Allen Toussaint: The Saint of New Orleans Piano

Collaborating with Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint shares a message of hope and a legacy of bittersweet, beautiful music.

Fifty years of music from the heart? Allen Toussaint makes it look easy. From his legendary first solo record in 1958, the Wild Sound of New Orleansby Allen Tousan” to his songwriting and production work for Lee Dorsey and Aaron Neville, and his work on the funk hits of The Meters to his collaborations with Paul Simon, Allen has spread his masterful music fat and wide, and influenced countless musicians over the past half-century.

Also well-known for his humanitarian efforts in the community, the New Orleans artist quickly became involved in the relief effort after the devastating strike of hurricane Katrina. In fact, it was thanks to a Katrina benefit concert that Allen began his momentous collaboration with Elvis Costello: the two artists had worked together in the past when Allen produced a track in 1983 for Elvis’ rendition of Yoko Ono’s “Walking on Thin Ice,” and again a few years later on Costello’s album Spike, but they lost contact until recently, when they found themselves reunited at a New York benefit concert. Their inspired performances planted the seed for a Toussaint songbook by Elvis. This would eventually turn into the critically acclaimed collaborative CD The River in Reverse and a subsequent tour.

I had worked with Allen many years ago as his understudy on the Broadway musical High Rollers, and recently ran into him again in Woodstock New York, where I have been playing piano and accordion with Levon Helm at his “Midnight Ramble” concerts. Allen and Elvis came up to jam with us and play some of the music that they’d been working on, and their performance was nothing short of powerful. I subsequently had the opportunity to hang out with Allen, and it’s my pleasure to share our conversation with you.

How did you begin playing music?

The way it all began, a piano was sent to my house for my sister to play, given to her by my aunt. They thought it was dignified for a young lady to play the violin or the piano. In my own little humble neighborhood, I don’t know why we thought we were ritzy enough to think like that. I saw this great big instrument rolling down the street. You know the way the strings hit the hammers on these old uprights, when you shake them around? I could hear them as the truck was rolling down the street. When they sat the piano down in our front room, this big instrument … to a little child, to walk over and press something and get instant gratification, I just fell in love immediately. It wasn’t like picking up a trumpet and getting nothing. That was at my age of recognition, of reason, about six-and-a-half. For some reason, days after that, I understood the black keys and the white keys, and saw the structure. My sister began taking music lessons and hated it, but I had begun picking out little melodies soon thereafter, and she was the first person to show me where the key hit on the staff on the page. That was my introduction to theory.

I remember picking out all the melodies that I heard from anywhere, ’cause I thought that anyone that played, played everything. I didn’t know there were specialists. So I picked out everything I could get my ears onto, but a very simple form—single note melodies. In my early formative years it started out like that, then I began to develop that by playing every day. I stayed at the piano all the time. And later on, a few years later, my mother put me in a junior school of music. And I didn’t last 30 days. See, the boogie woogies had taken over. So I dropped out of the class, which I don’t proudly say now. So I went boogieing on through my life. And then of course I began to hear records, and copy all the records I could, especially pianists.

Who did you begin copying?

All of the early Ray Charles and Charles Brown, of course, and whoever else played, even Liberace. I thought Liberace was great. That guy was smiling while playing his can off, and he wasn’t missing. And all those rings on his fingers didn’t impair anything. He wasn’t playing simple stuff, but he made it look so simple.

Of course, the profound Professor Longhair entered somewhere in there. That just shocked me, to hear the piano go like that. Just one, two, three, four bars here, four bars there—always counting in a certain way didn’t mean the same thing to ‘Fess. Every now and the, he’d take an extra bar. Of course, many of the old blues guitar players did that, but I was listening to piano players, and they usually stuck pretty straight to it. Professor Longhair had another reason and rhyme for everything. His language, his speed of operation, his mobility—everything was just totally different. It seemed kinda wild, forbidden, and wonderful. Even first hearing the introduction to “Tipitina” was frightening. Fess was quite a shock. I knew him more by his records than in person, but I listened very, very closely.

What was your first encounter with Professor Longhair

I met him when I was 16-and-a-half. It was him playing a spinet piano in a place on Valence Street called Valencia’s. Then I didn’t see him anymore till I was 18 or 19. I used to go to One Stop Record Shop to buy the new records that were out I was looking for something and the woman behind the desk said, “We might have it in the back.” A guy came out from the back carrying these records, and it was Professor Longhair. I couldn’t believe it. What a shock—Professor Longhair in the stockroom!

As a producer and a keyboard player, what’s your approach when working with another keyboard player? For instance, laying down a track with Art Neville.

I’ve produced many people in different ways. Lee Dorsey, I’d have to punch him when it was time to come in, and when it was time not to sing. With the Meters, you’d open the door and let them in, and close the door. That’s how I produced The Meters, if you call that producing. You gotta know when to hold them ad know when to fold them. The Meters were always so self-contained, and the stuff that they were writing and putting together was so good, you didn’t want to touch it.

