Allen Toussaint (1938-2015)

10 Nov
November 10, 2015

I woke this empty morning to the sudden departure of a great and good man.

There will be many better, more comprehensive tributes today from musicians, music lovers and New Orleanians who knew him well, so don’t stop here without going further to celebrate Allen Toussaint’s life.  I met him on only a handful occasions and then only in a professional setting; others can attest to so much more.

But there are a couple of warm anecdotes that I treasure and that ought to be added to the day’s reflections on a gentle, giving soul and one of the finest composers who ever created American music.

I had a few rare opportunities to share time and space with Mr. Toussaint during our four seasons of filming “Treme” in New Orleans, on those occasions when he allowed us to portray his person and his music as part of our fictional, post-Katrina narrative.

Among other things, “Treme” was our attempt to depict the New Orleans music community as organically as we might in a make-believe television version, and to give voice to some of the extraordinary talent and craft of that city’s song.  There could be no attempt at such without Mr. Toussaint engaged.

He understood our intentions and purpose immediately and made himself available not only to honor his own artistic contributions — which are vast and enduring — but those of other artists, for whom he arranged live, on-camera performances and then accompanied with his requisite precision at the piano.  He gave himself over to these moments easily and warmly.  Irma Thomas, Dave Bartholemew, Lloyd Price, Art Neville were all out front on the show with Mr. Toussaint’s backing, and it occurred to me only later that he had given so much care to the performance of others that we had, in the film, more of the man’s music performed by others than by the man himself. I regret that and fault our planning, though Mr. Toussaint, typically, never mentioned it.

Independent of the film, Mr. Toussaint performed a version of “The Greatest Love” as a duet at the now-gone Piety Studios in the Bywater, with Elvis Costello on vocals.  It strikes me now, this morning, as one of the most singular moments of musical performance that I have ever witnessed.  We recorded it for an HBO video release at the time; if I can locate a download, I will post it later today and your breath, too, can be taken from you for some moments.

But for the man’s charm, I can offer three small anecdotes from that same day in the Piety studios.

In the first, I sat behind Mr. Toussaint in the control booth while he rehearsed his hand-picked New Orleans horn section on the lines of “Tears, Tears and More Tears.”  This collective, an all-star revue of the city’s best brass players, also included one Wendell Pierce, who was, as a “Treme” actor, pretending to be a part of that august group.  Mr. Pierce, who had been trying to learn some of the trombone he was pretending to play, had it in mind to contribute in some small, personal way to the musical moment.

Quietly, he slipped off the bone’s blocked mouthpiece and put in the real one, and then, as Mr. Toussaint talked about unrelated matters with Mr. Costello, scarcely paying attention to the rehearsal, Mr. Pierce attempted to add a few notes to the arrangement.

Mr. Toussaint wheeled.

“What was that?” he inquired, hitting the control room button.

The horn men stopped.  All of them knew, but none of them felt an immediate need to give up the imposter, so Mr. Toussaint asked each to play his line individually, nodding softly at the notes.  And then, finally:

“Wendell?  Did you play something?”

“I, um, I might have let a few notes go.”

“Wendell,” said Mr. Toussaint quietly, with the trace of a smile.  “Please don’t.”

And later that evening, there came an even more wonderful moment when our film director, Jim McKay, attempted to call action to a scene not merely by rolling speed on sound and calling camera and action, but by actually — I kid you not — attempting to count down Mr. Toussaint’s band, as if he were Lawrence Welk coming out of a commercial break:  “And-ah-one, and-ah-two, and-ah…”

The musicians stared at him blankly, fixed and immobile.

Quietly, at the piano, Mr. Toussaint gave a small cough to break the stillness.

“Sorry about that,” Mr. Toussaint said.  “Some sheep only follow one shepherd.”

After which, he kicked them off.

I have another memory  of that special day, which involves Mr. Toussaint noodling at the piano in a lighting delay — a tune very much unfamiliar to me, but not to my wife, who though no student of New Orleans rhythm & blues is nonetheless a maven when it comes to Broadway musicals.

“Excuse me, Mr. Toussaint,” she said gently, as if she barely had standing to inquire.  “But is that the overture to Brigadoon?”

He lit up.

“Why yes, young lady, it most certainly is.”

And he played it for her proudly.  Later, there was a moment when we were listening to playback of a scene and Mr. Toussaint sat next to Laura on a bench, taking in the music, nodding his head thoughtfully.  And then, as the song concluded, he reached a long, graceful arm above his head and played a single note on a toy piano that was on a shelf above him.  He did so without looking, with one finger expertly poised.

It was the right note.  In the right instant.   Tink.

Then he lowered his arm and looked at my wife slyly and she fell promptly in love.

No worries, Laura.  I did, too.

