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Dr. John: A Pianist’s Remembrance

A New Orleans piano authority pays tribute to the New Orleans piano authority

Dr. John
Dr. John (photo: Alan Nahigian)

If you’re a music fan of just about any stripe, there’s a good chance the name Dr. John means something to you. More so if New Orleans music is your bag, and more than that if you’ve ever called that city home. If you’re a New Orleans musician, he’s been an enduring element of your musical landscape.

But if you’re a New Orleans pianist, Dr. John is something else entirely.

He’s a towering figure who has shaped a significant part of your life. He’s an architect, an inventor, an alchemist, a mechanic, and an icon. A seemingly eternal presence. A touchstone and an ambassador for what you do. A bridge across generations. A hero and a cautionary tale. And an absolutely crucial strand of your musical DNA.

The New Orleans piano tradition didn’t start or end with Mac Rebennack (the Doctor’s given name), but the sheer volume of space he commanded within it may be unequaled by any other single person. He was the distillation of everything that came before him, and he laid the groundwork for everything that would come after. So if you’re playing any kind of New Orleans piano, then even if you’re not playing Mac, you’re really kind of playing Mac, because whatever you’re playing wouldn’t have been the same without him.

His musical foundation was as solid as they come. Not only did he study his predecessors in depth, but he had both Professor Longhair and James Booker showing him, in person, how it was done. And then he did what we would all aspire to do, taking what he learned and making it uniquely, unmistakably his own. He took Fess’ double-fisted syncopations and made them even funkier. He took Booker’s “three hands at once” approach and imbued it with his own sense of harmony and motion. He took a standard blues lick and wrapped it around itself to create a cascade of notes that seemed to somehow keep moving downward forever without ever running out of keys, a barberpole illusion made of sound and soul. He could play an Albert Ammons boogie-woogie or an Otis Spann slow blues and make them sound wholly authentic yet completely Rebennack-ian.

For a bit of insight into how deep he was as a player, consider this: One of his more obscure recordings, mostly known only to hardcore piano junkies, is a stunning solo piano rendition of “Blue Monk” recorded for an all-star Thelonious Monk tribute album. He plays it in a different key than Monk did, which is an unusual choice. But the story from someone who worked on the album is that when the producers asked Mac to record that tune, he sent them 12 different versions, each one in a different key and a different pianistic style, and told them to pick the one they liked best. Twelve entirely different ways of playing the same melody, one in every key that there is; that’s a feat that a lot of famous pianists couldn’t pull off with “Happy Birthday,” let alone something as quirky and twisty as a Monk tune. And he did it not because he was asked to, but just because he felt like it. That’s the kind of player Mac was. Sadly the master tapes were lost in a fire, so what could have been an incredible listen is now in the realm of apocryphal legend.

My own first exposure to Mac wasn’t through his records at all, but through the unlikely route of an ad in the back of Keyboard magazine, inviting the reader to “Learn New Orleans piano with Dr. John!” via a set of instructional play-along tapes. That meant nothing to me as a clueless Midwestern teenager, but later, once I’d been bitten by the New Orleans bug and heard some of Mac’s recordings, I ordered those tapes. And I had the same reaction as everyone I’ve ever talked to about them: They weren’t quite what you were expecting. If you thought you were gonna have the music spoon-fed to you, you were in for disappointment. Mac’s playing was great, but the instruction wasn’t exactly direct and straightforward. There were inconsistencies and contradictions and things that just didn’t make a lot of obvious sense. But once you got past that, there were deeper and ultimately more valuable lessons to be learned there—at least, for those who were hip enough to work them out. I was decidedly not that hip when I first encountered them; it wasn’t until I went back to them years later that I realized they were full of concepts that ended up serving me far better than being able to copy specific licks, things I hadn’t even realized I desperately needed to know. (Your edu-ma-cation, it turns out, really ain’t no hipper than what you understand.)

