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Allen Toussaint Reveals Why He’d Never Leave the Big Easy

Allen ToussaintThere’s something magical about New Orleans and its connection to music and musicians. Through the good times and the bad times the music plays on and the city retains its charm. Musician elders pass down their traditions to the next generation, much like their parents and grandparents did before them.

Pianist, producer, and songwriter Allen Toussaint, longtime member of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA), is one such musician. “I love everything about New Orleans,” he says. “I was born and raised here and I will always be here. I still walk around New Orleans and enjoy what I see; I enjoy what I feel. It’s just a charming place to be and I’m glad I haven’t outgrown the charm.”

The street musicians still go in front of Jackson Square and check out a bench, pull out their horns, and start playing. It’s not traveling musicians; its musicians that came up here, just like Louie Armstrong did, and a whole lot of other greats from the past,” he says. “And that music that you thought you would like to hear if you got to New Orleans? When you get here, you can really hear it.”

Studying Up and Signing Up

As a child, Toussaint, was inspired by the music all around him. He began teaching himself to play the family piano at about age six. When he first showed interest and ability his mom enrolled him in a classic junior school of music, but she had to give up on the idea after six or seven lessons. “The boogie woogie already had me,” he laughs.

Toussaint knew from a young age that he wanted to have a career in music. He taught himself to play whatever he heard, both on the streets and in recordings. Among his early influences were Local 174-496 members Fats Domino and producer/arranger Dave Bartholomew, Ray Charles, and boogie woogie players like Albert Ammons and Pinetop Perkins.

However, his biggest influence was Professor Longhair, or simply Fess. Toussaint was drawn to his music. “So many things were like so many other things, but Professor Longhair was totally unique,” explains Toussaint. “He played with such demand—his voice and his whole vernacular. Plus, there was a strong element of New Orleans. He mixed with junka and he had rumbas in his left hand. It was really hip to bring those worlds together. Every new record he came out with I got it and studied it. It was very, very important.”

Toussaint took learning music very seriously. He wanted to be ready when it came his time to play. To prepare, he learned all of the popular songs of the day and he joined the AFM. “I joined the musicians union when I was about 15 because I didn’t want anything to be in the way of me performing anywhere I’d ever be called,” he says.

Subbing for Huey

Allen_Toussaint-pose Toussaint’s first big break came when he was just 17. “Earl King had a performance in Pritchard, Alabama, and Huey Smith had taken ill and couldn’t make it,” recalls Toussaint. King’s saxophonist knew Toussaint “as a young pianist around town who knew all the songs of the day on the radio” and they called him to sub.

He met the band at the Dew Drop Inn and they went straight to Pritchard for the gig, no rehearsal. “I knew Earl King’s repertoire very well and I had a very good time,” says Toussaint. “That was my rite of passage from the teenage world to the adult world, even though I was too young to be in that kind of club.”

“That introduced me to the Dew Drop set,” continues Toussaint, explaining that the Dew Drop Inn was New Orlean’s answer to the Cotton Club. It was where all the musicians congregated before they went out to perform. From there, other gigs happened, and a couple years later he replaced Smith in the same band, which was now backing the duet Shirley and Lee. “That was my first time touring,” he says.

Toussaint recalls the special feeling of camaraderie among New Orleans musicians. “It wasn’t a competition; we shared licks with each other; we shared ideas. There was what we called ‘turn-backs’ in music. You might see someone you hadn’t seen in awhile and you would say, ‘Hey, share a turn-back with me.’ We were very glad to know that others were on the scene and what they were doing.”

“I think it’s still pretty much like that,” he explains. “We certainly feel a heritage within each of us. New Orleans has a certain pace and all, an innate thing that is felt without saying words. I’ve always felt that and I still feel that, even with very young musicians.”

Songs from Behind the Scenes

Toussaint’s first recording was for RCA in 1958, and featured his composition “Java,” later a hit for trumpeter Al Hirt. Toussaint most enjoyed the behind the scenes work of  songwriting, arranging, and producing. By the early ’60s he was session supervisor for Minit and Instant Records, writing and producing singles for local artists.

