By the time Jon Batiste played “Yes We Can Can,” ending a ninety-minute tribute to Allen Toussaint on November 29, he’d worked through hit songs spanning several decades and as many musical styles. He’d tracked nearly the full range of human emotion.
Yet Batiste could have gone on for hours. The catalog that spilled forth over more than a half-century from Toussaint — the composer, producer, arranger, pianist, and singer who died unexpectedly at 77 on November 10 — is that big, important, and lasting.
City Winery, where Toussaint had been scheduled to play that Sunday night, was packed. The crowd heard instrumentals like “Java,” which Toussaint co-wrote and first recorded in 1957, and which reached No. 4 on Billboard‘s pop chart as covered by trumpeter Al Hirt. Batiste’s ensemble — members of his own Stay Human band and guests including his father, a bassist who had worked with Toussaint — dug into a setlist that suggested the many artists who built or revived careers with Toussaint’s help, or who just knew a good thing when they heard it: “It’s Raining” (made indelible by Irma Thomas); “Mother-in-Law” (Ernie K-Doe); “Working in the Coal Mine” (Lee Dorsey, a favorite early muse of Toussaint’s); “Fortune Teller” (the Rolling Stones and the Who); and “What Do You Want The Girl to Do?” (Boz Scaggs and Bonnie Raitt).
Batiste began the show playing the melodica he often favors, snaking his band through the club in the style of a New Orleans processional, with just tambourine for percussion, performing “Whipped Cream.” That mere trifle of a song crept into our lives long ago as a hit for trumpeter Herb Alpert and a theme for The Dating Game. As Batiste revealed, it’s also another example of Toussaint tinkering with the blues, teasing us masterfully with syncopation.
Batiste’s version of “Tipitina,” which is bedrock for all New Orleans musicians, began as the jaunty signature tune of Toussaint’s clearest lodestar, the pianist best known as Professor Longhair. It then slid gently into the somber, minor-key version Toussaint recorded in 2005 as “Tipitina and Me.” Batiste, who, at 28, is both bandleader for Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and artistic director for the National Jazz Museum of Harlem, has a lot to learn from Toussaint’s dual legacy — his genius for mainstream crossover and his distinctive contribution to a piano tradition found only in New Orleans.
Davell Crawford, another compelling pianist in that lineage (and a marvelous singer), performed Toussaint’s “Southern Nights” at City Winery in duet with Batiste on melodica. The two sidestepped the bombast of Glen Campbell’s version, which topped the pop chart in 1977. Instead, they evoked the musically complex vision that Toussaint realized in 1975 — a somewhat mystical meditation on the boyhood wonder of gazing up at the night sky over the Louisiana countryside — and reprised on his wonderful 2013 solo album, Songbook. Crawford, who is 40 and was born and raised in New Orleans, and Batiste, who grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, and came of age in New Orleans, are clear descendants of this musical heritage and all that it represents.
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.”
Elvis Costello was among the musicians who flocked to these performances. Soon after, Toussaint and Costello recorded the 2006 album The River in Reverse, touring extensively behind it. Speaking at the Orpheum memorial, Costello called himself “one of a long line of pilgrims and supplicants in search of Allen’s magic touch” and recalled how, after the flood, Toussaint “believed that music would restore the spirit of the place he loved.”
Not to mention himself. Toussaint’s Songbook, recorded in 2009 at Joe’s Pub, captures how, at a moment of loss, Toussaint reclaimed his own music and, to a degree, reinvented himself — or perhaps simply highlighted what was there all along. (The same could be said of 2009’s The Bright Mississippi, his album of jazz standards.)
Aside from Toussaint’s gifts for melody and harmony, his handiness with a hook, and his innate sense of funkiness, he had an ear for lyrics that captured truths and anticipated needs. He distilled the pain of romantic longing into “Lipstick traces/On a cigarette.” He penned “Yes We Can Can” nearly forty years before Obama hung his successful White House run on the same sentiment — though it’s rhythmically more astute as phrased by Toussaint.
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.