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?”