Davell Crawford: The Prince of New Orleans

“I tell people that my mom had triplets—she had me, a little baby grand and a microphone,” Davell Crawford says and begins to laugh. His statement isn’t far from the truth. Crawford, now renowned as the “Piano Prince of New Orleans,” sat in front of a keyboard at 2 years old, graduated to a little piano the following year and at 4 began playing a top-of-the-line Casio piano. “The piano I always could play,” he says, knowingly.

The image of a toddler-sized Crawford at the piano—undoubtedly smiling—speaks of the potential he exhibited early in life, the potential he has lived up to throughout his successful, three decades-long career.

Crawford, 37, an exuberant pianist, vocalist, composer and arranger with a wonderful and often humorous sense of drama, is rather purposefully mysterious in his personal life. He reveals more of himself in songs such as those heard on his yet-to-be released Basin Street Records album, My Gift To You, and through the stories he shares, of which there are many.

Davell Crawford, Elsa Hahne, photo, confetti

Davell Crawford (photo: Elsa Hahne and Golden Richard III)

“Yep, I’ll be there for Mardi Gras this year and I’m pretty excited,” says Crawford, who will get down on a slew of Carnival tunes at Snug Harbor the Saturday (February 9) before the holiday. On Thursday, February 7, he’ll offer up more jazz and urban styles at Julius Kimbrough’s North Broad Street club, the Prime Example.

“I grew up with a double kind of Mardi Gras thing happening,” he remembers. “I would go with my grandfather [singer James “Sugar Boy” Crawford] down to St. Charles. He did that for years and years. Mardi Gras was one of his favorite times. He would stay up for 24 hours and I got to stay up with him. He would make hot dogs and all the kinds of goodies that you’re supposed to have out there. He would park his car the day before and we’d ride in the other car. We saw everybody I knew and everybody he knew. That’s actually when I discovered that he was a musician. He never told me before.”

That Mardi Gras, Sugar Boy and Davell, then about 8 or 9 years old, were standing on St. Charles Avenue. They listened to the radio while awaiting a parade. “That was a big deal for him because he wanted to follow the parade. The parade always had to be on time,” Davell explains. When Sugar Boy heard his hit tune “Jock-A-Mo,” he looked over to his grandson and said, ‘They’re playing my song, they’re playing my song.’”

“I stopped and I said, ‘What did you say?’”

His grandmother, Catherine Celestine, who largely raised him, hailed from Southwest Louisiana. “I would spend my Mardi Gras in Lafayette because my whole family was there, and we would go down to Jefferson Street for the parade. I was able to enjoy that with all of my cousins,” Crawford offers. “I think I enjoyed that more because I would see [zydeco musicians] Dopsie [David, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr.] and I’d see Anthony and Tiger [Dopsie]. We had an RV and they would stop by and use the bathroom and get a beer. It was so exciting for me to see them because I was a young musician. They knew me long before I knew who they were,” Crawford says. He mentions other artists from the area who would swing by the RV: accordionist C.J. Chenier and guitarists Harry Hypolite and Lil’ Buck Sinegal. “They just knew I was the little guy who could play and sing.”

“I loved the horses in the parades,” says Crawford, who learned to ride when in the Lafayette area with his grandmother. “[She] used to take me to the track both here in New Orleans and Evangeline Downs. I grew up as a track baby and all the workers knew me. I was always mesmerized by the beauty and the power of horses.”

Davell Crawford, Elsa Hahne, photo, piano

Davell Crawford (photo: Elsa Hahne and Golden Richard III)

As a teenager, Crawford rode horses in City Park. Later, when on tour with his big band abroad, access to a riding stable became a prerequisite to signing a contract with certain promoters.

Starting in 1993, Crawford traveled regularly to Brazil to perform at Sao Paulo’s Bourbon Street Music Club, a destination for many New Orleans musicians. There he met the successful, musical Araujo family, who lived in the city and had a ranch in the country where they raised stallions. “I’d go to their ranch on the weekends and ride and get lost in the mountains,” Crawford says rather wistfully. “I even have a horse in Brazil named for me—Davell—and he’s a prizewinning stallion.”

