August 10, 2010
It’s sort of a quandary. I’ve got this longtime friend Barry Garneau and I’m not quite sure how to best break it to him that I caught one of our major musical heroes, Allen Toussaint, in concert the other night from close enough to see the twinkle in his eye.
It would be unseemly to just brazenly blurt it out without subtlety or nuance. He does have feelings and, by this stage of our decades-long musical gamesmanship, he’s grown a bit weary of the incongruity that someone hanging his hat in Heber, Utah, could possibly have more access to the top shelves of performance art than one who currently strings his guitars and upright bass in Woodstock, New York.
Jazz music has always improvised around the center of our relationship and, in fact, dominated our first casual conversation when we found ourselves "pulling KP" together in the 122d Signal Battalion mess hall at Fort Benning, Georgia, back during the waning days of the Kennedy administration.
And with jazz being what it is, it wasn’t long before our musings turned toward New Orleans and that particular gumbo that has so influenced American musical genres throughout our relatively short cultural history. Over time we would spend countless hours channeling Satchmo and Jellyroll and their "Storyville" neighborhood.
Little did we realize at that point that rock n’ roll was about to become quite hip in its own right and that New Orleans musicians with their jazz, blues, and R&B would once again provide much of the innovation and groove. Talk then turned to include Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Professor Longhair and Dr. John among countless others of the Crescent City scene.
A truly providential intervening variable occurred, however, following our respective tours of duty with Uncle Sam when, on a cross-country road trip together from Daytona Beach to Los Angeles, we found ourselves ramblin’ around the French Quarter for a couple of weeks.
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Utilizing only the best of local accommodations, we would spend our nights in such wondrous Vieux Carré haunts as the Seven Seas bar (which never closed) or, when that became tedious, we’d hop the fence into Jackson Park and camp out beneath one of its several ancient oaks.
With the French Market and the Café du Monde as part of our daily treks to the more bohemian gathering spots, we soaked it all in, including both the grit and elegance. And therein abides our connection to the brilliant musical art of Allen Toussaint, a man who more than most has always embodied both the rough and sleek.
Finding a home in an aura where, say, Duke Ellington might have roamed had he been more oriented toward the street, Toussaint’s contributions to jazz, rock, pop, soul and blues in many ways provided the essence of America’s popular-music renaissance of the 1950s and beyond. To put it mildly, Barry and I became smitten and our longtime attachment to the man one we would take with us to California, the west coast of Mexico, and, later, Park City — continues to this day.
And so there I sat the other night, contemplating a state of affairs wherein I found myself nearly as close to the legend as his guitar player while Barry, metaphorically anyway, once again played the Catskills. To cut to the chase, I was gloating — big time!
I never said my empathetic sensibilities ran much farther than, say, the distance between two adjacent keys on Toussaint’s Steinway, which, by the way, isn’t much longer than your average Kenworth.
Skewering your buddy with an "I was there and you weren’t" barb is just about as good as it gets. And Barry, of course, is one of the more astute practitioners of the art form. Not to say I’m totally lacking in those particular skills.
And, of course, with Dylan arriving in town next week, I’m not sure whether there might be more bang-for-the-buck in "bundling" the two or whether I should allow the Allen Toussaint riff to play out before lobbing the additional news of His Bobness once again passing through Park City back Woodstock way. No irony there!
Maybe I should suggest to Barry that he might catch Toussaint during one of his many appearances on the new HBO series "TREME," where his band Southern Knights is also featured. One of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods, Treme, on a couple of occasions, provided Barry and me with some great southern grits during our stay. And this is how Barry, who more than likely picked up the tab, gets paid back. Once again, no irony there!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.