But just as his career started to pick up steam, he was drafted into the military for two years. At the time, he worried it would affect his blossoming career. “I thought everyone who was doing what I do was way around the track because they’d been on the case and I’d been on hiatus,” he says. “That was the only time in my life that I tried to write a hit song. I wrote the song ‘Ride Your Pony’ because I thought all the other horses were all the way around the track.”

In the end, his talents for producing and songwriting allowed him to resume his career pretty quickly. “Ride Your Pony” became a hit for Lee Dorsey in 1965, and Toussaint has since racked up hits for artists ranging in genre from pop to R&B to country.

Toussaint partnered with promoter Marshall Sehorn and launched Sea-Saint recording studio. There he produced and wrote for artists like Lee Dorsey, the Meters, Dr. John, and others who drew heavily on New Orleans traditions.

Over the years, Toussaint’s timeless songs have been recorded and rerecorded. For example, his tune “A Certain Girl” written for and released by Ernie K-Doe (1961), was later covered by the Yardbirds (1964), as well as Warren Zevon (1980). “Fortune Teller,” first recorded by Benny Spellman (1962), was later covered by The Rolling Stones (1966), The Who (1970), The Hollies (1972), and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss (2007). Songs like “Get Out of My Life, Woman” and “Play Something Sweet (Backyard Blues)” have been performance favorites for bands from around the globe.

As a producer and songwriter Toussaint is particularly skilled at bringing out the best in whatever artist he works with. “My habit has always been to write for particular artists. I listen to them a bit to hear what I think could be highlights in their voice, how they feel about themselves, how expressive they would like to be. It’s for that particular person, as if I was making a gown or suit,” he explains.

Among Toussaint’s favorite covers of his songs are Herb Alpert’s “Whipped Cream” (1965), Al Hirt’s “Java” (1964), and Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” (1977). “I do love all the versions of every song of mine I ever heard, whether they are removed from where I may have had them originally, or if they are almost verbatim,” he says. “I just feel so grateful that someone cared enough about a song that I wrote to take it to their own heart, live with it, learn it, and then have it come out of them. That’s a wonderful miracle collaboration to me.”

“I never thought of myself as a stage performer,” continues Toussaint. “I’ve always thought of myself as the one behind the scenes. If there was a band, I would be the one to listen to the recordings of songs we are going to do and arrange the music.”

Over the years Toussaint has been involved in numerous hometown productions, performances, and projects, serving as arranger and musical director. In 1996, he launched NYNO Records with New York radio syndicator Joshua Feigenbaum to record and distribute the roots and R&B music of New Orleans and “paint a musical portrait of the city.”

Emerging from the Storm

Allen_Toussaint-pianoFifty years into his career, Hurricane Katrina abruptly changed everything for Toussaint. He rode out the storm at the French Quarter’s Crown Hotel and then evacuated the city four days later, having lost his home, studio, and all of his possessions except what he’d brought with him—the clothes on his back and his irreplaceable personally recorded videos. On Feingenbaum’s suggestion Toussaint fled to New York City. He had no real plan.

“I did several benefit concerts to survivors of our area and that exposed me to more performances than I had ever done in my life on my own,” he says. “I must say that it’s been quite rewarding, but that’s not how my life was going before Katrina.”

Despite having to live outside the city he loved for two years, and losing his home, today Toussaint focuses on the positive outcome. “I perform quite a bit now in comparison with before Katrina, and I must say it’s been quite gratifying,” he says. “It’s really wonderful because all my time was spent in the studio, and though I was very comfortable there, the final analysis is that we are trying to reach people when we record, write, and arrange. When we are on stage, there the people are, right there. It feels so much more like music was intended to be. It gives you such a more human aspect to the whole process.”

Throughout his career, Toussaint says his decision to join the union has served him well. “There are some places that the pay and all was very secure because the union was definitely on the case,” he says. “One of the best unions in the world is Local 802 (New York City). They really take care of business and see that things are intact and benefiting musicians as much as possible.”

After 60 years in the industry, Toussaint thoughtfully looks back at how the business has changed in recent years due to digital technology, and how those changes impact the culture of music in the Big Easy. “New Orleans is affected by musical changes, as well. Nowadays you can turn on one button and the whole world hears the same thing, at the same time,” he says. “New Orleans has held onto its own traditions as well as it could in the midst of so much technology. Even though they can hear the world playing back at them on television, radio, and the Internet, musicians here are playing the New Orleans traditional music that they got from someone a bit older than them, in New Orleans.”

