Tim Laughlin: Clarinet Crusader

According to his friend and frequent collaborator, pianist Tom McDermott, “Tim’s sound makes a lot of other clarinetists sound like they’re playing kazoos.” Yet another unique aspect of Tim Laughlin’s career as a musician is that he actually composes new material, a refreshing anomaly in the neo-conservative realm of traditional jazz. Clad in an ancient New Orleans Jazz (the former local basketball team now residing in Utah) t-shirt, the red-headed scion of Gentilly discussed his latest work, residence in the French Quarter and the New Orleans Saints’ ultimate destiny.

You have a new release coming out during the French Quarter Festival.

It’s Live In Germany, a compilation of two performances we did in 2002 and 2004 on a German tour for a major pharmaceutical company. It’s sort of like when we do conventions here but we go city to city, like a traveling show. They talk about new trends in medicines and we play, as a reward, at a dinner afterwards. We do two weeks and on Saturdays, we do a concert—either a hospital benefit or some type of public concert. At the town of Ludwigsburg, outside of Stuttgart, we recorded these two concerts. I brought with me a rhythm section and another featured clarinetist. At the first concert, it was Jack Maheu, who’s around the same age as Pete Fountain, and at the second concert, it was Tom Fischer, who plays a lot in town at the Palm Court. So I pretty much formed these bands around the two-reed format. At the end of the two weeks, we recorded these concerts so we were well-rehearsed and well-adapted to each other. I picked the best 13 tunes of these two concerts from two years.

The thing I’m most happy with is the fidelity of the live performances. I’ve been disappointed with a lot of recorded live performances, especially done here in New Orleans, because they don’t mike the audience right, or you hear the clinging of the glasses and all that. That’s annoying to me. I like the auditorium setting because it’s more acoustically fitting and it’s easier to mike. It’s my first live CD as a solo artist.

That’s unusual, having two clarinetists.

Yeah, it is today, but it’s an old idea, from the ’30s. [Sidney] Bechet and [Mezz] Mezzrow did it. Bob Wilber and Kenny Davern have done it since the early ’70s. If the two reed players know what they’re doing and have played with each other for a while, it’s a really nice blend. It’s really a pleasure to play with top caliber guys like Jack and Tom. Tom plays some tenor on it, as well, which breaks it up.

What I’ve done for the liner notes is give a blow-by-blow description of who’s playing what, just to give the listener a clue about what they’re listening to. The two sounds are very unique.

Is there something special about German audiences?

Not really. I’ve come to the decision recently that there are great audiences everywhere and everybody has their own reason for their enthusiasm for the music they like. There’s a paradox in New Orleans—they can be the greatest people to play for and they can be the most miserable people to play for. Take French Quarter Festival, for instance. It’s one of the highlights of my year because I get people from the “old country”—Gentilly Woods—come out to hear me and support me. They’ll be standing up, cheering. But yet, I’ll play private parties and I’ll see people I’ve known for 20 years walk right past the bandstand and not even acknowledge that there’s a band there. These are people who live in New Orleans. I think we tend to take music for granted sometimes. “Okay, there’s a free festival—I’m there!” If it’s a private party, it’s “Where’s the food?”

It’s like jambalaya. It’s served at every function, just like jazz. It’s part of the background.

I’ve almost put my foot out, trying to trip people that I know, because they walk right past and won’t even give you a wave. It’s strange.

I’ve wondered, when you were a child in the ’70s, why did you decide to play the clarinet? It’s never been the most cool instrument.

No, not at all. I think, sometimes, spouses or jobs—they find you and you have to accept that. I fell in love with the sound of the clarinet. I think it found me. I had a friend of mine who played clarinet and he lived down the street and I would go listen to him play. He was more of a “legit” player—he would read everything. I would hang out with him and eventually he taught me how to blow into the clarinet and how to finger it. I was interested—I actually liked the sound of the instrument. In essence, the clarinet found me. So when I asked my mom to get me one, I had a running start.

