Tom McDermott does not stand out in a crowd.
The affable, laid-back pianist could be a bit character from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, a reference that traces McDermott’s biography to St. Louis, where he was born in 1957. He was already playing the music of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin as a teenager before moving downriver to New Orleans to search for the wellspring of James Booker’s inspiration.
McDermott’s music is another story, an anthropologist’s dig through the fossils of New Orleans musical and cultural history. His playing is encyclopedic, referencing everything from 19th Century composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk through ragtime, early jazz, brass band, boogie woogie and the eclectic post-WWII R&B of Professor Longhair and James Booker. He has written songs and arrangements for a variety of settings, including music for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and co-founded the genre-defying New Orleans Nightcrawlers Brass Band. His performances with clarinetist Evan Christopher at Donna’s cover diverse ground, and more recently he’s been playing there with the street music group Loose Marbles. Though last year’s Live in Paris album includes Brazilian choros, French musettes, a tango and a Beatles tune, McDermott won OffBeat’s Best of the Beat award earlier this year for Best Traditional Jazz performer.
As if to celebrate such recognition, McDermott has just released Creole Nocturne, a traditional New Orleans jazz album of duets with trumpeter Connie Jones. He will play French Quarter Fest this year, not as a bandleader, but as a sideman with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (Saturday at 1:15 at the Intercontinental New Orleans Stage at 333 Bourbon St.), but such is the nature of the festival. “One year I played in four different groups at French Quarter Fest,” he recalls. “I played with the Dukes of Dixieland, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, with Tim Laughlin and with Connie Jones.”
Creole Nocturne includes only a few trad jazz warhorses; instead, McDermott’s original compositions make up the bulk of the album, and they’re based on familiar jazz phrases including the revelatory “Satchmo Speaks,” which interpolates one of Louis Armstrong’s signature trumpet statements. The album is easygoing, but it is not easy listening. McDermott is in little danger of being described by the New Orleans sobriquet that flatters many with guarded praise, “entertainer.” McDermott’s defining characteristic is his eclecticism, the quality that allows him to leaven a serious moment with humor or to combine disparate elements to create something traditional, yet new.
McDermott began playing piano as a child in St. Louis, where he heard his mother playing rags and novelty pieces from the ’20s. While his contemporaries were listening to punk rock and jazz fusion, McDermott was exploring traditional jazz forms, studying Gunther Schuller’s analysis of ragtime in The Red Back Book and comparing it to the complexities of Beatles compositions.
“There’s a guy in St. Louis named Trebor Tichenor who probably knows more about ragtime than anyone alive,” says McDermott. “He keeps the largest piano roll collection in the world. He had a show on the public radio station, so some time around age 13, I was hearing Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Eubie Blake and Scott Joplin. Then the Joplin revival started around ’72, ’73, with Joshua Rifkin and Gunther Schuller putting out The Red Back Book and stuff like that, then The Sting came out in ’74, but I was into it a little before that. St. Louis was the first big urban center to embrace ragtime, so they made as much of it as they could. I heard Jelly Roll early on and I loved it. I was playing Jelly Roll stuff by the time I was 16. My first gig was at a Shakey’s [the now-defunct pizza chain]. I’m not sure I want to brag about that.”
McDermott began visiting New Orleans on his own when he was a teenager and by the time he was in his early 20s, he had moved there for good.
“I had had a music critic job for the morning paper in St. Louis and when that gig ended, I also had a girlfriend I broke up with who wanted me out of the apartment, and I had a gig connected with the World’s Fair. And I had gone absolutely crazy over James Booker. It seems like it was destiny that brought me here. I heard Booker for the first time around ’82 and I just went apeshit. Unfortunately, I didn’t move here until ’84 and Booker died in November of ’83. I did get to hear him once, although he didn’t do much of a performance. He played a little bit and then some guy got up and started rapping and that was the end of the show, and Booker just went off somewhere.”
McDermott scuffled around. He played the Steamboat Natchez for about three years. “I liked it better in the winter because I played on an old upright, which I loved,” he says. “In the summer we played on the deck and I had to play a synthesizer.” He played solo piano at the Gazebo until he landed a gig that has kept a lot of young musicians alive in New Orleans over the years, playing the Steamboat Natchez with the Dukes of Dixieland.
