KEYS TO THE CITY


If you ask most people which instrument is most iconic of New Orleans music, they’d probably say the trumpet. After all, the city’s airport is even named after Louis Armstrong.

But even though you can’t second-line down the street with one, ever since Jelly Roll Morton ushered ragtime into jazz in Storyville saloons, the piano has also been at the heart of the New Orleans sound. Keyboardist Ivan Neville is a Bonnaroo veteran who learned his chops at the foot pedals of his uncle, Art “Poppa Funk” Neville—and to him, the piano is the sound of the Crescent City.

“The coolest thing to me about New Orleans piano, is everybody has their own little spin on how they interpret the stuff,” says Neville, who will be appearing at this year’s festival with his band, Dumpstaphunk. “All the guys were like that—Allen Toussaint, Fats, Booker, Dr. John. The closest to me was my uncle. I took a lot of direction for my style from him. But they all had their own version of something that I thought was amazing.”

 

Here’s a short guide to the incomparable history of New Orleans piano:

THE JUNK

1920’s boogie-woogie piano man Willie “Drive ‘Em Down” Hall never recorded, but with his barrelhouse blues composition “Junker’s Blues,” he created a sort of Rosetta Stone for New Orleans rhythm and blues. Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man,” Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina,” and Lloyd Price’s “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” are all variations on the song.

 

New Orleans “piano professors” Champion Jack Dupree—who first recorded the tune in the early ’40s—Tuts Washington, and ’Fess all played in the rolling junker piano style. They may play funk, rock n’roll, or jazz, but any true New Orleans piano player keeps the junker’s rhythm in his trick bag.

THE DAWN OF ROCK N’ ROLL

New Orleans gets its props for funk, R&B, and jazz, but often gets passed over in favor of Memphis when the discussion turns to who invented rock n’ roll. In fact, it was Fats’ 1950 release “The Fat Man”—featuring drummer Earl Palmer’s legendary backbeat—that many consider the first rock n’roll record ever waxed.

 

 The gentle, smiling Fats and his sweet, rolling piano triplets launched over a hundred hits (Domino himself landed 122 songs on the Billboard charts between 1950 and 1963). Slightly more dangerous was the high-haired, keyboard-pounding Esquerita, whose style had quite an influence on another flamboyant piano-playing wild man who cut his first unhinged, yowling hits at Cosimo Matassa’s famous J&M studios in New Orleans—Little Richard.

 

THE FUNK

From Allen Toussaint’s mannered soul to Dr. John’s psychedelic hoodoo, piano drove New Orleans funk in the ’70s. Willie Tee, piano man for the ferocious Gaturs, produced the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians’ landmark funk recording “They Call Us Wild”; the crafty Eddie Bo recorded hundreds of songs under several names throughout the decade, each funkier than the last. And the iconic Meters wouldn’t be the same without the powerful keyboard hands of Art Neville.

 

THE BAYOU MAHARAJAH

Unclassifiable—and many say, incorrigible—was James Booker, the man Dr. John called “the best gay, black, one-eyed piano player I ever heard.” Booker was tormented by pain, addiction, and later, paranoia, but on the keys he was superhuman, blending blues and jazz with classical music and playing twice as many notes as any mortal should have been able to.

“Booker,” says Neville, “was the first guy that really made me want to play.”

 

Bayou Maharajah Trailer from Lily Keber on Vimeo.

Booker often stopped by Neville’s childhood home, but didn’t offer him any tips on the piano. He did, however, give lessons to a young Harry Connick, Jr, and in the new film Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker, Connick remembers late-night phone calls when his teacher would ask to borrow money, or for a pick-up at some far flung locale. “But James,” Connick would say, “I’m only twelve.”

THE NEW GENERATION

 “There’s myself, there’s Jon Cleary, who’s made New Orleans his home, there’s C.J. Gruver doing his thing,” Neville said. “And Davell Crawford, he’s the most representative of the new crop of the passing of the torch, so to speak. He’s the cat.”

 Neville himself, who’s brought New Orleans keyboard flavor to Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, among others, is part of a newer generation, which absorbs the old styles and funnels them into something fresh—but unmistakably rooted in New Orleans.

—Alison Fensterstock

Who’s your favorite New Orleans piano man?