As the song from “Phantom of the Opera,” appropriately “The Music of the Night,” describes it, it was a moment when “silently the senses abandon their defenses.”
I was sitting at the bar in the Bateau Lounge on Bourbon Street. A man with a goatee sat in a chair atop the bar. From his clarinet came one of the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard, and it had nothing to do with Teacher’s on the rocks.
“Just a closer walk with thee ...”
I share with you the following poignant passage as I listen to Douglas Brinkley’s “The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”
“Saventy-five-year-old Pete Fountain, the legendary clarinetist, tried to stay positive. He was safe, but his $1.5 million Bay St. Louis (Miss.) house was gutted, and his most treasured possessions, which documented his illustrious jazz career, were lost forever.
“Correspondence with Frank Sinatra, gold albums, signed pictures of himself with presidents, Louis Armstrong memorabilia. Losing the gold record of his signature song, ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee,’ was a truly personal blow. Fountain’s vintage gun collection was also gone. After Katrina, it all came under the heading of one word: debris.
“Fortunately, Fountain had evacuated with his family to Hammond, Louisiana, 75 miles west. ‘Katrina really got me,’ he told the Associated Press, ‘but I have two of my best clarinets, so I’m OK.’
“That’s what Fountain told the press after Katrina. He had that Mississippi Gulf Coast male mentality that no matter what your age you don’t complain. His post-Katrina sadness, though, was acute. For 46 years Fountain had participated in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parades. His krewe was called ‘Half-Fast Marching Club’ and was a huge tourist draw, parading down St. Charles Avenue while Fountain played his clarinet, a modern-day Pied Piper.
“When February 2006 rolled around, however, Fountain stayed at his rented home in Hammond, Louisiana, refusing to participate in Mardi Gras. His heart wasn’t in it. ‘I think maybe it was just depression about all the stuff that happened,’ he said, ‘all the things we lost, all the disruption. And then you look around and see all the stuff messed up. It just sort of grinds you down.’ ”
Upstairs, somewhere in a box, I have Mardi Gras doubloons from the Half-Fast Marching Club. (If you haven’t caught on, it’s pronounced “half-assed.”) I have Fountain’s original album. These are little treasures I myself hoard.
Smile, Pete. When you take that closer walk, I – and the world – will have your music.
No winds, however menacing, can take away the music.