“I heard the Dukes were looking for somebody and I auditioned,” he recalls. “I played in the Dukes from ’90 to ’98 with a couple of sabbaticals in there. There were a lot of great players that went through that group, but I didn’t think it wasn’t really a great band when I joined. After I got in and Tim Laughlin joined, it really helped turn around the band. Some of the players in the group had no idea what traditional jazz was. They were good modern players, but their concept of traditional jazz was really perverse.”
As tempting as it is to think of someone as in or out of the trad jazz camp, it’s not that simple. It’s more of a continuum, and even though McDermott had a much stronger notion of traditional jazz than some of the Dukes, others found him too modern.
“I’m certainly not a purist,” he says. “There are people who view what I do to ragtime and Jelly Roll Morton, and they don’t like it at all. I’m not good at isolating the older elements of the music and just playing in that style. I do it for the most part, but I don’t do it entirely. I know it drives some people crazy, but that’s just the way I play. I guess I am a traditional jazz performer. I play rags and I go back to the very beginning of the music and I can play boogie woogie. I’m the only guy out there playing Gottschalk pretty much. I’m a traditional jazz player, but I would just say I’m not to everybody’s taste.”
His ability to draw from a variety of musical vocabularies came together in his 1996 album All the Keys & Then Some, that is scheduled for reissue. The album is an exercise in composing a piece in all 24 keys on the piano, with a second suite of piano pieces offering tributes to his musical influences. McDermott’s eclecticism is in full flower on these exercises, which range from traditional Western classical pieces to swing time excursions, rags and New Orleans second line songs. His sense of humor and love of the Beatles surface simultaneously when he samples the final chord of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” on the composition, “Andrew’s Antics.”
Underlying McDermott’s traditional jazz apostasy is his love of rhythms. “I’ve seen traditional jazz played all over the world, and there are groups all over America playing it, in what we would call weekend warrior bands, guys who do other things but this is their passion. What separates them from what goes on in New Orleans is the drumming. There’s nobody like Shannon Powell or Joe Lastie or Gerald French out there playing traditional jazz any other place but here.” Even in his favorite drummers, though, he hears a broad musical vocabulary. “It’s certainly not what you would have heard in the 1920s, although I guess Shannon could play that way if he wanted to.”
In recent years, McDermott has been particularly interested in rhythms that might not be considered part of traditional jazz, rhythms from the Caribbean and South America. “South America didn’t impact New Orleans music,” he explains, “but the music of the Caribbean, especially Cuba, did a lot, so I love bringing other rhythmic elements to it.”
McDermott’s interest in rhythm led him to percussionist and writer Ned Sublette, whose new book, The World That Made New Orleans, he reviewed in OffBeat’s March 2008 issue.
“Ned pointed out to me that some rhythms that I hadn’t thought about in such terms emanated in Africa, then went to Cuba and became disseminated elsewhere,” he notes. “I had never thought about the rhythm called the cinquillo (he plays the five note rhythmic figure on a nearby piano) and it’s in ragtime. It’s a core rhythm of ragtime, but it comes from Cuba. Ragtime rhythm comes from Cuba; that was quite a revelation to me. People think the tango was an Argentine thing, but the tango comes from the habanera, the root rhythm of which comes from the Congo in Africa. It was first used in a compositional sense in Cuba and then it spilled out. Ned points out in the book that the first use of the word ‘tango’ comes from a document that talks about New Orleans musicians. He makes connections I wasn’t aware of and I’m very intrigued by that aspect, certainly with choro and ragtime in which I’m also interested.
“I’ve never recorded with Argentine or Cuban musicians; I’d definitely like to. I really see the connections between early Brazilian music and early North American music. I can say proudly that the Brazilians really liked my ideas about the relationship between choros and Scott Joplin rags. The connection worked. I made that connection and it turned into a good record, Choro do Norte. So in a way I’m very traditional and in a way I’m not. I’m looking for new ways to combine things.”
That search is evident on Creole Nocturne, a duet project designed to showcase the improvisational genius of Connie Jones, one of the most respected trumpet players in the city, yet someone who McDermott feels is underappreciated. He met Jones in 1990 when Jones was subbing for the Dukes of Dixieland’s piano player. It wasn’t until later that he learned that Jones’ main instrument was the cornet. “He was a good piano player,” McDermott says. “His harmony and melody instincts are just so good.”
