Though I didn’t file an obituary for the late great Allen Toussaint, who died on November 27, I was as stunned and saddened as anyone by his death last month.
Pianist Jon Batiste‘s recent tribute to Batiste at New York’s City Winer gave me a chance to reflect on the brilliance of Toussaint within a long line of New Orleans legends and his indelible connection to New York City. And to return to the pages of the Village Voice.
You can find that piece here.
As I wrote:
Toussaint’s music reached far and wide, earning him induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Blues Hall of Fame two years later, as well as a National Medal of the Arts in 2013. Yet it spoke most clearly of and to New Orleans, where he was born in 1938 and where he remained, save for a temporary relocation to New York City following the flood that resulted from the levee breaches following Hurricane Katrina. (Around that same time, while stranded in Louisiana, Batiste auditioned for the Juilliard School of Music over a bar’s pay phone.)
New Orleans marked Toussaint’s passing on November 27 at the downtown Orpheum Theater, which suffered heavy flood damage a decade ago and had reopened this August with a private concert by Toussaint. At the memorial, hometown heroes spoke of Toussaint as one among the musicians who helped script not just their careers but also the story of the city. And yet some of the most stirring testimonials concerned Toussaint’s time in New York City, where he ended up in 2005 having lost his home, his recording studio, his grand piano, and most of his belongings.
Toussaint first landed at the Long Island home of his friend Joshua Feigenbaum, his partner in the NYNO record label in the Nineties. At the Orpheum, Feigenbaum recalled how “New York opened its arms to Allen, igniting a new chapter of his life and career.” Toussaint — who caught the ear of Fats Domino’s producer, Dave Bartholomew, in the Fifties; churned out r&b gems in the Sixties; produced and arranged classics by the likes of Dr. John, Paul McCartney, and Paul Simon in the Seventies; and was a main-stage fixture at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — had never been widely known as a performer.
All that changed in New York. Toussaint played a one-off, post-Katrina relief benefit brunch at Joe’s Pub, the intimate East Village venue. It turned into a regular gig. The hidden wizard for so many musicians, typically reticent to talk about himself, had shifted into a brand-new late-in-life spotlight. “It was incredible to experience such authority and vulnerability at the same time,” Joe’s Pub’s former director, Bill Bragin, tells the Voice. “And it was like a masterclass in his songwriting process.”
In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of hits who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals.
A petition circulated recently in New Orleans to replace a prominent statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee with one of Toussaint. That sounds about right. There ought to be one in New York City, too, where Toussaint’s stature grew yet further, and where he claimed his own righteous place.