Tonight's Piano Night at the House of Blues is a fundraiser for WWOZ that doesn't involve calls and pledges. 

Ellis Marsalis photo
Ellis Marsalis

"In the past, it was all about Professor Longhair songs,” WWOZ program director Dwayne Brashears says of Piano Night, which takes place tonight in the House of Blues and the Parish. “As the years have passed, it has put a spotlight on all the pianists involved in the event and their work.” The event is in its 26th year, and it tries to show how the piano fits in the broad variety of Louisiana musical genres. “It’s like a mix of everything that makes Louisiana music what it is in the space of five or six hours.”

This year’s show includes honoree Ellis Marsalis, and for the first time Cyrus Chestnut. Marcia Ball’s also on the bill with Jon Cleary, Davell Crawford, John Gros, Nigel Hall, Joe Krown, Paul Longstreth, Joshua Paxton, David Torkanowsky, Robert Walter’s Trio, Jorge Luis Pacheco, from New Zealand David Todd Paquette, and more.

Although the night is referred to as Piano Night, these are not solo piano sets. The performers will often play with a house band that includes Eric Bolivar, Mark Brooks, Marc Stone, and Uganda Roberts. For years, it was a solo piano night, but when Brashears began producing the event in 2006, he thought some sonic variation was good for the event and added a band. “You can only hear a piano played by itself for so long before you’re ready to hurt yourself or someone else,” he says.

To make such a show possible, there will be performances in the main room and The Parish, where the quieter jazz acts will play. “The moment they start putting chairs in there, people start grabbing seats,” Brashears says. Club 88 ticket buyers will also get access special, intimate, short shows in the Foundation Room. 

Outside of the fund drives, Piano Night is WWOZ’s primary fund raising activity. “This is a chance for supporters to help us raise money in a fun way,” he says. “It’s a very fun event.”

Eddie Bo headlined Brashears’ first Piano Night, and the changing profile of piano players in town has changed the event’s musical purpose a little. It once honored the city’s piano greats and its legacy of great pianists. Now it’s a reminder of the place of the piano in New Orleans’ musical culture. “Piano Night is putting the spotlight on these artists who may not always get to be front and center,” Brashears says. “The piano player isn’t always the person getting attention.”