Then I started taking lessons at Werlein’s from a really good clarinet player, Bill Bourgeois, who was a jazz player but I never heard him because he taught more with a pencil instead of the clarinet. He was an excellent, excellent teacher. Very patient. If I didn’t do my homework, we just went back and did it again. I hated that and it forced me to do my homework and practice. He pushed me without feeling like I was being pushed.

Shortly after that, I started listening to jazz and I heard one of my favorite clarinet players, Pete Fountain, on the radio–the guy I most admire and probably the reason I play music. I ran in and asked my dad who that was and it was Pete’s Mardi Gras album—still my favorite. That sound spoke to me. That was the next layer in my love for the instrument.

How old were you?

I was nine, just started fourth grade. I got the record for Christmas and played along with it. That’s when I started to develop the ear for the timing of jazz. You may play the notes but if you don’t have the timing then you’re not going to understand what jazz is.

I was always an unconventional kid but I think if I was born with anything, it was a good ear and timing. I listened to other jazz instruments as well. I remember listening to early Sonny Stitt, Benny Carter and of course, Benny Goodman.

Did it make an impression on you that jazz originated in New Orleans?

Yeah, it did. I realized how important it was and that it was in my backyard. I didn’t know that I would be playing it professionally. I just knew that I liked it. I was just trying to keep my grade point average in school—that’s the most important thing to a kid.

Did you play in school bands?

Yeah, I did. I went to a Catholic boys’ school—Holy Cross. They encouraged jazz but it was more “stage band.” I started playing alto sax and flute in the concert band. Clarinet was always my first love—it was my baby.


Did you march in parades?

Yeah. It required too much of another type of discipline: walking in a straight line and in step with everybody. I always wanted to walk in my own step. My teachers always knew I liked jazz so they encouraged me.

In fact, my first professional gig—I was 15 and our band director, Frank Mannino, got us a gig in the Pegasus parade, playing on a float. We all made $25 apiece and thought it was the bee’s knees—very cool. It gave me a taste of just how much fun it was playing music.

I guess you were never shy.

I was but, you know, when I have the clarinet in my hand, I’m not. If I go to a party and I’m not playing, then I won’t talk to a lot of people. But if I’m performing at a party, it’s a reason to talk to people. People can identify you with the music so then they don’t feel shy. If you know what you’re doing and you feel good about what you’re doing and you enjoy it, then it’s not work. I really play music for myself, not the audience. Most jazz musicians do. They won’t admit it. But if there’s two people in the audience, I’m going to play just as hard because I’m playing for myself. Not only that but you’re trying to get people in. Whether I’m playing a private party or Carnegie Hall, I’m going to play the same way. I have to because it’s being honest with yourself on stage and I’m constantly trying to improve.

When they ask me, “Where do you want to be in ten years?,” I say I want to be ten years better. I make no long term plans, no goals. You can’t. I don’t know where this music is going to take me. All I know is that it’s taken me here and I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I still sometimes can’t believe that I make a living at it. This is what I’ve always wanted. But it’s like anything—the harder you work, the luckier you get.

I don’t make goals because if you say, “I want to sell x-amount of records” and then you don’t, does that mean you failed? I don’t even want to think about numbers. This has been such an adventure, I don’t want it to ever end by making goals.

For The Isle of Orleans album, you composed all new, original songs.

It’s the biggest chance I’ve ever taken in my life, the biggest risk. I’ve had this idea for a while but I didn’t have enough tunes. I started writing around 1993, just to kick around the idea. It was time for some new music. So what I wanted to do was compose an entire album of New Orleans-style music. Not to re-invent the wheel…

What does “New Orleans-style” mean?

There’s different styles of New Orleans jazz. You can go from Freddie Keppard and King Oliver to the orchestras of New Orleans, which were “reading” bands, to the ’30s and ’40s where jazz was infused with swing, to the ’60s and the revival, which most Europeans identify with, to the ’70s, which is what you hear on Bourbon Street now—more pop-oriented jazz tunes. I don’t think New Orleans jazz has one sound. Some people say New Orleans jazz ended when Louis Armstrong went to Chicago—I don’t look at it like that. I think there’s many phases to New Orleans music. On The Isle of Orleans, I wanted to capture all of that. There’s a lot of moods here in New Orleans. People forget that it’s not all just funky. There’s a lot of beauty in New Orleans and I wanted to expose that. I think we’ve gotten away from that.