“They hold past members who have gone on as deities, which is very important,” he continues. “It preserves the richness of the music and the intent of it in the earlier days. You could not know that the early music existed unless you take it to your heart and live in an environment where others are playing it just

Life in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Bubble

gordon-goodwinGordon Goodwin is humbled when he looks back at where his career has taken him—he’s scored dozens of films and television shows from the late 1970s to today and toured the world with his wildly successful Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band. The musician, composer, bandleader, and Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) member says he has achieved success beyond his wildest dreams.

“To see my name on a list of Grammy nominees, right next to John Williams, and people like that, I can’t get used to it and I don’t want to get used to it,” he says, referring to his fourth Grammy win: Best Large Jazz Ensemble, for his Big Phat Band’s album Life in the Bubble. His other Grammy Awards came in 2005 for the instrumental arrangement of “Incredits” for the film The Incredibles, 2011 for an arrangement of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and 2013 for an arrangement of the legendary jazz tune “On Green Dolphin Street.”

“I think Life in the Bubble is probably the one I will treasure the most,” he says, explaining that this album was “from the ground up” his charts and the band’s performance. “I never would have predicted I would have 20 Grammy nominations, ever. I never thought that I would be able to do tours like I do of Asia, Europe, and Australia,” he adds.

Goodwin’s love for big band music began in  7th grade when he first heard the Sammy Nestico chart “The Queen Bee.” “It changed my life,” he recalls. “You could hear his love of music and love of life with every note. I remember the epiphany I had hearing that arrangement and realizing that that was what I wanted to do with my life.”

In 1978, following college, Goodwin began his career playing at Disneyland. “It was, and remains, a great place for a young musician to work and to learn how to be a professional, to learn how to play well, even when you don’t feel like playing well,” he says.

Another part of becoming a professional musician was joining the AFM. “I can remember getting the phone directory and just paging through and looking at all the famous names of my idols, and the thrill I felt—’wow, I’m in the same book as these guys’,” he recalls.

Goodwin’s first writing assignment was for a Disney musical show featuring past and present Mouseketeers and his first film score was Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. He’s since built a reputation in the industry for his skill in composing, arranging, and playing. He’s worked with people like Ray Charles, Johnny Mathis, Sarah Vaughan, Natalie Cole, and fellow Local 47 members John Williams, David Foster, and Quincy Jones, to name but a few.

A Band of His Own

Big-Phat-BandGoodwin’s passion for big band music and its “optimism and buoyancy” led him to launch an 18-member big band in 1999. “I was working at Warner Bros. animation and I was making good money and winning Emmy awards. All that stuff was fantastic, but it wasn’t me,” he recalls thinking. “I realized that I may have more road behind me than I have ahead of me, and maybe I should have the courage to start writing music for me and I put together what was to become the Big Phat Band.”

He knew it was a risky venture. “I was mindful of the hostile cultural climate for this type of music, the economic challenges, and logistic challenges—the stuff that started to kill the big band environment the first time around,” he says.

“I knew I could get the music right, but I didn’t know if I could get the business right,” he continues. “Could I convince people that this music wasn’t just about nostalgia, or that it wasn’t elitist? That you could make jazz accessible and even entertaining? I was fighting the concept, even in the jazz community, that to market your music meant that you didn’t have artistic integrity. I felt you could do both, and as a matter of fact, you had to.”

Even with the right combination of music and marketing, the numbers didn’t always stack up. “It’s been a balancing act where I work in film or TV and get paid a little better money that I can then use to finance my big band,” he explains. “I don’t think I could have done it had I not had other opportunities in the music business.”

And the 18 members of the Big Phat Band also sacrifice to be part of the lineup. Like Goodwin, they take on other projects to subsidize their big band “habits.” “I’m not competing with other big bands,” Goodwin says of maintaining personnel. “I’m competing with the Oscars, six weeks of Wicked at the Pantages, or a one-week film date. I’m going to pay them $500 for a gig and they are going to turn down $5,000? And sometimes they do it; they turn other work down because they believe that it’s important to be a kind of a link in the chain of big band music.”

