A few thoughts on the passing of the great Allen Toussaint.
New Orleans has lost more than most know in the passing of Allen Toussaint. He passed away in Madrid from a heart attack at the age of 77. We know the hits he wrote and produced, but it was only through talking to George Porter Jr. about working Toussaint-produced sessions and reading Daniel Phillips’ Home of the Groove blog that I appreciated how remarkably productive Toussaint was. Phillips’ blog includes countless singles you’ve never heard by artists that never made a dent, many of which were written or produced by Toussaint. In song after song, you can hear average ideas and passable talents that were elevated by his presence and musical direction.
Toussaint was notorious among writers for engaging in his own brand of interview jiu jitsu. He was willing to be interviewed, but he wasn’t eager for bouts of conversational self-examination, nor did he seem to want to comb through his musical past the way interviewers wanted. In retrospect, I realize that asking him about specific sessions was akin to asking a roofer about a specific roof, or a dentist about someone’s mouth that he worked on 30 years ago. For so many years, Toussaint simply went to work.
One of the funniest episodes of Allen vs. The Interviewer came at Jazz Fest one year when journalist Ben Sandmel had a clipboard full of notes, quotes and questions—everything he’d need to get the Toussaint interview. Once they got started, the things Allen wanted to talk about, he talked about. He was very forthcoming about the influence of Professor Longhair and his high school years, but when Sandmel went some place that Toussaint didn’t want to go, he slipped out of the question in a gracious, gentlemanly way with sly humor—after a while, playing for the crowd as he ducked question after question.
I didn’t fare any better than Sandmel. I interviewed him in Lenny Kravitz’s French Quarter apartment after the release of The Bright Mississippi, and Toussaint politely answered my questions, but he didn’t seem to take any pleasure in the conversation. He wasn’t impatient, defensive or difficult; in fact, he was again the gentleman. But it seemed that if he was going to talk about music, there was a different way that would interest him more and we simply weren’t doing it. The moment felt very zen, like a whole other kind of discourse existed, and if I could access it, he’d answer forthrightly. But he didn’t need to talk about music or himself—particularly himself—so badly that he would help me if I couldn’t find it on my own.
Once we finished, he sat at a clear Lucite piano in the apartment and began to play while photographer Elsa Hahne shot some test shots. He played a classical piece that morphed into a polka, then some Fess, and at some point I realized that he was replaying our conversation on the piano, revisiting the songs we referenced as we spoke. I’m not going to say this was the his way of talking about music. I didn’t know him well enough to make that leap, and his public reticence makes me reluctant to assert much beyond my experience. Besides, The Bright Mississippi producer Joe Henry had a similar experience with Toussaint, so maybe that medley was simply a thing he did.
Still, it’s one of my most cherished musical memories—a moment when Allen Toussaint segued together a couple of centuries’ worth of music, probably just for himself and his own comfort, though I like to think he was sharing a moment specifically with us.
Here are David Simon's recollections of working with Toussaint on Treme, which underscore Allen's sense of humor
Here is Billboard's list of top Toussaint tracks. Pretty canonical, but the inclusion of "Stage Fright" from The Band's Rock of Ages live album reminds me of a great Allen story that may be a tall tale. If it is, it's a good one. The Band brought Toussaint in to arrange the horns for this live recording, and they sent him a reel to reel with the songs they planned to do that needed horn charts. When Toussaint and the horns met The Band for rehearsal the day before the show, they discovered that Toussaint's reel-to-reel deck played back the tape slightly slow, so his arrangements were all a half-step lower than they should be. Overnight, he rewrote the charts for 28 songs and had them ready by showtime the next night.