The album has very evocative titles. Did you write the songs first or the titles?

I wrote the songs first and the titles came to me. One of the things people don’t realize about New Orleans is that it’s more or less an island of sorts. It’s the only place in the world where we have our own food, our own music, our own language, our own parades, our own funerals, our own driving laws, our own way of voting that’s cut off from the rest of Louisiana and we’re surrounded by water so in essence, I’ve always called it an island—“The Isle of Orleans.” Tourists will come up and say, “You’re from New Orleans—how come you don’t sound like you’re from New Orleans?” I say, “You need to quit watching TV and movies because they’ll never nail it.” If they would go to one Saints game, they would nail the dialect.

“Monkey Hill” I wanted to be a fun-sounding tune because it’s reflective of a fun time we had as kids rolling down Monkey Hill. I’ve learned that it’s not the highest point in New Orleans. I think Hippie Hill is.

Hippie Hill?! I’ve never heard of it.

It’s in City Park. I’ve never been to it. Somebody told me it was the highest point in New Orleans.

“Dumaine Street Breakdown” was inspired by moving into your French Quarter apartment and having no air conditioner. That must’ve been terrible.

Well, only the first night: just get through it and maybe something good will come of it. And something did. “March of the Uncle Bubbys” is something you can identify with. You know the guys, the characters in New Orleans. An “Uncle Bubby” is an older New Orleans gentleman who likes to go out and all he wants to do is have a good time. He wants to hear the band, he wants to dance with the best-looking young chick out there and he usually buys the band a beer on the break. He’s just that kind of a guy. He’s from New Orleans and wants everybody to know it.

That’s a true thing. Only with traditional jazz can you be old and go out and act stupid in public.

Fearless! When I worked at the French Market with Scotty Hill, we coined the term “Uncle Bubbys.” And their wives were “Aunt Teresas.” I wrote this tune in homage to them.

Do you have a term for tourists?

Not really. I like the tourists. I live in the Quarter and everybody asks, “Are you bugged by tourists?” No, I’m never bugged by them. If I see somebody holding a map on the corner and they’re looking around, I’ll say, “Excuse me—can I help you find something?” I’m there: I’m going to New York in a few weeks, I’m going to be looking for something and I’m hoping somebody will help me out.

The tourists are here because we’re an interesting city and I want people to know that there are people here to help them. It’s not my job to help them, it’s because I want to. I love this city. If I can help them find a place…sometimes they walk a little too slow for me and I just walk around them. I’m a little bugged at the ghost tour people because they don’t leave a space for you to walk so I just walk right through them. If the tour guide gives me a dirty look, I just say, “It’s still a neighborhood first.”

What are the joys of living in the French Quarter?

I get to walk to work. I’ve got everything here, everything I need. It’s sort of like living in a mini-Manhattan. I have a love of walking, as well. There’s a vibe in the French Quarter that’s no place else in the city has. Either you get it or you don’t. I moved to the Quarter in 2002 and I thought I would just fit right in because I had worked there for 20 years. I decided to simplify my life. I got rid of my car and I was just going to be a Quarter rat. It doesn’t work like that.

At first it’s a little daunting because now you live here. You’re in a bowl. But then after about a year, I realized that you don’t become part of the Quarter—it becomes part of you. You’re not going to change it. You have to accept its blemishes and starkness during the day, as well as its beauty at night. There’s certain routes of travel that I favor walking around the Quarter. Royal Street’s probably my favorite street in the world.

What’s something about the French Quarter that most people don’t know?

