Dawn arrived on Fat Tuesday 2011 with a gray, windy bluster and a forecast of heavy rain. But nature could not throw a wet blanket on the smoldering fire of revelers gathering along St. Charles Avenue waiting for the parades to roll. Outside of Commander’s Palace, Pete Fountain readied himself to lead those parades downtown, just as he had for the previous 50 years (he missed 2006 due to illness). Most of those years Fountain and his friends in the Half-Fast Walking Club walked into town, playing as they went and scattering doubloons adorned with Pete’s cherubic face. The crowds who’d been waiting for hours to see Zulu roll always greeted Fountain’s appearance with a joyous response, knowing that Mardi Gras had officially begin.
But the 80-year-old Fountain has been slowed by strokes and now rides downtown on a streetcar float. “I used to walk,” he says with a smile. “Now I have to ride in the truck. But I love it. Just have a good time. This is our 51st year. Now I’m on a trolley car that we put the 14-piece band on. I just sit there and play with them. It started with just the wives, couples walking, and it built from there. When I was a kid, they had all the walking clubs in the neighborhoods with brass bands and everything just like they are today. So that’s what happens; you grow up with it.”
Fountain took his place at the front of the streetcar, resplendent in a dark blue suit festooned with embroidered white detail and wearing a feathered blue top hat. A group of club members walked ahead of him dressed in lighter purple suits and top hats tossing blue beads with medallions bearing the inscription “Pete Fountain” on one side and “Half-Fast Walking Club” on the other. The entourage turned onto St. Charles at Washington Avenue and the crowd cheered. Fountain’s band was in high gear and Pete brought his clarinet to his lips to play a few bars. But for the most part, he held on to his instrument and waved at the people, smiling and at times appearing overwhelmed with emotion.
A television reporter approached the streetcar and asked Fountain a couple of questions about the
weather and the music. Pete answered him, and when the reporter finished, Pete turned his gaze directly into the camera and said, “Thank you. I love you.” Fountain has difficulty talking since the strokes, but he is still adept at communication. His message comes from deep inside those merry, watery blue eyes: “I love you.” The message is to all New Orleanians, a humble, simple expression of how much this city’s music and its people mean to him.
Despite his infirmities, Pierre Dewey Fountain, Jr. gives the impression of savoring every moment of his life in his hometown. When he arrived at the Court of Two Sisters to sit down with OffBeat for this story, he chatted with French Quarter Fest board member Aynsley Fein, the daughter of a close friend. She took him by the arm and brought him into the garden, where a jazz trio was playing “Basin Street Blues.” Fountain stopped and greeted each of them warmly. If you play traditional jazz in New Orleans, chances are you know Pete personally.
When we sat down, talk turned immediately to French Quarter Fest. Fountain is the subject of this year’s poster. “The poster looks nice,” offers Fountain. “I’ve played every French Quarter Fest, every year since the beginning. The first year was ‘84, ‘85. We played in Jackson Square. We always played in Jackson Square. My club (Pete Fountain’s, on Bourbon Street) was open back then. My club was separate from the French Quarter Fest, but we did some special events with them. Connie Jones and them were very influential in getting the French Quarter Festival started, and we did a lot of things with the festival.”
Fountain speaks in short bursts interspersed with pauses. As he tries to remember details or formulate his words, he drums his fingers on the table. If he grows frustrated about not being able to express himself, he places his hand on the table palm down. But in general, he is able to talk without much prompting. And though his smile falters, it never fully disappears. That smile bespeaks a lifetime of living in New Orleans playing jazz and reflects the satisfaction of a man who’s seen his music grow from infancy.
When Pete Fountain was a boy growing up in the 1930s, jazz was the popular music of its day, and Fountain knew he wanted to play it as soon as he picked up the clarinet at age nine.
“My father played a little fiddle and drums,” he says. “It was more country what he played.”
Though Fountain grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s, he doesn’t remember his childhood days as hard times.
“It was easy because my daddy drove a beer truck,” he says. “We had all we wanted.” His eyes twinkle with the implied joke.