 

 

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31 replies
  1. Zardis Nichols says:

    Mr. Toussaint was a brilliant musician. We all know that, but if you met him you would be amazed by his quiet elegance and humility. He was our treasure here in New Orleans long before we shared him with the world. He will be sorely missed by all.

    Reply
  2. Dwight says:

    I am very honored to have played on the original recording of The Greatest Love, written by Allen and sung by Aaron Neville. As a member of Chocolate Milk band, Allen produced many of our records and allowed us to play on many records he produced for other artists. I am most proud that he picked our entire band to accompany him when he decided to begin to play live shows in the seventies. Allen was notoriously shy onstage during those early days, but he trusted Chocolate Milk to play steady and never let him down. It was not widely known that we were Allen ‘s backing band in the studio as we recorded for Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Paul McCartney, Patti Labelle and countless others. We also perform live with Allen in venues such as Jazz Fest and Rosy’s back in the day. Thanks for letting me share. He was a large part of my musical career.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      You have participanted in some of the most transcendent music I know. It’s an honor to make your acquaintance, electronically.

      Reply
  3. Yolonda R. says:

    Thanks David for writing this and giving me the opportunity as well to meet this man and learn of his talents, which I didn’t fully realize and his grace and elegance. Casting me in Treme’ really opened me up to so many gems such as Mr. Toussaint. What a lovely man.

    Reply
  4. Richard McDonough says:

    how lovely

    Reply
  5. Lawrence P Beron says:

    Nice job, Boss.

    Reply
  6. Marc Pelletier says:

    Beautifully said. For those of us in NOLA these memories are the norm, as Mr Toussaint seemingly never met a stranger. Luckily for us the big hole in our hearts shall be filled with his music, and others’ musical tributes in the months and years to come…

    Reply
  7. TREVOR BLAINEY says:

    Sadly my remarks are of regret, in that a long planned for trip to New Orleans will take place next year, deferred from this year, and that therefore we won’t get to see him in place. he did however come to Australia a few years ago and we saw him at a now defunct grand old theatre with a great band. i’d been waiting a long time. in 1974 i worked in a record store in the centre of Melbourne and in that year and for a few thereafter while i finished university i heard for the first time Miles Davis, John Coltrane and many giants of jazz. at age 19 it was an impressive intro to this music. then in 1975 the store got an imported copy of Southern Nights and so tumbling into my musical learning came Mr Toussaint and the sounds of New Orleans. i bought that copy and have it still. a gem at the time that is as terrific today as it was then. what impressed me then was how often he was covered by other artists – Robert Palmer, Little Feat et al – and how far reaching was his influence. a lifetime ago and many miles from his home but i know when we visit next year New Orleans will carry his stamp everywhere we go. Vale.

    Reply
  8. Paul Bello says:

    The Brigadoon anecdote in the article. Let me say something about that.. That’s how i first met him. We were performing Brigadoon at the Starcastle Dinner theater. It was way the hell across the river from New Orleans on the West Bank on Bellechasse highway, halfway to Plaquemines parish. It was a sad little, lonely, poor outpost of art in the middle of nowhere.. One night in walks in Allen Toussaint! We were so excited! After the show he thanked and congratulated us. Turns out that the very epitome of coolness’ favorite theater piece was one of the most sweetly corny, sappy theatre pieces there is! Yes! BRIGADOON! I went on to know and love him and to work with him, even, but this is how i Imet him. Brigadoon. His favorite! I love that about him.

    Reply
  9. Eric O says:

    Dear Dave

    That story was the very first thing that came to my mind when I heard the news. Nicely told. There was a bit of a post-script that I witnessed. Wendell was getting a little razzing from the horns, including Big Sam Williams, a real trombone player. And Big Sam said — and gestured — Oh yeah, big ears, he — Allen — has got the biggest ears. Then he said, watch this. And on the next take, Big Sam played a variation on what he’d been doing — and after, said to Wendell, you hear that? Allen countered with a variation of his own on the piano — he heard it and he responded instantly. Amazing.
    The other thing I remember from that magical day was Allen deferring to 98 year old Dave Bartholomew, when Dave started arranging the horns on his own number. Allen just laid back and let Dave go. So gracious.
    And you remember the day we were standing outside Piety Studios and he cruised up in his baby blue rolls with the SONGS license plate. He set the style bar pretty high.
    Now to dig out my copy of Piano Players Rarely Play Together. And watch that wonderful moment where AT humbly says he shouldn’t even play with Tuts and Fess, he should just sit back and listen. Of course, he does play…

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      Eric,

      I watched that tonight too. When Fess dies it echoes on how it feels today. Wonderful sad.

