David Bowie’s pianist Mike Garson recalls 1972 Ziggy Stardust show in New Orleans

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UPDATE: Read Mike Garson’s interview with the Independent, and a survey of Bowie musicians (including Garson) in Quartz.

It was the summer of 1972, and David Bowie was riding high off the first leg of his Ziggy Stardust tour in his native England. But as he set his sights on the United States and the leg of a North America tour, he was one man short.

“When he came through America, he realized he needed a piano player, and he needed a piano player to play that music,” recalled pianist Mike Garson, who at the time was working his way through the jazz scene of New York City.

He’d just played on an album by vocalist Annette Peacock, called “I’m the One.” “She was pretty wild,” he said, noting the two shared an avant-garde sensibility that intrigued Bowie as he prepared for the tour.

Garson is recalling these memories during another in a series of phone interviews from his home in Los Angeles on the heels of news of Bowie’s sudden death Sunday (Jan. 10) at the age of 69. As Bowie’s longtime piano player, Garson remembers those early days well, though some details are sketchy. Hooking up with Bowie was easy to remember.

“He asked (Peacock) for a suggestion, she said, ‘This is the pianist to use,’” Garson said. “And that was it. They called me. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, giving a piano lesson. They told me to come to RCA’s studio in New York. I left my 1-year-old with my piano student. My wife almost killed me. And I went to this studio to audition for the band, and David, and, seven seconds after playing his song called ‘Changes, Mick Ronson (Bowie’s guitarist) said, ‘You have the gig.’ … Would you believe that?”

The North American leg of the tour started on Sept. 22, 1972, and found its way exactly two months later to the now-legendary Warehouse in New Orleans. (White Witch, a Tampa glam-rock band, was booked as the opening act and appears on a Beaver Production flyer, but their truck broke down on the way to New Orleans, a spokesperson said, and they arrived the day after the show.) Garson’s foggy on much of the specifics of that night, though he concedes the Warehouse might not have been as spiffy as the other U.S. venues that preceded the show — there were auditoriums, theaters, concert halls, etc. .. and then there was the Warehouse.

Filmmaker Jessy Cale Williamson captured the iconic nature of that rock venue in his 2013 documentary, “A Warehouse on Tchoupitoulas.” When I reached him about the Bowie show, he vaguely recalled, “I think a few people mention the show but there isn’t a segment dedicated to it. If I remember correctly, someone said the rednecks didn’t like it and were booing and cursing. But I don’t think I put that in the film. I tried to keep it upbeat.”

Garson doesn’t remember much about the show, either. What he does remember, as so many do, was the music and the food he enjoyed. (Mick Ronson apparently knew his way around New Orleans restaurants.) But Garson got a bird’s eye view of New Orleans music during his brief stay there — which is also famous for being the city in which Bowie wrote the lyrics for the song “Time” that appeared on his next album, “Aladdin Sane.”

“I loved that tour and I especially love New Orleans because I have a specific memory of, when we weren’t playing, I went into some of those clubs and just sat in with some of those Dixieland bands and played some of that music with them,” Garson said. “So that was a thrill for me. And the inspiration for ‘Time’ I would suspect would’ve come from there. I was there, and he was writing that music through that whole tour and being affected by every city we went to.

“There could’ve been no better place to help inspire that version of the song for me, and for me to utilize all those ragtime elements from New Orleans in the ’20s and ’30s, and put a little avant-garde twist on it, which was part of my personality for that album.

“I didn’t even remember the names of the places we played. It becomes like one big concert in the sky or something after you play 5,000 shows,” he added. “I do remember the feeling playing there was great. I just remember sitting in these clubs and playing with these jazz musicians, which was trained to do.

“I totally adored it, you know?”

Some Internet sites also cite a Nov. 14 show at Loyola, which probably would have been performed at the Field House on Freret Street, but Loyola officials cannot confirm this date. My personal theory: It had been scheduled, and for some reason canceled — hence, a possible Nov. 22 “make-up” New Orleans date at the Warehouse. When I asked Garson, he replied, “I wouldn’t swear to it, but my recollection was one concert (in New Orleans).”

After the tour concluded, Bowie set his sights on his next album, and wanted to bring his new sideman into the studio in London to record “Aladdin Sane.” But the two were still feeling each other out, even after the Ziggy Stardust tour. For the title track, Bowie had a very particular idea about how he wanted the piano to sound, and so he pressed Garson to show him what he could do in the studio.

“My first solo was a blues solo and he said, ‘Naaah,’ the second one was Latin, and he said, ‘Naaah. Play that crazy stuff that you told me you play in New York in the jazz scenes,’ and I said, ‘Are you sure? That’s why I’m not working Saturday nights.’ And he said, ‘Leave that to me.’