His dad, Pierre (Red) Fountain, was a naturally gifted musician. Pete remembers his father playing his first clarinet before Pete himself could get a grasp on the instrument. But Fountain inherited his father’s instinct to play music without practice. “I always had a good ear,” he says. That instinct is responsible for the relaxed, easy swing in Fountain’s delivery, a talent that allowed him to excel at school without being a disciplined chart player. Once he heard an arrangement, he could play it by heart. Fountain was a star player at McDonogh 28 Elementary School and Warren Easton High School. On the side, he listened to and played with anyone he could. He idolized Irving Fazola, whose broad tone he emulated, and played popular jazz tunes at football games with the Assunto Brothers, who later hired him to play with the Dukes of Dixieland.
“When I was growing up, what is now called New Orleans traditional jazz was contemporary music,” he says. “The Assunto brothers—I used to go to the football games and they would be playing there. It was at City Park Stadium. I asked them if they needed a clarinet player and they said okay, so I used to play with them at the football games. We’d be playing ‘Saints’; it’s the same now when I play it at Saints games. No difference. Just different guys, same tunes.”
Fountain had bigger ambitions. He wanted to make it on Bourbon Street.
“There was a lot more music on Bourbon Street then, especially when I was growing up it was all live music, traditional New Orleans jazz. I would go to various clubs where musicians would all be sitting in with each other. I’d go walking down to Jumbo’s (Al Hirt’s) club.
I went to the Mardi Gras parades on Bourbon Street when I was a kid. I used to go see Irving Fazola on Bourbon Street. I was too young to get into the clubs then, but I would sit outside and listen. When I was 15 years old, they called me up the night Irving died to sit in in his place at the club.”
Fountain realized his life’s ambition as a teenager and never looked back.
“I always thought I would be doing this,” he says. “I played through grammar school and high school. Just played the clarinet, that was it. I knew everybody through playing the music. That was my whole life. I used to go to places and try to play with people as a kid. That’s how I met Jumbo. I always called him Jumbo. We go back all the way. I met him when I was a kid. He was a few years older than me. I used to go see him play. He was unbelievable back then. He invited me up one night and he liked how I played. People would know what you could do once they heard you. Everybody used to play the same thing—‘Saints,’ ‘Muskrat Ramble,’ we all knew the same songs. I was a professional musician, supporting myself playing music, when I was 18 or 19 years old. Jumbo and I were together for a while. It was just friendship, music, you know. I enjoyed being around him because he was a good player.”
In addition to playing with Hirt and others, Fountain had his own group, the Basin Street Six, in the 1950s. He also started a family, marrying Beverly Lang. “I was in the Louisiana National Guard through the whole time, with the band here in New Orleans. So that kept us all out of the [Korean] War. We played for everybody. Everything. I’ve been very lucky to toot the horn.”
Fountain began a recording career during the ‘50s that led to more than 100 albums appearing under his name over the years. “I started out with Joe Mares and Southland Records,” he recalls. “He had a studio. It was funny; he was selling fur pelts so he had this big space and he loved jazz. His brother Paul played trumpet years back in the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. He loved jazz. We would go in there and he would set up one microphone in the middle of the room and tape it. That was all you had.”
One of those recordings led to the biggest break in Fountain’s career, a two-year stint with the nationally-televised Lawrence Welk Show. Once a week, the whole country heard Fountain play a piece of New Orleans traditional jazz on Welk’s program.
“[Welk’s] son heard one of the records I did and they called me,” says Fountain. “They asked me to come up and play. I was very surprised, and then all of a sudden I’m on television and living out in California. I lived there for two years with them.”
Though Fountain was a telegenic presence who provided a needed spark to the somnambulant pace of Welk’s programs, he chafed at the Hollywood lifestyle. Eventually, musical differences led to a parting of the ways with Welk. Fountain was at a crossroad. He was a huge TV star at the dawn of the 1960s. He could have easily arranged for his own television show or toured behind his sudden mass appeal. But all this true son of New Orleans wanted to do was come home.
“I just wanted to,” he explains. “My wife and three kids, they all moved out to L.A. with me. I don’t think she liked it too much. She put up with it for two years and then we came home. I missed the parties and the crawfish boils and all the parts of living your life here.
