Say what you want about the old Lawrence Welk show but from the mid 1950’s until 1982, it delivered musical performances weekly into the living rooms of folks who probably wouldn’t otherwise catch a live performance.
And some of the hippest episodes included solo turns by Pete Fountain, the legendary clarinetist from New Orleans who died last Saturday (August 6). He was 86.
Pierre Dewey LaFountaine Jr. was born in New Orleans and grew up in Mid-City. He began blowing the clarinet initially as a way to build up his lungs, after suffering from respiratory infections. He played in local school bands but apparently never completed high school because by that time, he was playing in the clubs downtown and wasn’t able to stay awake in class. Though he received honorary doctorates in music, he described himself as an alumnus of the Conservatory of Bourbon Street.
Discovered by a talent scout, he performed with the Lawrence Welk show in 1958 and 1959 where he quickly gained national recognition for his solos. Here’s a video of the show where he is playing Tiger Rag. As you might imagine, his style conflicted with Lawrence Welk or as Fountain put it: “Champagne and bourbon don’t mix.”
He returned to New Orleans with a recording contract, eventually issuing over a 100 recordings over his career. What I appreciate about Fountain is that despite his fame, he stayed close to home. He opened a night club in French Quarter and founded the Half Fast Walking Club — a parade he led on Mardi Gras mornings.He now joins the many musical legends of the city. You’ll find his statue at the Musical Legends Park on Bourbon Street and you can listen to the Gumbo YaYa episode he inspired.
Just about every time I spin a Satchmo number, I think of my Dad. I just can’t separate my thoughts of Pop from the sound of “Pops.”
Jim Sweeney was born in 1923 about a year after Louis Armstrong moved to Chicago to join King Oliver and his band. So he would have been a young pup when Armstrong released his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. But that didn’t keep him from digging them.
While he held a lifelong passion for Armstrong, it was most likely Glenn Miller and his way of using reed instruments to carry the melody and Benny Goodman who inspired him as he came of age playing the saxophone and clarinet in the 30’s.
My musical foundation was solidly laid by Dad’s love of music, his stereo and his collection of swing, jazz and big band records. His taste in music became the soundtrack of my childhood.
I wouldn’t have been born in New Orleans if my Dad hadn’t taken a teaching post at Tulane in the 50’s. As someone who once played with the Tommy Dorsey band, albeit briefly, he must have thought he hit the jackpot when he got that assignment.
But by then his clarinet was packed away. He bought an organ instead and remodeled the downstairs of our house on Nashville Avenue, just a few blocks from Freret. There he and my Mom would hold parties, digging deeply into his music collection and inevitably ending up playing the organ or having others play and people would sing and dance. He was a fan of local musicians like Pete Fountain and Al Hirt, and a frequent visitor to their Bourbon Street clubs as well as a new spot called Preservation Hall.
My Dad’s career blossomed in New Orleans allowing him to get to know a wide range of people, particularly those active in labor and justice issues. As a result, our downstairs parties became a safe haven for activists such as Loyola faculty Louis Twomey and Joseph Fichter, Jesuit priests and academics who played a key role in school integration. Other visitors included the poet, John Beecher (“To Live and Die in Dixie”), the journalist John Griffin (“Black Like Me”) and, so I’ve been told, the Singing Nun.
I was too young to absorb most of this. But I did soak up the music. After we moved away from New Orleans, my Dad still loved to listen to hot jazz and swing. He almost always had music on whenever he was home. But it wasn’t quite the same.
This Monday, I’ll be spinning a lot of music my Dad played in his day and perhaps would have played (more current stuff) had he had the chance. Please join me.
Even if you only know a little about New Orleans, you probably know about Bourbon Street. And if that street is your only knowledge of the city, please keep reading.
Nowadays, Bourbon Street is almost a caricature of people’s perceptions of the city. A noisy, flashy street loaded with T-shirt and souvenir shops, bars that sell drinks called “Hand Grenades” and strip clubs. The street seems designed to allow visitors to sin without fear of discovery or retribution by their neighbors back home.
My own experience with the street dates back to the early 60’s when my parents’ idea of a fun family night was to pack us all up in our Rambler station wagon and drive slowly down the street (now restricted to pedestrians at night). My dad would stop the car when the doormen to the “dance clubs” would open the doors providing us a scandalous peak at the activities inside. Yes, we all have undergone therapy since.
Back then, locals still went down to Bourbon Street for live music at clubs such as those owned by famous home boys, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain.
The street still offers live music, mostly versatile cover bands capable of playing Rock favorites and cabaret music. The street is an important employment base for local musicians and other performers, according to Brad Rhines’s article, Pride on Bourbon Street. Also, the restaurant Galatoire’s and Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse are two well-regarded establishments on Bourbon that attract a local clientele. But generally speaking, the locals leave Bourbon Street for the tourists.
Fortunately, New Orleans has another locus of live music that both locals and tourists frequent. Downriver from the French Quarter is the end of Frenchmen Street located in the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. Any cabby can get you there. If you’re in the French Quarter, it’s a reasonable walk– head away from downtown on either Decatur or Chartres (pronounced Charter) Streets. After you cross Esplanade, you’ll run into Frenchmen. There are roughly a dozen places offering live music in this three-block area.
If you have watched the wonderful HBO series “Treme,” then you’ve seen a number of Frenchmen Street clubs featured as settings for the show, including the Spotted Cat, The Blue Nile, and the venerable Snug Harbor. There are music clubs literally next door to each other. In one scene in Treme, band leaders in adjacent clubs go back and forth stealing the other’s audience, illustrating just how easy it is for you to bounce from one music venue to another.
One of my most recent experiences on Frenchmen was almost magical. Kim and I landed on the street one afternoon after a long day of slogging through torrential rains. We walked into The Three Muses tired, wet and hungry. We were just looking for a place to sit and maybe eat. We ordered a couple of small food plates and there on the tiny stage next to us was a cellist using a digital delay, a loop pedal and other electronic wizardry to create a roomful of haunting music.
In the dozen years that Helen Gillet has lived in New Orleans, she has established herself as an original artist, capable of integrating New Orleans sounds and heritage into her music. And here she was doing an intimate performance for us as we refreshed ourselves with excellent food and drink.
On your next trip to New Orleans, visit Frenchmen Street. Meanwhile, you can hear Helen Gillet, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain on my next show, Sweeney’s Gumbo YaYa, starting at 10 a.m., Monday, on KAOS, www.kaosradio.org, 89.3 FM.