Clare Doyle interviews New orleans musician Allen Toussaint at the Marciac Jazz Festival 2010
Allen Toussaint was born in New Orleans in 1938 and has always been immersed in the musical life of the city. His long career has seen him engaged in every aspect of music, writing successful songs that have been covered by a host of the greats, producing, performing and arranging. His early influences were largely R&B. He then moved to a funkier sound but has always experimented with different styles and genres. His collaboration in 2006 with Elvis Costello - The River in Reverse - received a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album and is evidence of Toussaint’s appetite for experimenting and engaging with a range of artists. In his album The Bright Mississippi (2009) he pays tribute to many of the greats of New Orleans Jazz. He has largely stopped touring, finding that work in the studio is satisfying and rewarding. ‘Everyone comes to New Orleans,’ he says. ‘There’s no need to get out there.’ So the audience understood their good fortune when he travelled to France to play at Marciac.
There was a time when you had almost stopped touring, so what brings you to Marciac?
You need to understand, Katrina [Hurricane Katrina, 29 August 2005] changed everything. I had become used to working in the studio, I enjoyed it, you worked to the red light, you could take time to build your music. The end of August 2005 changed all that. The studio was gone, the musicians were gone. The time when everyone came to New Orleans to make music was gone. We all scattered, I scattered, we had to. There was no choice.
You went to New York.
I had to, my home was destroyed. I always had a place in New York, so I went there while the rebuilding went on, but now I’m back living in New Orleans.
Looking back, there was a sense at one time that New Orleans would never be the same, that people had lost hope.
I never lost hope, I knew it would come back.
I’ve seen new Orleans described as an African city, do you think that’s so?
New Orleans is so diverse, it’s always been that way. I wouldn’t say it’s just African, there’s everything there, for example, there’s a large German community in New Orleans. I’m always amazed by the diversity, we just shouldn’t take it for granted, it’s special.
So you’re optimistic for the city?
I am, it’s not the same as it was, it couldn’t be, it’s moved on, but many people have come back. You go to New Orleans now, and you’ll hear music everywhere, just as you did before, there are people playing instruments at the end of the street, some of the studios have rebuilt themselves, the clubs and the bars have reopened. That’s not to say that there isn’t a huge amount to do, but the spirit is there.
You’ve been working on the new series ‘Treme’ which is set in the old quarter of New Orleans after Katrina?
Yes, and it seems to be doing well, and I’m so glad it’s been there. It’s part of the rebuilding, because it shows people coming together, it’s not just about the catastrophe, and the city needs that. It shows people taking action, doing positive things, and we will benefit from that.
Now that you perform in public much more, do you miss working in the studio?
At times, but I’ve rediscovered the enjoyment of performing, I was glad to come out, get away. When you have a live audience there is a connection, a communication between you and the people listening, it’s two way, and you don’t get that in the studio. I’m really enjoying it.
Over the years in Marciac I’ve seen some performers who don’t seem to make that connection, at the end of the concert you can feel you might as well buy the cd, that there hasn’t been much added by seeing them.
Maybe they can’t show it, but I know they do feel that connection, performing live is so different, the music flows differently. That’s the great thing, you can communicate with all those people without words.
You’ve experimented with different types of music over time, and you’ve performed with a number of different artists, is there anyone you’d like to have played with, and you haven’t?
No, because if I’d wanted that, I’d have asked! I don’t think about things that way, about the things that haven’t happened.
There are some people who want to define jazz, to make it conform to some definition, do you think that could close Jazz down?
I think that’s more about them than about Jazz, it doesn’t need to be defined in that way but anyway Jazz can’t be closed down.
The main thing is the music?
That’s exactly right! It doesn’t matter, from Beethoven to Bartok, it’s all music, you can love Rembrandt and cartoons, it’s about expression, about communication. It’s the diversity that’s important. Look at Elvis Costello, I’ve worked with him, the man lives and breathes music, any kind, and he’s great at all of them.
Have you ever played with his wife Diane Krall?
(He laughs.) No, piano players rarely ever play together! (This is a reference to a concert that was planned in 1980 where he, Professor Longhair and Tuts Washington were to play together. The concert never took place because of the death of Professor Longhair but a short video of the three rehearsing together can be found on YouTube.)
Are there any questions that you wish someone would ask you when you give an interview?
I’m not so vain! No really, if there’s something I want to say, then I hope I’ll say it.
I overheard one of the technicians saying that he thought you were one of the most professional musicians to come to Marciac. Is that how you like to be seen?
(He seems surprised.) Thank you for telling me, and yes, that’s how I want to be, as professional as possible. There’s all these great musicians here and we have to work together to make it work, so yes, professional is a good word for what we do. That doesn’t mean to say that you can’t also have enjoyment and fun.
I know when I leave, I’ll immediately think of more questions to ask you.
Well, just come right back and ask them!
Thank you Mr Toussaint.
Just over half an hour later I attended the concert. Allen Toussaint was mighty. Much of the first part he devoted to classic jazz numbers, including Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, his accompanying musicians, each a master in his own right. His connection with the audience, the enjoyment in performing he’d talked about to me was apparent as he moved from piece to piece, at once delicate and calm, then changing to a hard-paced funky R&B. He had fun with some of the numbers, adding pieces of Beethoven or nursery rhyme tunes in an apparently effortless slide from one riff to another. Then towards the final part of the performance, he rocked into some of his greatest successes, ‘Mother in Law’, ‘Working in the Coalmine’ and ‘Fortune Teller’. The hour and a half flew by, and I reeled out of the chapiteau, invigorated and enthused and determined to visit New Orleans.
© Clare Doyle, August 2010