Big Phat Philosophy

Gordon-Goodwin-Life-in-the-Bubble-Album-CoverTo allow band members flexibility every chair has a sub. Each must be a top notch player, but also adopt the Big Phat Band’s musical philosophy. “It’s a willingness to put your ego aside and be a member. Not everyone is willing to do that,” says Goodwin. “The guys in the band are uniquely suited to play my stuff. The music is written with those players in mind. They constantly surprise me in the ways they add depth and nuance to the charts. A composer can have no greater gift than to stand up in front of musicians like these.”

Aside from philosophy, Goodwin hires only AFM members for the Big Phat Band. “Let’s face it, if you want to get the best of the best you’re going to go to the AFM. There’s little doubt about that,” he says.

Musically, Goodwin’s Big Phat Band presents upbeat big band music in fun arrangements mixed with funk, swing, Latin, classical, rock, and more. The repertoire is a big hit with audiences around the world. “I love all those genres. What’s common is an optimism and positive outlook and an awareness that to be on stage is a gift.”

“I think I have one responsibility and that is to write music that sounds good to me, not to fans or critics,” he adds. “People can hear some intangible difference in music that has integrity from an honest point of view and music that is just kind of well-crafted. Music is what inspires me. I’ll listen to it and soak it up. Then, I’ll write something that has the essence of that music, but has our point of view.”

The Big Phat Band’s latest album’s title, Life in the Bubble, is a fun commentary on modern culture. “I think we tend to construct bubbles around us where we [for example] think everybody must love big band music because I love it and everybody in my bubble loves it,” he explains. “I remember, when I was a kid, radio stations didn’t have the same kind of corporate playlist that they do now. It would be up to each disc jockey to play a wide range of stuff. Life in the Bubble is reflective of the Big Phat Band’s philosophy where, even though we came out of Count Basie, we don’t just play swing music, we play funk, rock and roll, and even hoedown.”

Finding Balance

Gordon Goodwin -for-Cover-by-Rex-BullingtonOver the years, Goodwin has scored or orchestrated numerous films and television shows. Some of the projects he’s worked on include: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Escape to Witch Mountain, Get Smart, Glory Road, National Treasure, Remember the Titans, Armageddon, The Majestic, Con Air, Gone in 60 Seconds, Enemy of the State, and Star Trek Nemesis.

But among his personal highlights are projects he did at Warner Bros. with Steven Spielberg. Animated shows like Pinky & the Brain and Animaniacs, allowed him to combine his passion for music with a lifelong love of animation. “We were emulating the music of Carl Stalling who was a composer for Bugs Bunny and those cartoons, on the same stage where Carl Stalling stood, with the same piano. That music was a really good match for what I believed in. It was a thrill,” says Goodwin. Other favorite animated projects were The Incredibles (2004) and the big band score for the Daffy Duck Christmas movie Bah, Humduck! (2006).

“Those are the projects I am attracted to; they have a synergy in terms of the musical values—not only in what the music sounds like, but the role of music in film. Those directors were not afraid to turn the music up. Music is a character in the film,” he says, adding, “Nowadays, that is not the norm. Film scores are more sound designed; if the music intrudes too much as a specific character the directors feel it impinges on reality.”

This change, combined with the success of his Big Phat Band, has seen Goodwin spending less time doing scoring work these days. “I think the word that I’ve become hyper aware of lately is balance, finding balance in my music and balance in my life,” says Goodwin. “When I started the Big Phat Band in 1999, and declared who I was, balance started to come into my life. Now I’m at the stage where I’ll get called for other gigs because they’ve heard about the Big Phat Band.”

“Putting yourself out there and in new situations is how you keep growing, and how you stay young,” he says. “I strike a balance between working on projects where I know the road ahead, and others where the path is less clear,” he explains. “I am attracted to projects where the music can really make an impact.” Recent projects include writing two string quartets for Quartet San Francisco last year. He’s currently working on some pieces for a clarinet trio to debut at the Detroit Jazz Festival and a major piece for the Cape Cod Symphony to premiere in the fall.

The Big Phat Band will release a Christmas album in 2015 and will be touring in France and Australia, as well as hosting a summer jazz camp in Tokyo. Goodwin has also recorded an album with a seven-member subset of the Big Phat Band, the Little Phat Band.

“I still have genuine wonderment that all this is happening,” he says. “Commit to your life and good things happen. If you give your 100% best effort that’s all anybody can ask.”