Well, it’s a neighborhood for one. The perception is that if you live in the Quarter, you’re an eccentric. But if you’ve ever met anybody who grew up in the Quarter, they’re the most centered people you’ll ever meet in the world. Those are the people you want to hang out with because nothing bothers them. They’ve seen it all and done it all.

My impression is that all the real estate in the French Quarter is owned by people who aren’t from New Orleans.

Yeah. I look at it like this: they’re the 21st-century immigrants. It takes a lot of guts to sell everything you have in North Carolina and move to the Quarter and live the rest of your life there. It takes commitment, time, effort and money. A lot of locals don’t particularly care for the Quarter because they think it’s just a place to go party. So I welcome these people from other places because they’ve really fixed up the Quarter and they take pride in painting their houses a certain color that makes them individual. A lot of these people are my friends.

Do you compose your songs on the piano?

I write on the clarinet. It is unusual. The clarinet is the voice that I rely on the most, even though I can hear the trumpets, trombones, piano and rhythm. The melody is the thing you publish and copyright. You can write any number of chord changes for any melody so I try to think as melodic as possible without getting too repetitive but hopefully still making it simple enough that people can hum it in their heads. When people come in and ask for “Blues For Faz” or you call it out on the mike and people applaud before you start playing, that’s pretty cool.

It’ll be even better when other bands start playing your songs.

They already have. I think Hot Club has been playing “Isle of Orleans.” And some bands from Europe have been playing it. It’s a lot easier to get bands from Europe to play your music because they want to. New Orleans bands don’t want to play new music.


Why?

I think they’re bound to the tourist trap. Not only that, they don’t want to take chances. Whereas Europeans are very open to new songs. There aren’t that many guys writing. The fact that somebody’s written an entire album of traditional New Orleans jazz—one author—that hasn’t been done in about 80 years in New Orleans. I really wanted to shake up the trad world here in our little orb and say, “Come on, guys—we need some new ideas.” What else can you do to “Muskrat Ramble” that hasn’t been done before? Are you going to make it any better? No. We need some new melodies. I still love playing “Muskrat Ramble” but I’m going to challenge the audience by saying, “Here’s a tune you haven’t heard but I think you’ll like it.” When the audience hears a tune for the first time and they think, “This guy wrote it—I’ve gotta have this album,” that’s pretty cool. I’ve done my job.

Is the clarinet one of the most difficult instruments to play?

[laughs] Yes. The armature—the mouth position—is almost impossible if you double on saxophone and other instruments. It’s so demanding to get a good tone from the clarinet. You have to approach it almost like an oboe. The saxophone has a lot of forgiveness in the armature. I’ve played saxophone so I know. When you go back to clarinet and realize that you have to play it in tune and that each octave is a totally different fingering and you have to re-think each octave every eight notes, that’s why I dedicated myself to the clarinet. It’s the most rewarding instrument because when you start to establish your sound and you start to grow as a musician, it’s a great instrument to do it on. The most important thing any jazz player can achieve is getting his sound because there’s a lot of technique out there but once people identify your individual sound, then that’s the biggest achievement.

That’s the one thing Pete Fountain told me, “Work on your sound. Get the prettiest sound you can. People will listen to that all night.” There’s only so much chops and technique they can handle. The average listener has to process all this. But when you have a beautiful sound on an instrument like the clarinet, they’ll stay all night and listen.

I think Pete Fountain is a national treasure. To play that well for that long, to play in tune, and to swing your whole life is remarkable. He’s done it for 50-plus years. I tell him every time I hear him, “Boss, every note you play has a smile on it.” He plays and you smile inside.

Tell us about your two new Music Minus One books of  sheet music.

The books come with music for each instrument and two CDs—one CD with the full band and the second CD is full band minus your instrument with some tunes slowed-down. One book is all my originals and one book is the classics plus three of my tunes. It’s cool to know that my music will go all over the world. It was a lot of work.

When you’re dead, people will be playing your songs.

Exactly, that’s why you write.

Finally, Tim, the most important question: Do you think the Saints will ever make it to the Super Bowl?

You’ve got a better chance of picking fly shit out of pepper with boxing gloves on.