New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Jelly Roll Morton, Isidore “Tuts” Washington, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Allen Toussaint, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, Henry Butler—and those are just some of the best-known keyboard masters. All the great players have distinctive, individual styles, but there are traits they share, and that characterize the New Orleans sound. Deep roots in in the blues, gospel, and jazz, of course. But since New Orleans is a multicultural port city that has had a long association with Latin America and the Caribbean Sea, its pianists were exposed to, and have assimilated, idioms other than African-American. They’ll play syncopated bass lines derived from boogie-woogie, the blues, and stride. But they also incorporate rhythmic and melodic influences from Cuban rumba and habanera – the “Spanish tinge”, as Jelly Roll Morton famously, but inaccurately, called it.
As they pump out bass patterns with the left hand, the right hand unfurls melodic flourishes and cascading rolls. That mixture produces a sound that is immediately recognizable as originating in the Crescent City—funky and driving, yet easy rolling and relaxed. Think of the second-line dancers following the band at a New Orleans parade or funeral procession: Everything they do is funky, but they do it with unhurried grace and style.
The following list comprises ten standout performances by New Orleans pianists, past and present, plus a lagniappe, as they say in NOLA – a little something extra.
Ferdinand Joseph Lamothe—better known as Jelly Roll Morton—boasted that he created jazz. He didn’t, but the Creole (of African and French descent) pianist, composer, and bandleader is a dominant figure in the early history of the music, and the progenitor of New Orleans piano playing. He took up the instrument when he was ten years old; in 1902, at 12, he was entertaining prostitutes and their clients in New Orleans brothels, with ragtime, quadrilles, and the popular songs of the day. As a teenager, he became an itinerant musician, traveling through the South, the Southwest, the Midwest, and as far as New York, along the way developing a style that married the blues, ragtime, hymns and spirituals, and the Cuban habanera and Argentinian tango. Jazz historians like Gunther Schuller have hailed Morton as the first great jazz composer and a genius of improvisation who built his extemporizations on melodies and countermelodies.
Morton recorded his composition, “The Crave”, in 1939. It’s a tango with Cuban, as well as Argentinian influences. Nearly 60 years after Morton recorded “The Crave”, the Italian composer Ennio Morricone performed it on the soundtrack of The Legend of 1900, directed by the Sicilian filmmaker Giuseppe Tornatore, in which Clarence Williams III (of The Mod Squad fame) portrayed the musician.
“New Orleans Piano Professor Medley”
Like Jelly Roll Morton, Isidore “Tuts” Washington started playing piano when he was a child. Unlike Morton, who studied with Mamie Desdunes (a pianist who also was a well-known voodoo priest), he was self-taught. Washington was a well-established and popular figure in New Orleans during the late 1920s and 1930s, playing ragtime, blues, jazz, and boogie-woogie. He later worked with blues singer and guitarist Smiley Lewis, playing on Lewis’s 1950 hit, “Tee Nah Nah”. After a sojourn in St. Louis during the 1950s, Washington returned to New Orleans, where he worked at the city’s top nightclubs. Despite having been a major figure in his hometown, he didn’t release an album under his own name until New Orleans Piano Professor (Rounder), in 1983. In the clip below, he performs a medley of “Tee Nah Nah”, “Misty”, “Stardust”, and a classic of the New Orleans repertoire, Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”.
All fans of New Orleans piano playing know “Tipitina”, written and recorded by Henry Roeland “Professor Longhair” Byrd. But “Fess” based his composition on “Junker Blues”, recorded in 1941 by Champion Jack Dupree, a blues and boogie-woogie pianist and singer. An orphan, Dupree was placed with the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs, the same institution where Louis Armstrong spent his childhood. There Dupree taught himself piano; he later apprenticed with Tuts Washington and another pianist, Willie Hall, from whom he learned “Junkers Blues”, a song about heroin, reefer, and prison. In this clip from 1971, Dupree performs the song accompanied by Curtis “King Curtis” Ousley, an R&B and jazz saxophonist who enjoyed much popular success in the ‘60s as a soloist and bandleader. Two months after performing with Dupree at the Montreux Jazz Festival, King Curtis was murdered in New York.
“The Fat Man”
Antoine “Fats” Domino, born in New Orleans to a French-speaking family, was a hit maker from his very first recording, “The Fat Man”, in 1949. Recorded by the legendary engineer Cosimo Matassa at his J&M Studios, Domino’s debut was the first of many chart-toppers by the shy singer-pianist, reaching number two on the national R&B charts and selling a million copies. As with Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”, Domino’s debut recording was based on “Junker’s Blues”. Domino substituted his own cheerfully boastful lyrics for the original’s. “Some people call me a junker / Say I’m loaded out of my mind /But I just feel happy / I feel good all the time” became “They call me the fat man / ‘Cause I weigh two hundred pounds / All the girls they love me / ‘Cause I know my way around”. The record marked the beginning of Domino’s creative partnership with the great producer, trumpeter, and songwriter Dave Bartholomew, with whom he co-wrote such New Orleans R&B classics as “I’m Walking”, “Ain’t That a Shame”, and “Whole Lotta Lovin’”.
“Tipitina” / “Every Day I Have the Blues”
Henry Roeland Byrd, better known as Professor Longhair, is the Piano God of New Orleans. Yes, there are players with more sophisticated jazz chops (Allen Toussaint, Henry Butler) and greater versatility (James Booker). But for this writer—and I’m hardly alone—“Fess” was incomparable, the rollicking high priest of Mardi Gras, the gold-toothed King of Carnival. His music is the best antidepressant you could ask for—it doesn’t just make you feel good; it arouses joy. Wiry and homely, with slicked-back hair (Mike Tessitore, owner of NOLA’s Caldonia Club, gave him his famous moniker), Professor Longhair began recording in the late ‘40s/early ‘50s heyday of New Orleans rhythm and blues, making hits like “Bald Head” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”. Unlike the smoother, more pop Fats Domino, he didn’t crossover to white audiences, and his career hit the skids in the ‘60s. He suffered poverty and ill health before being rediscovered in the 1970s, his newfound popularity due to his appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and to late-career albums like Crawfish Fiesta and New Orleans Piano.
In Professor Longhair’s hands, Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” became a primary color. The pianist, who loved Cuban music and played with Caribbean musicians in the ‘40s, adapted the Cuban clave rhythmic pattern to blues and boogie-woogie. He would lay down habanera and rumba rhythms with his left hand while playing triplets and intricate, surging rolls with his right. Fess’ style was highly influential in New Orleans, and much imitated by other pianists. Given his preeminence in the NOLA piano pantheon, just one sample of his brilliance will not do. The first comes from a 1982 documentary, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together; the clip was subtitled in Italian for broadcast on Italy’s RAI TV network. In it, Fess talks about how he learned to play by repairing broken and discarded pianos, and then plays “Tipitina”. The second clip, “Every Day I Have the Blues”, comes from Live on the Queen Mary, a 1975 show organized by fans Paul and Linda McCartney and recorded on the titular vessel. Professor Longhair died in his sleep of a heart attack in 1980, at age 61, just as his resurgent career was really taking off.