“I came back in 1960 and opened up 800 Bourbon St., the jazz club Pete Fountain’s. The city hadn’t changed. I came back and it was the same difference. My name was bigger from playing on TV, but I wanted to come back to what I did here. The stardom, it never did catch up to me maybe. Maybe Jack Daniels helped. The quality of life was more important than being a celebrity. I just pushed all that aside.”
As far as he was concerned, Fountain traded in Hollywood for his lifelong dream, his own Bourbon Street club.
“I had my place 31 years, back when I was taller,” he says, smiling at his own joke. “It was 1960 when we opened the club. And then I went to 231 Bourbon. Jumbo was down the street in the 500 block. We used to go back and forth between clubs. Once I’d get off, I’d go down and see him. He’d come to my place. It depends on how drunk we got. I think Jumbo stayed open the latest of the two of us.”
Fountain celebrated his homecoming with an album, Pete Fountain’s New Orleans, that many consider his best record. Fountain’s hit version of the gospel song “A Closer Walk” comes from that record. Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Fountain turned down offers to tour so he could play in New Orleans. He could have traveled all over the world, but he stayed in his club and played his music there.
“We did some touring, but not much,” he says. “It depends on the money. Of course I did go to do The Tonight Show. I liked Johnny Carson. I did that show 59 times. I knew all the guys in the band. Still do.”
Carson had a great rapport with his band. He would often use them to make hip jokes about partying, and Fountain has a wry comment about Carson’s frequent references to band members being high on marijuana.
“I wonder why he said that?” he asks impishly.
Popular music was changing dramatically while Fountain and Hirt ruled Bourbon Street. Fountain knew that his role had changed to being one of the guardians of a tradition.
“I was aware that we were keeping a tradition going,” he says. “I think that Jumbo, myself and the Dukes of Dixieland, there was all kinds of jazz coming out at the same time so it was lucky for us that we could make a living here without going out of town too much. I’m lucky to have been able to make a living in my hometown.”
Though Fountain has slowed his pace, he hasn’t stopped playing and has no plans to retire.
“I still play out at some private gigs,” he says. “I’m playing French Quarter Festival and at a benefit for the Christian Brothers School. Two of my boys went to the Christian Brothers. We do a golf benefit for them. We do Jazz Fest, too.”
As for his legacy, Fountain says he’s not looking that far ahead. “I don’t know. Just keep playing the clarinet as long as I can. I have a lot of protégés, but the best of them is Tim Laughlin. Tim showed up on our doorstep when he was 15 years old. We let him listen to the music and he took it from there. He’s a good player. Sometimes I think about all the things I’ve done with the records. You know, I mean, it was good. A good life. And here I am. I’m still tootin’ as much as I can. I’m not thinking about the future. I’m taking it one day at a time as much as I can.”
Fountain is more concerned about the future of traditional jazz than he is about his own legacy. He’s pleased to see that traditional New Orleans jazz is enjoying a revival with a younger audience.
“When it’s good, you see a lot of jazz out there,” he says, “and then it will back off for a little while and now it looks like it’s coming back. You notice that when the younger players pick it up, like out in the yard there, those younger players. The music is timeless.”
Pete Fountain’s passion for jazz and the people of New Orleans has never wavered. Unlike so many other talented musicians who left New Orleans to pursue stardom on bigger stages, Fountain has never let celebrity make him forget who he is.
“I’m lucky to have been able to make a living in my hometown,” he insists.
Nevertheless, even at 80 Fountain’s celebrity shadows his every step. He is greeted joyfully everywhere he goes in New Orleans and every person he meets gets a warm smile and a heartfelt gesture, a handclasp or pat on the shoulder. He never seems to tire of this role, and even though he has difficulty conversing, his wry sense of humor still animates his statements. The HBO series Treme filmed him leading the Half-Fast Walking Club on Mardi Gras morning. He has seen the show, yes. Did he like it?
“I like that,” he says matter-of-factly. “If they play jazz I love it. I don’t care who, what, why or where.”
At French Quarter Fest: with Connie Jones, Friday, April 8, 11 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. WWL-TV Jackson Square Stage.