When I moved to New Orleans in my early twenties, Mac was one of the first live shows I caught, and from that night I was hooked—got all the records I could find, and began digging into him in depth. And as I started playing around town, his world and mine gradually started to overlap. First I played in a band that opened for him a few times, then I opened for him by myself (on his piano, complete with skull and candles—no pressure). Then there were times at Piano Night, back when it was still at Tipitina’s and the end-of-the-night jam would go late late, that I ended up on piano while he was on guitar. Then Leigh Harris, a New Orleans legend in her own right, asked me to record an unreleased song he had written for her (“You Always Knew Me (Better than I Knew Myself),” on her Polychrome Junction album). And then eventually, on a couple occasions, I got to play dueling keys with him: him on piano, me on organ, which was definitely a bucket-list experience. And though we never became close or hung out for any serious length of time, and most of the time when I ran into him I wasn’t even sure if he remembered who I was, he was always kind and gracious and made me feel welcome; like someone who, despite his celebrity, never stopped thinking of himself as just one of the cats.

Some of my most cherished memories of him are chance encounters. Once I ran into him backstage at a festival just before he sat in with a band led by a young instrumentalist who was getting a lot of attention in the jazz world at the time. The kid apparently didn’t consider Mac to be a “real” jazz player worthy of sharing his stage, and he not-very-subtly tried to snub Mac out of a solo. But one of the sidemen, an elder statesman who knew better, was having none of it. He got on the mic and pointedly said, “On piano, our very special guest, the legendary Dr. John.” Mac, as you’d expect, was totally cool about it, but the solo he then laid down revealed just how misguided the leader’s delusions of superiority were. (No, I’m not saying who it was here, though I may field that question in person if you catch me after a couple drinks.)

But my favorite random Mac encounter, like so many great New Orleans moments, went down in a restaurant. I walked in and was surprised to see that sitting at the bar was a group of young women in town for a bachelorette party, whom I had met at my gig the night before. But I was even more surprised to see that standing there talking to them was Dr. John. When they spotted me and called me over, Mac said to the bachelorette, “Oh, is dis da lucky guy?” They laughed, and one of them said, “No, he’s a piano player! Omigod, you have to hear him, he’s like, the best piano player in New Orleans!”

To Dr. John. About me.

My eyes got wide and I could feel the blood drain from my face as I started saying, “No, that’s not, true, really…,” wishing the ground would just open up and swallow me whole as the girls went on. Finally, with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, I changed the subject by asking Mac if he was there for business or pleasure. He said he was playing a private gig in the back and had to get to it, so he graciously said his goodbyes. And as he was walking away one of the girls said to me, “Oh, do you know that guy? Is he a musician too or something?”

So I had to explain to them that “that guy” really was the best piano player in New Orleans, and was pretty much who I wanted to be when I grew up. I like to think Mac got a good laugh out of it.

The last time I saw him was a couple years ago at a Professor Longhair tribute show, with a bunch of pianists on the bill. Mac was sitting right in front when I played, and believe me, there is no better inspiration than that to bring out your A game. I put everything I had into the tunes I played. Then I had to run right to another gig, so sadly I couldn’t stick around to hear Mac. But as I walked past him on my way out, he grabbed my hand, smiled that big smile of his, and said, “Man, I’ll tell you what, you are fuckin’ blessed.”

I can’t confirm this, but it has been reported to me that my feet didn’t touch the ground for the rest of that night, and I don’t doubt it. If you’re a New Orleans piano player and you have to have a final encounter with Dr. John, I really can’t think of a better one.

People come and go, including legends, and that’s something we all deal with. But for those who do what we do, a world without Dr. John is like a world without the color maroon, or the hour 3:30, or the note A-flat; it’s a component of your life that’s just always been there and seemed like it always would be, and you can’t quite picture how things will go without it. But if he could figure out how to play like he played without the use of a finger, then I suppose the rest of us can figure out how to keep doing what we do without his physical presence.

So long, Mac. We were all fuckin’ blessed to have you.

Josh Paxton

Josh Paxton is a pianist who’s made New Orleans his home for the past 25 years. He’s worked with most of the New Orleans musicians you’ve heard of and many you haven’t, and performed as a solo pianist at festivals around the world. His latest recording is the solo piano outing Standard Deviation.