McDermott had followed Jones’ recordings, and he was frustrated by how little space he left for himself. “He has good players, but it was always one solo after another so he only got about one sixth of the solo space on his own records. I resolved to correct that by putting out Creole Nocturne. On this record he plays more than I do—as he should. Connie is a much, much better improviser than I am. That’s not putting myself down. My end is the compositions. Connie is still enough of a great musician—even at age 73—to learn five or six of my tunes on here. He’s known as a Dixieland guy, but there are some people who are such innately good improvisers that they can sit in with anyone, people like Errol Garner or Stephane Grappelli. Those guys could have played anything up to bebop, and I think of Connie the same way.”
McDermott had already featured Jones on his first album as a leader, Tom McDermott and His Jazz Hellions, but this time he placed Jones in a variety of unusual settings including the title track, which is based on a Chopin nocturne.
“That’s one of Chopin’s simpler pieces actually,” says McDermott. “People have been doing that type of thing since the beginning of jazz. I’d never heard anybody do exactly that so I put it out there. It took Connie a few tries in rehearsal, but eventually he got the particular progression that’s on there and nailed it. He recorded a great solo—it’s not a rhythm he typically plays, but he came up with something really good.”
McDermott and Jones recorded the album last summer at Piety Street studio, covering material ranging from Gottschalk through Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong right up to McDermott’s originals.
“Connie wasn’t familiar with Gottschalk,” McDermott admitted, “but nobody here is improvising on Gottschalk. Anybody covering him is doing it straight. We’re simplifying it and improvising on it at the same time. I’m pretty conscious of trying to vary timbre as much as possible with a duet album, so I had a couple of piano solos, and I have Connie singing on a couple of things, playing mute on another, just to get different sounds. We actually moved the piano around in the studio so some of the tracks sound a little different. If you listen to ‘Sleepy Time Down South,’ it has a certain ambience that’s different from ‘Satchmo Speaks’ because we recorded it in a different part of the room. It sounds dreamier, airier. There are little tricks like that you can do to keep the tracks from sounding alike.”
McDermott was also attempting to get as relaxed a sound from Jones as he could, something that occurred to him when the two played together in live performances.
“I subbed with Pete Fountain for a while last year,” says McDermott. “That was a lot of fun. Pete has suffered terribly since the storm, and he has had many health problems so he plays the same 20 tunes every night. In that regard, it’s a straitjacket. On the other hand, every night Connie, who was back in the band, played gorgeous solos. I really kick myself that I didn’t buy a recorder and record all of Connie’s solos every night because tunes he’s played a million times—‘Basin Street Blues,’ “Do You Know what It Means…’—Connie is playing these marvelous things on them. Something like that is very hard to get in the studio, just total relaxation. A lot of that does come through on the record. Listen to how untied to the beat he is. He’s really floating on a lot of those solos. He always lands on his feet. It’s always interesting and musical and mysterious. How does he do that?”
Finding the answer to such questions is the quest that fires McDermott’s musical imagination and intellectual curiosity. This link between intellect and art subvrts the oft-heard cliché that New Orleans traditional music is somehow all about feeling, and leads McDermott to embrace the New Orleans tradition without swallowing it whole, just as like-minded players such as Matt Perrine, Rick Trolsen and Dr. Michael White do. He’s examined every aspect of the music he plays and thinks about its relationship to other genres, a conceptual approach that has allowed him to create new forms within the tradition and forces the listener to follow along with his logic. McDermott’s goal is to go beyond just playing music he’s attracted to and fashion ways for that music to grow. He has been working on a series of duets, including a song with Anders Osborne about post-Katrina New Orleans life called “Sportsman’s Paradise,” as well as earbending mash-ups of material by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. This material will seriously challenge any preconceptions people have about McDermott’s musical scope.
“I see myself as a composer,” he concludes. “New Orleans is not a composer’s town, but that’s how I see myself. That’s who I am. That’s what I feel I can offer people. I do cover a lot of ground as a musician but it just drives me kind of crazy, with the emphasis placed on funk here, for instance. I just wish people were doing more with composition. New Orleans is just not a composer’s city. Toussaint did some brilliant things, of course. There’s this attention to detail in his work that the Beatles had. But there hasn’t been much added to the canon since the 1960s. There’s very little chance of anything that’s being written here today becoming part of the musical language, something that’s going to be picked and played by the people. There’s ‘Do Watcha Wanna,’ and that’s nearly 20 years old. What do we have since then, variations on ‘Back That Ass Up?’ I just can’t see it being played 50 years from now, not like Toussaint’s music and Jelly Roll’s music.”
So where do we go from here? That’s a hard question, and one that few people in the tradition-bound New Orleans musical community are asking. McDermott may not stand out in a crowd, but his ideas will be walking tall long after he’s gone.