And so Garson played his avant-garde style, and Bowie was convinced. Getting Garson into the zone for “Time,” which Bowie had written in New Orleans, was a much easier chore, given his sensibilities and love of New Orleans’ piano tradition. It’s one that spoke to the kind of cabaret, Brechtian feel Bowie wanted and Garson could deliver on along with everything else — including the “stride” style popularized by some New Orleans piano professors but also the great James P. Johnson.

“Well, I knew David liked that kind of stuff, so, I have a fairly wide palate of music that I have loved, so I just sort of went back into those archives of my mind and brought that to it so it had the avant-garde-ness, it had the stride-ness, and it had the Brechtian, and I think that made David very happy,” Garson said. “But it was all very organic. We didn’t even talk about it that way; it’s just how it evolved, you know?

“Once I heard the song, it was so obvious this is what had to happen with this piece of music.”

Garson has a clearer New Orleans memory: performing alongside the great jazz trumpeter  Freddie Hubbard at the 1988 Jazz & Heritage Festival, and later dining at a restaurant that stayed open until 1 a.m. to accommodate his party. As for those New Orleans piano professors, he said: “It’s Allen Toussaint, it’s Dr. John, it’s Harry Connick. It’s all those people, there’s something about that feeling and that kind of way of playing the piano that was inspiring to me when I was growing up.

“I’ve given over 11,000 private lessons in the last 50 years and I suspect I’ve given more lessons in how to play in those styles than any other kind of music that I teach.”

Garson said Bowie never discussed his songwriting technique, on “Time” or any other, so it’s hard to guess how the lyrics, written in New Orleans, came about. But they did speak to what critics and even Bowie himself admitted in terms of his complicated perception of the United States as he moved through the tour and with his bandmates, the “Spiders from Mars.” He often referred to the album as “Ziggy goes to America,” and he often seen alternately repulsed by and fascinated with the country. All Mike Garson knew was, it was the beginning of an incredibly fertile relationship between the two men.

“I was hired for that tour and only that tour. So I was hired for eight weeks and I end up the longest-playing musician with him who did the most albums and the most tours (with Bowie). Go figure,” said Garson, who was profiled in fellow piano player Clifford Slapper’s book, “Bowie’s Piano Man.”

“So I was on there having come playing from jazz clubs in New York City, I was treasuring every moment of it in every city because they were all wonderful concerts. And I, knowing it’s only eight weeks, was thinking this is going to be one of the greatest experiences in my life. And it turns out it is, but I had many, many more after that. So, coming from a jazz club or playing for 10 people and making five bucks, and then you’re playing for thousands of people in these cities all through the United States, driving in the limo with David, as he was writing these songs, as he’s listening to Aretha Franklin, as he’s listening to soul music, preparing even towards the ‘Young Americans’ album, no less the ‘Aladdin Sane’ album – this was miraculous.”

Looking back, it stuns him how easy it was to take it all for granted.

“When you’re in it and you’re in your 20s, you kind of think, ‘This is fun,’ but you’re too much of an idiot to realize that you’re doing something that will be historical. It was like, great gigs, they were fun, and it was more money than the jazz gigs that I did, but it was like a ‘big deal’ kind of thing.

“Now you look back and you wish you could be starting that tour tomorrow.”

NOTE: I’d love for folks who attended the Warehouse show in 1972 to share their memories of that night in the comments section, and to please help confirm this possible Nov. 14 show at Loyola. I doubt it did happen, but would be nice to confirm. I’m working with Loyola on this as well.

For Allen Toussaint, and his fans, the music was personal

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Every now and then, the New Orleans music community suffers a loss that goes even deeper than usual. When Allen Toussaint died at age 77 after a show in Spain, the loss reverberated around New Orleans and, really the rest of the world. It was so profound that, one could make the case it was the greatest loss since the passing of Louis Armstrong nearly 45 years ago. To name-check another great, it felt like we had lost our Cole Porter, for in Toussaint we lost a man who could make gritty New Orleans rhythm and blues, and its feisty child, funk, sound elegant and accessible to everyone.

That was Toussaint in real life: elegant, and accessible to everyone.

Which is why you didn’t even have to for wait entry into the Orpheum Theater on Friday (Nov. 20) for a sweet memory about Toussaint, even if there would be many shared in the tribute played out on the stage with a star-studded lineup and in front of a grieving family in the first few rows and grieving fans packed to the third-floor balcony. As we waited in line to get in — the doors opened at 8 a.m., but fans were queuing up well before 7:30 a.m. — fans stood in silence. Until they couldn’t. Right beside me, seemingly unprovoked, Maureen Morrow, a woman looking to be in her late 40s or early 50s spoke about how she’d seen Toussaint at the 1982 New Orleans Jazz Fest and, benefiting from one of his post-show customs of tossing out personal items, got to snag his songbook.

