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12 Essential Performances from New Orleans’ Piano “Professors”

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.

Jelly Roll Morton – “The Crave”

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.

Isidore “Tuts” Washington – “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”.

Editor’s note: The video referenced above is no longer online, so we have added a substitute.

Champion Jack Dupree – “Junker’s Blues”

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.

Fats Domino – “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'”.

Professor Longhair – “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.

Huey “Piano” Smith – “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”

Huey “Piano” Smith, born in 1934, is a key figure in the early history of rock ‘n’ roll. As with so many New Orleans pianists, Professor Longhair was a major influence on the development of Smith’s style. His playing also drew on the boogie-woogie stylings of Pete Johnson and Albert Ammons; Jelly Roll Morton’s jazz innovations; and the R&B of Fats Domino. In 1957, Smith formed his band the Clowns with singer and bandleader — and female impersonator — Bobby Marchan. (When Smith didn’t feel like touring, he would have Marchan substitute for him — years before Andy Warhol got the idea to send bewigged impersonators to “be” him at public appearances.) In the late ’50s, Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns hit the charts with several singles, the most successful being “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu”, in 1957. The single, released with a vocal version as the main side and an instrumental on the flip side, sold more than one million copies, and is one of the best-known and most covered songs from the early rock ‘n’ roll era.

James Booker – “That’s Life”

Recorded live in 1977 at Tipitina’s, the New Orleans club named after Professor Longhair’s indelible tune, James Booker’s version of the Frank Sinatra hit is a gripping emotional and spiritual journey packed into 10 minutes of superb pianism and impassioned (if raw) singing. Booker, in the words of Mac Rebennack, was “the best black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced”. A highly skilled musician who began studying European “classical” music when he was 12, his mature technique astonished Vladimir Horowitz when, at 18, he played for the Russian-born virtuoso.

Throughout Booker’s career, his repertoire included classical pieces, along with his own compositions and covers of material by his musical heroes — Professor Longhair, Ray Charles, Tuts Washington, and others. On “That’s Life”, Booker messes with the lyrics in ways Ol’ Blue Eyes probably would disapprove. “If I didn’t think it was worth a little ol’ try / I’d just roll up a great big joint / And get kinda high”, he sings. Then, around the six-and-a-half-minute mark, he segues into “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” which, at 8:45, becomes Thomas A. Dorsey’s spiritual, “Precious Lord”. Pop, blues, and gospel; the sacred and the profane; defiance and devotion: Booker flawlessly merges styles and moods into a deeply affecting performance. Performance? Personal testimony is more like it.

Dr. John – “Fess Up”

Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr., better known as Dr. John, has enjoyed a remarkably long, if tumultuous, career, beginning as a teenage session player in the 1950s. At first, he mainly played guitar, but after he lost part of a finger in a barroom shooting, he made the piano his main instrument. When he was in his early teens, Rebennack met Professor Longhair, whose music — and personal style — made an enormous impression. Fess’ playing made him want to be a professional musician, but his stage presence also gave the young Rebennack ideas. “I was also fascinated that he was sitting out there in a turtleneck shirt with a beautiful gold chain with a watch hangin’ on it, and an Army fatigue cap on his head”, Rebennack recalled in a 1990 interview. “And I thought, Wow, I never seen nobody dressed like this guy. Just everything about the man was totally hip.”

Rebennack has made some 30 albums as Dr. John, starting with his 1968 breakthrough, Gris Gris, which introduced his voodoo-inspired “Dr. John the Night Tripper” persona. But he didn’t actually record an album in his hometown until he cut his 16th, Goin’ Back to New Orleans, in 1992. The album’s 18 tracks comprise a mini-history of New Orleans music, from the mid-19th century (“Litanie des Saints”) to the early jazz era (Jelly Roll Morton’s “Milneburg Joys”) to the 1950s (Fats Domino’s “Blue Monday”). Rebennack rounded up some stellar players, too — the Neville Brothers; trumpeter Al Hirt; jazz singer and guitarist Danny Barker; percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts, from Professor Longhair’s band; clarinetist Pete Fountain; saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, and other notables. With his own composition, the sprightly “Fess Up”, Rebennack pays homage to his hero and mentor, distilling Fess’ distinctive style into three minutes-plus of bluesy, boogie-woogie, rumba-ized funk — or, fonk, in the good doctor’s parlance.

