Allen Toussaint – An Infinite Supply of Inspiration
By John Mikeska
“Long before I thought about what rewards could come from it, it was reward enough just to be involved in making music.” – Allen Toussaint
Toussaint grew up in a shotgun house in the Gert Town neighborhood of New Orleans. He was raised on the music of Professor Longhair and cut his teeth playing gigs at the legendary Dew Drop Inn with Fess and Fats Domino before he produced The Meters and Dr. John. Simply stated, Allen Toussaint is New Orleans.
The timeless adage “the man, the myth, the legend” doesn’t necessarily apply here, as Toussaint was nothing if not an authentic representation of his outward persona. Nevertheless, his legend stands as an embodiment of the enduring power of music to inspire and uplift the human spirit.
He lived his dream and made it his life’s mission to continuously make it a reality. Not just for himself, but for anyone he worked with. In a public statement from his Facebook account, George Porter Jr. recalled how Toussaint brought out the best in the musicians he worked with. More than his musical accomplishments, George praised him as a role model and honored the inspiration his legacy will inevitably bring.
Before his work with The Meters and effectively codifying the New Orleans songbook, Toussaint was an influential figure in the NOLA R&B scene, producing artists like Ernie K-Doe, Irma Thomas, Art and Aaaron Neville, and of course Lee Dorsey – where you can really start to hear the greasy syncopations that would be made manifest in the later Meter’s albums e.g. “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley,” “Get Out Of My Life Woman,” “Workin’ In The Coal Mine,” “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.” The latter being a de facto catchphrase in Crescent City vernacular.
Moving on from the bluesy-funk of his early production days, Toussaint began to develop an innovative sound that was infectious and edgy while staying firmly rooted in authentic New Orleanian roots. For the emerging Meters catalogue, his creative genius realized a hypnotic groove that’s brewed in backbeat and steeped in the sultry syncopations of second-line rhythm.
Along with remembrances from heavy hitters like Dr. John, Paul McCartney and Bonnie Raitt, perhaps the most notable aspect of the commentary surrounding his passing was the outpouring of support and honorific stylings from the New Orleans community. Over and over again stories have confirmed the style and grace with which this gentleman conducted himself through life. A personal favorite being that recounted by Nigel Rafferty of Huka Entertainment. Nigel talked about a chance encounter with Toussaint after a gig at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY. On the van ride from the venue, he fumbled through his best attempts to tell his personal account of growing up in New Orleans and listening to AT’s music. While he was talking he noticed Allen listening intently to his words, as if he “was one of his saxophone players playing a solo during the only 4 bars allowed from me”. As someone fortunate enough to have seen his most recent set at Jazz Fest, I can attest to the astonishing ability Toussaint has to make you feel like your in his living room sitting down at the piano with him during a performance– a rare gift in artistry.
In an effort to further the New Orleans perspective, I caught up with NOLA native and Gramatik tour manager, Blake Nichols. As we connected the dots from Lee Dorsey and Irma Thomas, to The Meters, Dr. John, and Patty LaBelle, Blake remembered a story he shared with bassist Roland Guerin that spoke volumes to Toussaint’s personality. “We were waiting in the airport on a layover” recalled Guerin. Roland saw Allen looking out the window with a contemplative gaze when he decided to approach him. He casually asked how he was doing when Toussaint slowly turned and found his eyes. “You know Roland, there’s an infinite supply of inspiration wherever you look in this world”.
I’d like to believe that statement is more telling in-and-of-itself than any biographical piece could ever hope to achieve.
During my most formative years (musically) New Orleans called to me like a masochistic telemarketer. No matter how many times I picked up and said “I’ll be back in a few months” the phone rang incessantly. Needless to say, I eventually packed up and moved. One of the most compelling reasons was the beautiful “make no unnecessary apologies, pick yourself up and keep on keepin’ on” people of New Orleans. Theres a serious aspect to the purveyors of the NOLA music scene. They carry the torch by honoring and celebrating the music as something intrinsically part of life. A far cry from the escapist and frivolous pursuit that many non-believers ascribe to the live music scene.
Ultimately, it’s up to us to act as guardians of the groove and dig the roots that our predecessors planted for us. For Toussaint, not only to appreciate the music but to honor the legacy of a man who grew up in a segregated world, served time in the armed forces and was no stranger to hard times. Through it all, he was a determined force that inoculated the music industry from the viral cynicism that seems to infect so many surrounding it.
During his career, he achieved possibly the highest expression of art available to us. To create a serious art form, that doesn’t take itself too seriously. A catalogue of work that’s fit for the National Register and after school playtime with the young ones. Infectious, innovative, inspiring and accessible. At this point it’s tough see where the description of the music stops and the man begins. A realization that yields an enduring smile when you stop to think about the legacy of the uncrowned-king of New Orleans music and the staying power of his indelible influence.