I’ve taken a recent tour through New Orleans pianists of the 20th century, for no great reason other than: Deconstructing the piano within pop forms seems to be as singular to New Orleans as, oh, unhinging the guitar solo was for New York City in the 70’s. I’ll admit that Little Richard (Macon GA) and Jerry Lee Lewis (a native Louisianan, not an accident) could pound the shit out of the Steinway with their right hands, but the detourning of the gentility of the piano across all 88 keys is <such> a New Orleans thing.
Yet it would be crazy for me to try to turn my listening into a history lesson—John Storm Roberts and Ned Sublette, among many others, could tell you lots more than I’d ever be able to distill down into 2000 words (and not just because my facility with music theory is pretty rudimentary). What I can do is tell you about the pianists I’ve been listening to, think of these as liner notes for a compilation of New Orleans piano music that's never been released.
Jelly Roll Morton: Really, didn’t Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe have the most punk nom de plume ever? And there’s a lot to be said about Jelly Roll, even if there’s more we don’t know. He really did span both the pre- and post-recording era as well as the musical time before and after jazz was a real thing. What role he played in the fomentation of jazz we’ll never know for sure, but in contrast to Louis Armstrong, who stayed pretty much within the confines of jazz and pop straight out of the gate, there are all sorts of traces in Morton’s music—jazz for sure, but some straight ragtime and, especially in his Library of Congress recordings, something more primitive—folk songs, parlor music, blues, and an African connection filtered through Cuba. So give Mr. Morton some credit for being at jazz ground zero. Give him a more assured role as the original jazz arranger/composer, the first artist to prove that a jazz tune could be reduced to sheet music. And by never bothering to catch up with anyone after (by which I mean Duke Ellington), paving the way for other New Orleans pianist/composers such as Allen Toussaint to follow a pop muse. But mostly, let’s make sure we acknowledge Morton for highlighting the “Spanish Tinge” in his compositions, even if the habanera had been bouncing around New Orleans for decades. You can hear all of this, and much much more in his Library of Congress recordings, which I have on the four 1993 Rounder Records single discs, although one has to be in a studious mood to swallow them all down whole. My favorite Jelly Roll is the single CD distillation of the Red Hot Peppers session, Birth of the Hot: The Classic Chicago Red Hot Peppers Sessions 1926-1927 (RCA Bluebird 2009), which has superlative sonics and pulls his music together around a tight all-star small group rather than spreading it out across the entire diaspora as he does on his field recordings. It’s a side note to this discussion to point out that the Red Hot Peppers sessions stand up to Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven bands from the same period.
Tuts Washington: Jelly Roll Morton was underrecorded because he was a mean, wicked cuss. But let it also be said that Morton's insistence on maintaining the intellectual property rights to his songs and recordings is a direct precedent of Prince Nelson, and neither gentleman has ever been a music industry cuddly bear. Tuts Washington, by contrast, actively avoided the recording studio, which obscures his transitional position when New Orleans piano moved more firmly away from jazz and toward rhythm and blues. He was already a New Orleans bandleader in the 20s and 30s, serving as a forebear and major influence on Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and other Second Line pianists, but he shunned the spotlight and remained mostly a local talent. (I saw him once, as the house pianist at the Court of Two Sisters in the early 80s.) A dim audience tape from a 1978 show at Tipitina’s paints a picture of Washington as he was in the moment—New Orleans favorites, pop classics, jazz numbers, show tunes, really the baroque potpourri that would be expected of a house pianist in New Orleans. He finally got his own album, New Orleans Piano Professor, on Rounder in 1983, and it’s this: Only just a well-recorded version of more of the same, unless he’s sneaking in one of his own, like the sublime “Arkansas Blues”. And then he dropped dead onstage while performing at the 1984 New Orleans World Exposition. So if you really want to hear what Tuts Washington was all about, check out the great sides he cut as a sideman of Smiley Lewis for Imperial circa 1950 (contained on the 32-track import Mama Don’t Like It! 1950-1956, which I think is the way to go with Lewis). Washington makes a pretty big hole for Fats Domino to drive right through on these tracks, and on tunes like “Dirty People” his piano playing nearly runs away with the whole song.