Henry Butler – “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand”

Henry Butler, at 64, is just now getting much-deserved attention from critics and audiences — especially since he relocated to New York and began playing high-profile gigs at such venues as Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, and Joe’s Pub. Butler has formidable technique — and he’s hardly shy about displaying it — and is uncommonly versatile, drawing on everything from Thelonious Monk to Chopin to Professor Longhair. Blind since birth, he took up the piano when he was six; at 12, he became a professional musician, composer, and arranger. His early albums from the 1980s were straight-ahead jazz, with Butler in the company of such luminaries as Charlie Haden, Freddie Hubbard, Ron Carter, and Jack De Johnette.

In the ’90s, Butler increasingly explored the music of his hometown, establishing himself as a stellar player in the lineage that runs from Jelly Roll Morton to Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, and James Booker. In this January 2014 performance at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan, Butler serves up an extended version of Professor Longhair’s “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand”, backed by trumpeter Steve Bernstein and the Hot Nine; two New Orleans natives, drummer Herlin Riley and bassist Reginald Veal, make up the band’s rhythm section.

Allen Toussaint – “Workin’ in the Coalmine”

If you’ve heard New Orleans music over the years, you’ve heard Allen Toussaint. The pianist and composer wrote, arranged, produced, and played on many of the biggest hits to come out of the Crescent City. Here’s just a partial list: “Working in the Coalmine”, “Ride Your Pony”, “Fortune Teller”, “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky”, “Southern Nights”, “I’ll Take a Melody”, “Get Out of My Life, Woman”, and “Mother-in-Law”. Too many rock, pop, and R&B artists to enumerate have recorded his songs, but they include the Rolling Stones, the Who, Labelle, Paul McCartney, Phish, the Band, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss, and Elvis Costello.

During the ’70s, he wrote and produced for the Meters, Dr. John, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, as well as an eclectic bunch of non-New Orleans artists — pop singers B.J. Thomas and Robert Palmer, New Waver Willy DeVille, British folkie Sandy Denny, and the veteran soul singer Solomon Burke. Toussaint arranged the horns on the Band’s albums Cahoots and Rock of Ages and produced Labelle’s 1975 album Nightbirds, which included a little number about a New Orleans hooker with an enticing come-on: “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi, ce soir”. Here, in a 2008 appearance on Later with Jools Holland, Toussaint plays one of his best-known tunes, “Workin’ in the Coalmine”, a 1966 Top 10 hit for fellow New Orleans native Lee Dorsey.

Davell Crawford – “Jock-a-Mo”

“You call it ‘Iko Iko’, but I call it ‘Jock-a Mo’,” Davell Crawford says, introducing one of the most famous entries in the New Orleans songbook. It’s one he has a right to feel proprietary about: Crawford’s grandfather, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, wrote it. As “Iko Iko”, the number was a Top 10 hit in 1965 for the Dixie Cups, a female vocal trio from New Orleans. Since then, such artists as Cyndi Lauper, Dr. John, the Grateful Dead, the Neville Brothers, and Zap Mama have covered it. In this 2011 solo performance, Davell Crawford returns the song to its roots as a Mardi Gras anthem. His grandfather wrote “Jock-a-Mo” in 1953, inspired by the chants of Mardi Gras Indians, black men who dress up in elaborate, handmade costumes inspired by Native American ceremonial regalia.

Crawford claimed not to know the meaning of the words. “It came from two [Mardi Gras] Indian chants that I put music to”, he told Offbeat magazine in 2002. “I just put them together and made a song out of them.” His grandson Davell released his first album, Let Them Talk, in 1995; his most recent recording is My Gift to You (2013). Crawford’s playing blends R&B, gospel, funk, and jazz; he also is a compelling singer, especially on ballads.

Professor Longhair – “Tipitina”

Now here’s your lagniappe, that little something extra given as a token of goodwill. In 1974, Soundstage, a Chicago-based music program on the Public Broadcasting System, devoted an entire show to New Orleans music. The producers rounded up the cream of the crop: Professor Longhair, the Meters, singer-guitarist Earl King, and, serving as the show’s merry (and apparently baked) emcee, Dr. John. Though not listed in the credits, James Booker and Allen Toussaint also are on board. At the five-minute mark, Fess does that tune of his that became a Crescent City standard and his signature song, the one whose chorus goes like this: “Tipitina tra la la la / Whoa la la la-ah tra la la la / Tipitina, hoola malla walla dalla / Tra ma ti na na!”

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.

Angel Wings by Zorro4 (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

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This article originally published on 5 June 2014.