      Reply
    • Kathy Sebastian says:

      Great stories and as a long time friend of Allen’s I witnessed these kinds of things many times. I’m just enjoying reading. One time when my grandson had had about 6 weeks of piano lessons, Allen invited us over to the studio to show my grandson around. Allen asked Henry to play something, which he actually did. And then Allen played it back to him but shortened it. Which Henry promptly told him, that he had missed a part. Which became a little family joke. When Allen played a venue in Birmingham, where grandson and parents reside, Allen had them all backstage for pre show and then during performance gave them all shout outs and told the story on Henry telling him he didn’t play his song right, which the audience thoroughly enjoyed. There must be thousands of these magical interactions people had with Allen. He will be missed.

      Reply
  10. Stan/Gentilly says:

    Gert Town/Cabbage Alley finest.
    Who in New Orleans when requested will let you set in his Rolls Royce?
    Mr.Allen Toussaint

    Reply
  11. Cuban X Senators says:

    He has transmitted so much to so many (including many who do not even know from whence the gifts came), but it’s hard to imagine so much in one human again.

    I’d also happily take the 273rd draft pick on a suit.

    Reply
  12. Susan says:

    Allen Toussaint embodies everything that is great about New Orleans. All of us in New Orleans are richer for his gift of music and hospitality that introduced the world to a new generation of New Orleans music and culture, and reminded us that New Orleans has something very special that no other place has. When I think of him, these are the words that come to mind: class, grace, warmth, encouragement, a role model, perfect host and great ambassador.

    I met Mr. Toussaint several years ago when he stopped by my place of work. I was privileged to spend over an hour with him, touring the home, and learning more tidbits from him about the history that was on display there. And yes Mr. Simon, like you and your wife, I fell in love too and have been ever since. My heart hurts for this loss, but I know that his legacy lives on in his music and in the hearts and minds of everyone who met, performed, and spent time with him.

    Reply
  13. Roog says:

    Four years ago while living in NOLA, I volunteered at WWOZ, sometimes serving as a substitute show host. I loved it. One day, in walked Mr. Toussaint. He politely introduced himself to me, as I sat at the front desk, as though I may have never heard of him. I can’t recall ever being starstruck when meeting famous visiting musicians and actors at the station, except for that time. He was dressed, as usual, impeccably in suit and tie. I smiled, nodded and I led him to the studio where he was to be interviewed, all the while not saying a thing, not able to say a thing. I was nearly choking on a chest full of admiration and delight, wanting to tell him how much his music meant to me and what an honor it was to finally meet him. He smiled at me knowingly as I silently left him in the studio.

    A gentleman and an incredible contributor to the world’s collection of music. RIP Mr. Toussaint.

    Reply
  14. gimmyCliff says:

    Thank you for the wonderful obit for a true talent of our time. He will be missed.

    Reply
  15. Paul Duane says:

    Tears, here. I met him once, heard him play more than once. He was consummate, sublime, graceful & otherworldly (but corporeal). A sort of aristocratic dandy of the funk. Thanks for this excellent summation of all he meant to those who loved his music.

    Reply
  16. Dan says:

    thank you sir, that was beautiful.

    Reply
  17. mister fusspot says:

    Swoon.

    Thank you, Mr. Simon.

    Reply
  18. Kevin Stevens says:

    The man’s elegance and grace was perfectly reflected in his music. I don’t know if you ever saw the Sunday Night Music show David Sanborn and Jools Holland used to host on NBC, but I have an indelible memory of Mr. Toussaint guesting on that show and just flat making me happy.

    A loss indeed.

    Reply
  19. Rob says:

    Wonderful remembrances, Mr. Simon. We have all lost someone today. Allen is the very soul of that city, a part of its genetics, as necessary as the Mississippi. There is no New Orleans without Allen Toussaint; there is no Allen Toussaint without New Orleans.

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] of conscious thoughts from 6 months ago. Here’s a bunch of posts that spoke to me from WWNO, David Simon, my friend Leigh, the New Orleans Advocate and even […]

  2. […] que hoy le dedica el Times-Picayune de Nueva Orleans. También conviene echar un vistazo a este sentido post del blog de David Simon, en el que el creador de The Wire y Tremé rememora sus días de […]

  3. […] Simon, the creator of the HBO series Treme in which Toussaint appeared and performed music, posted this eulogy on his blog site, The Audacity of Despair. He joins the chorus of people who recognized in […]

  4. […] que hoy le dedica el Times-Picayune de Nueva Orleans. También conviene echar un vistazo a este sentido post del blog de David Simon, en el que el creador de The Wire y Tremé rememora sus días de […]

  5. […] Simon captures that eloquently in his recollection of a trio of moments shared with Toussaint here. Below, NolaVie president Sharon Litwin recalls her own encounters with the legendary New Orleans […]

  6. […] it to individuals far more versed in his work to put his career in perspective.  Here’s David Simon’s post from today.  Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot dedicated an episode of Sound Opinions to Toussaint, […]

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