Champion Jack Dupree: Although he recorded right up until his death at age 80 or so in 1992, Dupree’s music is as ancient as Jelly Roll Morton’s, and remained so resolutely, leading to his recordings being filed in the “Blues” section of the record store as often as not. A Gold Glove boxer and World War II POW, Dupree was also notable for his explicit class consciousness, which was otherwise usually a sly aside in the N’Awlins lexicon. The Jerry Wexler-produced Blues From the Gutter is, in its own way, a precursor of Talking Book, updating African-American vernacular to the present (in Dupree’s case, late 1950’s urban America, from which he soon expatriated to Europe). Badass.
Archibald: Born in 1912 (or 1916, take your pick), Leon T. Gross aka Archie Boy aka Archibald is all but forgotten today. Greil Marcus remembered to footnote his pre-Lloyd Price version of “Stack-A-Lee”, which is one among a handful of sides he recorded for Imperial contemporaneous with Tuts Washington’s stint with Smiley Lewis. Compiled on vinyl as the admittedly lo-fi The Complete New Orleans Sessions 1950-1952 on Krazy Kat in 1983, and never since in the CD era, it’s easy to assume that Archibald’s only historical role is advancing the urban legend of Stagger Lee, but that’s a huge mistake. In addition to featuring production and horns by Dave Bartholomew, his piano playing contains the rollicking abandon that would soon appear in the music of Huey “Piano” Smith and the uptempo side of Fats Domino (cf. “When My Dreamboat Comes Home”). In other words, Archibald is yet another in the long line of rock ‘n’ roll missing links, and his Imperial sides are endlessly listenable, formative even. And lest you think Archibald's version of “Stack-A-Lee” is anomalous in his advancing African-American folkisms, note first its proto-ska beat and then acknowledge that the story behind his shockingly crude “She’s Scattered Everywhere” was reprised in the Wayan Brothers’ seminal I’m Gonna Git You Sucka to hilarious fashion in the Cherry scene.
Fats Domino: Not a lot to say here that hasn’t been said, but it’s no accident that Archibald, Smiley Lewis, and Domino were all Dave Bartholomew productions. But it’s a mistake to impute that Domino streamlined and dumbed down the Smiley Lewis formula: Domino’s narrower range suited rock and roll’s emerging repetition-in-the-music-and-we’re-never-gonna-lose-it. Plus, the miking of Domino’s rolling piano by Bartholomew or whomever was genius: accentuated the subtle yet unmistakable clavé bass patterns in songs like “The Fat Man” and “Blue Monday”. Result: Work of art.
Huey “Piano” Smith: Huey Smith is almost the perfect complement of Fats Domino, capturing the boogie and mayhem of Archibald and the right-handed playing that drove the well-worn “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” as well as lesser-knowns like “Everybody’s Whalin’” (really?) and the mambo “Free Single and Disengaged”. Just a hair less deranged than Professor Longhair, thus accounting for his chart success, still it’s difficult to understand how Smith essentially disappeared off the face of the earth one day in 1960 or so.
James Booker: The Bayou Maharajah, the black Liberace, call him what you will, Booker’s talent-to-output ratio probably exceeds everyone here. A notorious one-eyed wastrel, Booker had chops that would dice up anything you could throw at him, which could mean that he would play the greatest version of whatever song he happened to be playing, ever, if he happened to be up for it. It also meant that Booker could be the world’s greatest lounge pianist. (Not a compliment.) In this regard, he’s the successor to Tuts Washington, and tons of other pianists not on this list. Listen in awe, or don’t listen at all.
Professor Longhair: Not much else to say about Fess either, except: One piano player to rule them all. Brilliantly twisted, he played the 88 keys like Robert Johnson played the six string (Keith Richards: “When I first heard [Robert Johnson], I was hearing two guitars, and it took me a long time to realize he was actually doing it all by himself.”) Lyrically and spiritually, he was the original Lil Wayne. Bow down before the master.