To her right, Annie Lousteau, graying and probably in her 60s, lit up, and reminisced about how, as an aspiring musician in her youth, sitting on Toussaint’s piano stool in his studio and strumming her guitar. He’d encouraged her to become a musician, she remembered, and she later pursued work in children’s musical theater.

Later, after Hurricane Katrina, Lousteau found herself stuck in her FEMA trailer, and music was her salvation as she tuned into WWOZ. “I was so depressed,” she remembered, before perking up and adding that the song “Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky” had “become my anthem.”

On the other side of Morrow, Mary Phelps, the only African American of the three, and perhaps in her early 70s, remembered waiting on Toussaint when she worked at the Bon Ton Café — “He always ordered the fried shrimp,” she insisted. Going way further back, she remembered watching Toussaint perform back in the early 1960s along with Irma Thomas, Margie Joseph and others at the Joy Tavern in Gert Town, Toussaint’s neighborhood. It was part of a weekly “college night.” “He was a great musician,” she said. “He played good music. Clean music. I don’t know what they call that stuff today.”

These personal moments echoed what New Orleanians had been saying throughout the past week, remembering musical and run-in moments with Toussaint, who was difficult to miss while moving about the community in his signature Rolls-Royces (he had two) and his natty, colorful attire. He seemed to love posing for fans — including me and my son, Eli, when we caught him passing by the City Park playground on his way over to Morning Call during Jazz Fest.

That was Toussaint: elegant and accessible — and generous. So his death was as personal to us as his music was to him. Those speaking and performing at the tribute bore that out. While this was clearly a delicate balance of a tribute and a funeral service — the actual burial was for Saturday — the mixing and matching of secular words and biblical references, of pop songs and gospel, wove its own spiritual quilt for the audience. Cyril Neville, accompanied by Davell Crawford, performed “Let’s Live,” with is line: “Why deprive yourself, of the wonders of life / Time is getting shorter, there’s no reason for those lonely nights / If you don’t, if you don’t love me, you’ll miss the boat.”

Mayor Mitch Landrieu reflected on Toussaint’s work with the New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, and evoked the social call of “Yes We Can Can” with its line, “Make this land a better land / In the world in which we live / And help each man be a better man /With the kindness that you give.” Deacon John Moore followed with a subtle, stirring version of “Any Day Now.”

There were other magical musical moments: Davell Crawford’s sweet, wistful “Southern Nights,” Irma Thomas’ “Walk Around Heaven All Day,” Boz Scaggs’ “What Do You Want the Girl to Do?” (backed by Jon Cleary & the Absolute Monster Gentlemen), and so on. My personal favorite performance was arguably the least soulful moment, when Jimmy Buffett strode out in respectful but hipster black and performed a kind of deconstructive version of “Fortune Teller.” Buffett, never the world’s greatest vocalist, brought out all the mischief and cleverness of the lyrics, and accented certain moments of the ending (really, a punchline to a joke) — Now I’m a happy fellow / Well I’m married to the fortune teller / We’re happy as we can be / And I get my fortune told for free.” It was the accent on that last note, and a knowing grin by Buffett, that drew guffaws from the audience. “Ohhh, he had a sense of humor!” Buffett said, getting more chuckles.

But clearly this was day of deep, spiritual musical moments, including John Boutté’s gospel take on “All These Things,” and longtime reedman/sideman Brian “Breeze” Cayolle’s “Ave Maria, and Dr. John’s “Life” — but not without Mac’s typically offbeat comment by way of introduction that “this is off the hook and appropriated.”

While he promised there wouldn’t be a sermon, Michael Green, the pastor of the LifeGate Church, may have had the most apt description of Toussaint as an artist when he said, “Allen didn’t have a song; he was the song.”

It says something that a pastor trying not to sound too religious for a possibly more secular audience could have such a profound musical take on Toussaint, but that indicates the way his music reached into our hearts. You could hear it in remembrances from Joshua Feigenbaum (with whom Toussaint started the now-defunct NYNO Records label) and of course from Elvis Costello, who collaborated with Toussaint on the Grammy-nominated, post-Katrina album, 2006’s “The River in Reverse.”

