those are some of the things that I went through coming along. It was much later when I heard pianists like Art Tatum, which was a shocking situation.
I had met the sounds of Professor Longhair, which I consider the strongest influence in my whole life as far as people on record playing the piano. I had been playing the boogie-woogies and the shuffles as I heard them on radio and on some records, recordings. Then I heard Professor Longhair with this stuff that wasn’t either one of those things or any of the things I had heard. Of course, I took off behind that and learned everything I could and waited for the next thing that would come out on record. One of the other kids would hear about it and he’d say “you know there’s another Professor Longhair [record]” and we’d wait for it to come on the radio as many times as we could. Then, find it at a record shop. Because things weren’t nearly as easy to get to as they are now, haven’t even the money to go, you know. Many times, you’d wait until you hear it on the radio to learn another part. But when I heard Professor Longhair that really stomped on my life.
And the extra liberties he would take, even though the old blues players on guitars and things like that took those extra liberties rather than things have to be four bars, 8 bars, etc. it changed when it got ready, when they felt like it. Professor Longhair did that as a pianist so that was very good for me to hear that. It didn’t have to stop when it come down and make the dominant seven. It didn’t have to be just that bar to the four, he would play an extra one if he wanted to. I just thought that was absolutely wonderful
To have that kind of freedom.
He did that. I didn’t know that was freedom. I didn’t call it anything but Professor Longhair.
Oh interesting, yeah.
Yeah I didn’t know that was freedom. I did it very rigidly when I learned to do that and I didn’t apply to anywhere else but Professor Longhair because I figured his music was like that. I hadn’t developed any of my own philosophies about anything.
There was a gentleman named Ernest Penn who came through my life on or about age 12, maybe 12 and a half. He had come from the jitney days. He used to be a banjo player during the jitney days in New Orleans. He came from the era that if you played a string instrument you played everything that had a string on it. So he played banjo, mandolin, violin, bass, piano. He came from a whole group of musicians that that’s how they felt about it. So he didn’t feel that was unique that he did that. Most of those guys who played a string instrument thought that if you didn’t play other ones, “well, you not ready to be here tonight.”
But anyway, by the time I met him, his gigging days were over, he had no instrument and he had come from off the scene wherever he had been all that time to live out his other days with his old mother and aunt, or either his aunt and grandmother. I don’t think it was his mother. They lived across the street in College Court where I lived. His name was Ernest Penn and he was a master pianist. However, he came to live over there. He was an outcast from wherever he had been. Something had gone dreadfully wrong. He heard the piano playing in my house one day as I was playing and when I came outside he told me, “you know I’m a string man and I play everything with a string on it and I was a master banjo player.” He was a very spicy man and had no teeth in the top of his mouth and very few at the bottom. My parents hated him.
But anyway, when he told me that, I invited him in to play. He began to play butterfly piano. The piano suddenly got to be, this piano that had been sitting in the house all that time, suddenly got too big for the room as he sit and play this butterfly and just trilling with the right hand and was happy and vibrant and very definite. So I just of course fell in love with that. Again, I say my parents, my mother especially, didn’t want him around because he smelled of very strong alcohol all the time. He was a very spicy little man that talked fast and plenty. He was annoying to everyone but I would wait till he wake up every morning and bring him over to the house to play and show me some of this butterfly and these old songs. He would play things like High Society and when it comes time for the clarinet solo, he played that clarinet solo while he was going just happy and looking around.
He was very patient with me with this kind of music because there was so much going on. He would have to slow it down for me because I wanted as much of this as I could get. He would slow it down for me to see what it was. He would play this. Anyway, he added tenths into my left hand – he added tenths into my whole life. I will always be grateful for that. However, when it’s time to think of him, I think of him right in that form and nowhere before or after because he was so very, very complete. He came also from the philosophy: don’t show anybody your stuff because they’ll take it and they won’t let anyone know it was yours.
[laughs] But he showed you.
AT: Of course, how about that.
Of course during my day, we used to exchange a lot – everything, Ideas. Anytime a certain musician like Roy Montrell was around, I’d say “come on show me a turn back in the key of F this time.” So I didn’t get to that code, showing you just one thing. But he was the greatest influence I had as a human being sitting next to me at the piano.
Professor Longhair influenced me on record, because I didn’t meet Professor until much later as an upper teenager, which was wonderful. And I had him down so pat it was like he was meeting himself.
What was his reaction when he heard you play?
Well, he had known about me because people had been telling him about me from time to time because I became a session musician around fifteen and a half. And he’d hear me being Professor Longhair on a record sometimes.
That’s so funny.
Or trying to be Professor Longhair because it’s always, don’t care how close you think you are, when the real person sits and plays it, you say “Oh, yes. Whatever I thought I was doing, this is really it.” Even Fats Domino with his triplets, sounds so simple and everyone can do that. But when he sits and plays, it’s just, “Oh yes that’s how it goes.”
I always think a great example of that is Basie, because-that one note. But somehow you play that one note and it doesn’t sound like Basie. It’s not complicated, but it’s so special and so specific, the way he got that feel.
Yes, there’s something I think people are saying in their mind or whatever they’re seeing. Like when Louis Armstrong would look up. Something they’re seeing that you have to be seeing that’s from this brain, that is, to really do that.
Yeah, that’s an interesting way to put it. I like that. And I like you describing that butterfly piano. I’ve never heard that phrase before. I mean I’m here; we’re on radio and I’m watching you gesticulate and it was clear what that is.
Of course some of it’s chunk-a-chunk, but the other was butterfly and he was just a master. He played with such bravado and such wonderment. And it was just he and I sitting there. When he’d play, he’d get to the last tune, “duh duh duh duh bump” and when he’d do that, he’d jump up and say “hot de mighty Sam.” Just the two of us there. In fact he would frighten me sometimes when he would jump up from the piano when he’d get through playing. I thought about it – that this is how he’d feel.
Ah, isn’t that wonderful though? I mean it’s such a gift when you get next to someone who’s that enthusiastic about it. Don’t you think it really takes off like a rocket for a young person to get to be that physically close to the music? That’s a rare thing. Because a lot of piano teachers, as we know, are there and they’re kind of bored and bring on the next student. That’s really special what you got to experience.
Something really strange happened too. He taught me a song called “Rosa” – not “Rosetta”-“Rosa.” No one knows “Rosa” for some reason. But anyway, there’s a little part in the middle. I had a little part. I would go down with it just like he played it. It was in F minor, this little run and when I got down to the C, I thought I had the Bb with the 7th up top. And it was the one time when I saw him with quite a lot of displeasure. It dawned on me how far away from this one little thing that his whole life was about what he was doing. So I didn’t do that anymore.