Of course now, there were some ideas that I had during the times of The Meters, and I missed doing them. ’Cause for some reason, it got to be a little bit of tension and I didn’t want to interfere with the spirit. I love all that syncopation—I thought they should have put something on top of [what they played]. The Meters were known for stuff poppin’ all over everywhere. [Allen begins singing “Cissy Strut.”] Wonderful as that is, to me that was just a bass line. I thought there should have been something on top of it, but I cared more about what they were doing than what I thought. So I like what we wound up with.

I’ve always loved the Wild Tchapatoulas record with The Meters. Can we talk a little bit about The Mardi Gras Indians’ influence in music in New Orleans?

The Mardi Gras Indians’ music—I call it “that frenzy”—is so vital. We try and commercialize it a bit, but it wasn’t meant to be that. It was meant to be what it is and I’m glad to see [Mardi Gras Indian leader] Bo Dollis and the guys holding true to it. I mean we might put him in other settings, but Bo is holding on. You know he’s still got that “Indian Frenzy” that it was designed to be. The Indians used to be very violent. It was all about percussion. What it used to do is rouse them up to a spirit—of course, there was firewater on the side. It would drive them up into a real frenzy, almost a trance state. And it still goes in that direction. It’s a very exciting thing, a very bold thing, our own thing, and very serious. And later on, as time goes on, we put some instruments with it. Make it like songs, songs as we know songs to be on records. But the true purpose for the “Indian frenzy” and what that drive was all about really lives in new Orleans music vicariously, as opposed to just when the Indians do it. It’s lurking in us anyway without hearing a recording by the Indians

It reminds me somewhat of the trance elements of Haitian music, particularly the Haitian voodoo, the hypnotic effect that it has.

Yes, yes. And I do hope that as time goes on, the Indians hold on to the knowledge of their purpose.

Let’s talk about your collaboration with Elvis Costello.

The collaboration with Elvis happened due to a booking agent called Katrina, who sent us far and wide. She uprooted a lot of us to different places, and placed me in New York. Fortunately, Elvis was living in New York at the time and there were several [benefit concerts] when it was fresh in everyone’s mind. Elvis was on one of the same benefits I was on. He already performed a song of mine that he thought was fitting for the time, “Freedom for the Stallion,” a song that I wrote for Lee Dorsey 30 years ago. Well, we performed it together at Madison Square Garden, along with my band. Elvis said he had considered doing a Toussaint songbook for some time, and I thought it was a great idea. And he also thought that that if we were going to do that, perhaps we should write some things together.

I’ve never seen so much in one person as in Elvis. Not only music, but many other things. He’s well versed in many, many subjects. He’s wide awake in all directions and he was as concerned as anyone can be about Katrina and the aftermath. He writes very boldly, and he spoke very boldly about it. And not just shaking a fist at people. Aside from that, he has a right to, because he has done his homework all the time. I could see he was one of the kids in school, his hand would be up first, I’d imagine, even though he would beg to differ. And I’ve said it before, that he sees the moment—like when he sees a seed, he sees the oak tree that it can be immediately. That’s how come he has so much out there, and in so many genres. I think we all get lots of opportunities that we just pass by, but I don’t think he lets things pass him by like that.

I have a certain kind of playing that I do, and between conv ersations one time, I played a little something. He heard that, and he said, “We need something like that!” That was nothing to me, but when he said that, suddenly that became something. That little tiny seed. And in two days we had “International Echo,” because I took that and developed it into my part of the tree. And when I brought him that track, I added color and all, and developed it. If you receive the inspiration, you get a lot of help somewhere. It’s like the heart says, “Thank you for not being an idiot.”

Also he heard a transcription I did of [Professor Longhair’s] “Tipitina,” which I’ve been playing for two or three years. I wrote another melodic line on the front part, ‘cause it’s that kind of playing. He heard those other melodies and wanted to [work with it]. [Allen plays and starts to sing the lyrics to “Ascension Day.”] It really warmed my heart that not only did he appreciate that, but he heard it like it is to me. Just about every piece I know of ‘Fess, I have a version like that, that led me somewhere else. As far as I’m concerned, ‘Fess is a Bach and a Handel and a Brahms.

So many New Orleans musicians are scattered around the country, and I can only hope that they’ll make their way back.

I think most of the musicians will come back. A few may not, and I don’t think for bad reasons. Katrina did such a thorough job. It sent some musicians that had never traveled before to other places. They became ambassadors, and revered in a way. Some people that never thought about going to New Orleans will now hear a little piece of it down the street. A few years from now, they’ll be headed down to New Orleans to get some more. The best part of Katrina is a whole lot better than the worst part. So I’m looking forward with excitement.