Perhaps too choked up to perform himself, Costello nevertheless touched the audience with his reflections of a friendship cemented during Toussaint’s post-Katrina exile in New York City. Costello quoted “Freedom for the Stallion” with its memorable line, “They’ve got men building fences to keep other men out / Ignore him if he whispers and kill him if he shouts.”

“If Allen had anger about what happened 10 years ago,” Costello pointed out, “it was measured, always balanced with his belief that it would all come back. That music would restore the spirit of the place that he loved — from within, or without.”

The day ended in typical New Orleans music and funeral splendor, with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s version of “Yes We Can Can” (with Boutté on vocals) followed by the more somber “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and then “I’ll Fly Away” in what amounted to an all-star jam of all who came before with Trombone Shorty thrown in for good measure. Pall-bearers carried the coffin, fashioned by Rhodes, out to waiting hearse with hundreds watching along the sidewalk and on the street.

How many of them out on the street had their own Allen Toussaint moment — on the stages at Jazz Fest, in the dusty music halls of the ’60s, in the New York clubs, or maybe even over at City Park catching a selfie?

Hopefully, those moments will help us get through the pain of losing one of the towering giants of New Orleans music. We can always go by his words, which rhetorically asked, “Why deprive yourself, of the wonders of life?”

Allen Toussaint tribute: A photo gallery

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UPDATE: For Allen Toussaint, and his fans, the music was personal (a reflection)

I’ll have more on the tribute to Allen Toussaint on Friday (Nov. 20) at the Orpheum Theater. It was an overwhelming experience fill with memories, music and emotion. Until then, here’s a photo gallery (with a few duplicates/extras), which I’ll tidy up with the post.


Jon Cleary: Allen Toussaint and the making of “Occapella” (podcast)

Screen+Shot+2015-06-23+at+9.16.42+PMUpon learning the news of Allen Toussaint’s passing on Nov. 10 at the age of 77, the first name that came to my mind was Jon Cleary, and not just because he is my favorite New Orleans piano player, or because I’d profiled him and the making of “Pin Your Spin” for Gambit Weekly back in 2004. It was, more appropriately, Cleary’s 2012 album, “Occapella,” a brilliant reimagining of some of Toussaint’s more popular (and some less popular) works.

Cleary is one of those special musicians who loves to deconstruct the creative and technical processes when he’s both making and discussing his work, and while he conceded early on that, basically, at the time he needed to put out some kind of record, and that friend John Scofield said tribute albums get easy media recognition, there was something special about digging into what made an Allen Toussaint song “work.””

Normally when I make a record I’m writing the songs as well, so there’s this other process where you’re agonizing over lyrics and arrangements, but the thing with Allan’s tunes is that the songs are good, the lyrics are good, and the arrangements have these key little signature things. My approach to it was identifying the most important elements, breaking the song down to its fundamentals and then building it back up again.

Hopefully I’ll have more of this interview, which also touched on Cleary’s general impressions on Toussaint’s musical legacy, but because he’s already said some of this, I thought it would be fun to hear his creative process on “Occapella” straight from his lips. Listen below.

Remembering Allen Toussaint on social media

Screen Shot 2015-11-10 at 7.15.48 AMWhile working in the previous gig, doing social media roundups was a regular thing, and sometimes felt a little bit like a reflexive thing. But as the tributes come pouring in on the news Tuesday (Nov. 10) of Allen Toussaint’s passing, I thought it appropriate to revive the practice here.

Why? Because it seemed like Allen Toussaint was everywhere, and, perhaps more important, gracious with everyone he met. In just this past year, around Mardi Gras and then around Jazz Fest (appropriately enough), I either saw and waved at Toussaint (in his vintage Rolls Royce, about to park and head inside Restaurant August) or convinced him to take a selfie with my son Eli as he was making his way from that Rolls to Morning Call in City Park.

I’m not alone. Everyone, it seems, has a photo of them taken with (or especially of) him, if Facebook is any indication this morning. Here are some of these and other memories I’ve pulled from social media. What’s also amazing is the range of video clips of his work that are pouring out, showing the breadth and depth of his talent.

Feel free to share you memories of him in the comments. One final memory, and it’s a deep one or anything, but I think the year was 2000, and my old boss Michael Tisserand at Gambit Weekly invited me as his plus one to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s gala. And Toussaint was the headliner. What a way to see him perform for the first time. I love to say how fun it is to see great music in gritty, homey nightclubs, but it seemed only fitting to watch Toussaint in a festive room, decked out in a tuxedo (as if he’d dress any differently for any other gig), and leisurely rolling through his vast catalogue. Brilliant stuff, and memorable.

Rest in peace to our own #AllenToussaint. He will be so missed. https://t.co/BleROFqzwK