Play it again, Pete

Moments that stir our senses never leave our memories. One such memory for me was a moment many years ago.

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.


by Michael Boh said...

Thanks BJ! Growing up in New Orleans I was always a big fan of his, especially during Mardi Gras. He played at many local events during my early years.

That was a very revealing story about how even the most joyous people can suffer from loss and depression. My mother's house in the Bay was only a block or so away, and she suffered the same losses. It seems age and wisdom do not always protect us against that degree of sadness.

No matter what, Pete Fountain will always be a person to celebrate, especially for New Orleanians.

Sue said...

very sweet post BJ!

Good Southern Man said...

Beautiful!!!! When I went to USM, my boyfriend and I along with other friends frequented the streets of New Orleans. I even remember going frequently when I lived in Clinton and went to Mississippi College. The live music was spectacular. On one corner you heard the musical foot knockings of adolescent African-American boys. On the other you smelled coffee and fried doughnuts with powdered sugar (beignets). Walk a little further and you found Pat Obrien's Pub which is famous for the original Hurricane Drink (premonition perhaps). Pat Obrien's patio was so nice but for the non-commercial New Orleans, follow the music down a dark path between buildings on Bourbon Street. It will open to an outside bar where the drinks are expensive but the entertainment is free. I remember hearing circular breathing for the first time from a saxophone sitting in one of these venues. I remember buying a life lesson for 20 bucks (which is very cheap) by being taken by a group of shoe shiners. New Orleans has an earthy quality that can't be explained. I have never heard of this clarinetist but if it is anything like the New Orleans that I remember, then you have truly lost a treasure.

B.J. said...

Michael: I knew you had grown up in NOLA and that your mom lived in Bay St. Louis. Thanks for the comment!

GSM: I am happy to report Pete Fountain is still alive. Apparently you fell for the shoe-shine boy’s betting you $20 that he could tell you where you got your shoes. He tells you, “You’ve got your shoes on Bourbon Street,” then takes your money. Right? Go to youtube and see if you can find Pete Fountain playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” I’m sure it’s there!

If you’ve been there, you know what it means to miss New Orleans.

Here’s the recipe for Pat O’Brien’s famous Hurricane

2 oz. light rum
2 oz. dark rum
2 oz. grenadine
1 oz. orange juice
1 oz. sour mix
1 tsp. sugar
Orange wedges for garnish.

Of course, you need a glass shaped like a hurricane lamp!


Ranch Chimp said...

Yep,Ms.BJ ... I recall his sound... great stuff,indeed. The story I heard briefly before...but not like posted here.That is a sad story ...but understand his attitude on not cryin over spilt milk.... but it would still by rough for me period. Ya'll take care!

Thanx ...............

Tiny said...

Beautiful memories, BJ. Sad that Pete Fountain lost all of his memorable treasures. But the music inside him will never end. That's the beauty of such talent.

Tiny regrets that she turned down her big chance to be in NOLA for Mardi Gras when the "Marching Cats" band was there for competetion. Her oldest son was in that band and they won "Best Band In Dixie" and made the Paul Harvey news.

Thanks for sharing your beautiful and sad story. Going to search YouTube for "Just A Closer Walk." Tiny grew up on that song in her church.

And there's times she could use one of those Hurricanes! LOL

Keep doing what you do so eloquently.

tiny said...

Tiny forgot to mention that the "Marching Cats" band was from Valdosta, GA High School.

Katherine said...

Oh, BJ, your message spoke to my heart of hearts, indeed. My brothers and I were raised on music. The house was filled with it. We all learned to play instruments.

I had the great fortune of years and years of private music lessons, including European piano training very early, along with three years of clarinet and four years of cello, thanks to an outstanding music program in the public schools we attended. My teacher at school was a wonderful man and Hungarian refugee. Later, I taught myself guitar and did quite a bit of singing and guitar-playing for audiences in the '60's and '70's. I enjoyed that and the gripper songs. "Nobody knows you when you're down and out..." Wow. What a heart-wrenching song for these times, too.

For a couple semesters, I played the tympani in the college orchestra in need of a tympani player. What an experience. Still, through it all, my main instrument was the piano. My parents found and gave me a 1930's Steinway M series grand when I was 16. What on earth does a kid say to that gift for all time? The bass register couldn't be beat. That piano became my dearest, closest friend for the next 30 years. I spent a fortune moving it around the country with me and became a very accomplished piano player. In my 30's, a teacher I had was secretly looking for a prodigy and wanted me to strive for Carnegie Hall. Once I caught on to his personal interest, I dropped him like a hot rock. Unlike the guitar, I didn't at all enjoy playing piano for audiences. For me, it was too intimate, too prayerful and private. Yes, that was selfish of me and, fortunately, I didn't know that at that time. Anyway, this is a roundabout response to let you know that Pete Fountain's clarinet music feels like an irreplaceable, comfy old shoe to me. I can still hear it.

It felt sad to read of Pete Fountain's personal losses from Hurricane Katrina. All the pain, suffering and loss from Hurricane Katrina are sad to me, though, and it's a very adult assignment to forgive our government for its inexcusable treatment of the flood victims. My heart bled for all the animals that suffered terribly there, too.

Grief can be so devastating and fierce at times. Mercifully, in sharp contrast to Peggy Lee's song, grief is not all there is. There is so much more than misery and grief--if we allow it. I agree with Dag Hammerskjold's breathtaking observation: "The wonder that I exist." To me, it seems to be a gift no matter what the experience is. Lately, given the insanity of these times, I've revisited a message from a Buddhist monk: "If we don't learn how to let go in this life, we get the crash course at the end."

If you don't mind, I think that your blog about simplicity ties into this musical theme, too. Music can be cacophony if there's no melody. Louis Armstrong would always return to the melody and what a genius for doing so. It seems to me that we Americans have lost the melody. When do we start listening to our hearts? We seem to have lost the heartfelt music and gone so mental instead. Arrogance and egos have complicated everything to a faretheewell, and the melody has gone missing. A quote from Toscanni to mind: "Don't play the notes, play the music."

Thanks so much for another gripping blog message today, BJ, even if this rambling response has an abrupt ending. I want to keep from tiring you out any more than I already have with this note.

Darlin', your blog was music to my ears.


Good Southern Man said...

I just listened to Pete on YouTube. What Memories!! I had the great pleasure (I hope I am not being disrespectful) to see a couple of N.O. funeral marches. One was close to where we walked while in the Quarter and the other was while we were in the car in which we rolled our windows down and stopped on the side of the road out of respect. These same type of songs were being played. I remember hearing "When the saints go marching in" from one funeral march and "Amazing Grace" from the other. It was a real celebration. I imagined that the person in the coffin was old and decrepit and I had a mental picture of a spirit dancing up to heaven with a new heavenly body that worked. I love this Posting!!!!

Here is the YouTube link:


Frodo, um pom pom, um pom pom said...

Frodo and Sam have not returned to the City of Orleans since Katrina. It is the fear of what is no longer there.

Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr. John, The Meters, The Neville Brothers, Frogman Henry, Billie & DeDe, and countless others to whom Frodo must apologize. This is the American Art Form that will define who we were long after the last trombone is silenced on our final parade. Just look at the soulful words in what Demwit's contemporaries remember from the "City that Car Forgot."

Anybody got an umbrella, Frodo feels like struttin'.