Crawford’s time in Brazil produced a popular, since re-released CD, Live at Bourbon Street Music Club, and a video. He, as well as keyboardist Ivan Neville and vocalist Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., was in Sao Paulo when Katrina hit. Crawford’s return flight to New Orleans was scheduled for August 29, 2005.

His elusiveness about his personal life has prompted people to ask, “Well, where does Davell live? In New Orleans? In New York?” In his biography, My Gift to You… The Book, which he is in the process of writing, Crawford explains some of the reasons behind his preference for privacy. For one, he escaped kidnappers at age 16 by jumping out of a speeding car. That traumatic event, he says, impacted many of his career and life choices. Being in the public eye his entire life also meant being at the receiving end of both positive and negative vibes.

After the flooding of New Orleans, Crawford spent time in Atlanta and New Jersey before landing in Manhattan in 2008. Just last year, he had the only baby grand piano that survived the storm moved into his New York apartment. Thankfully, it was rescued from ruin or theft by music production company owner Sherman Bernard. As a youngster, the pianist and vocalist had made many connections in New York’s music world: friend and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who gave Crawford his first vibes, and vocalist Roberta Flack, whom he considers his godmother, among others.

“I’m like Jesus,” he answers lightheartedly. “I live all over and I love it that way—I like it like that. I’ve met great friends who I’m still in contact with today. We didn’t miss a beat when I moved to New York. We just picked up where we left off.”

Throughout his career, Crawford has taken breaks from performing and recording to pursue other interests or simply just to rest. It makes sense for a musician who has been in the spotlight for most of his life.

For about five years before Katrina, he devoted energy to a musical and education enrichment program that he founded at St. Mary of the Angels Catholic School. Though New York usually isn’t thought of as a particularly relaxing destination, it has allowed Crawford the opportunity to pick and choose between taking it easy and performing.

“I didn’t move to New York to play music. I moved there to rest and try to be in a place where I’d have easy access to an airport—I can travel to Europe on one flight. When I want to play, I can play. When I want or need the attention, it’s there waiting for me in a grand and wonderful way. But when I need or want privacy, it’s there for me too.”

Surprisingly, and regrettably to his many fans worldwide, Crawford has not released a CD since 1999’s Love Like Yours and Mine, a beautiful album on the Rounder Records label comprised primarily of jazz standards. On his self-penned section of the liner notes for My Gift to You, he questions his reasons for staying away from the studio so long. They remain seemingly unresolved—or at least until in 2012, when the Music Shed Studios became the artist’s home away from home.

It was there that Crawford recorded his triumphant, upcoming and highly personal disc that includes tunes such as the celebratory “Creole Man.” He has already introduced the song to the public at his gigs, to much admiration. “I am the Creole man / I come from foreign lands to spread the news,” he sings.

Again, Crawford’s words ring with truth and the knowledge of his ancestry. Thanks to his grandmother’s interest in preserving the family’s past and the dedication of family historian/archivist Dolores Como, Crawford can trace his roots on the Celestine side to Frenchman Daniel LeBlanc. As the song relays, some of his relatives mixed with Native Americans, others with Creoles or blacks. Some of his relatives passed as Caucasians, others lived as blacks or mulattoes.

“I am a Creole man / I am a Creole black man,” Crawford declares proudly while he sings of his mixed blood. “I was raised a black man. That’s who I am. My father went to St. Augustine High School and my mother went to McDonogh 35,” adds Crawford, who attended John F. Kennedy High School and the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).

The dual nature of Crawford’s background—the city boy and the country boy—is evident in his musical preferences. He grew up on Fats Domino, Huey “Piano” Smith and Ray Charles, but he also says he could play the songbooks of country musicians such as Kenny Rogers, Dottie West and Dolly Parton as easily as he could perform the New Orleans songbook. Crawford reveals his Southwest Louisiana roots in the self-penned “Don’t Ever Be Blue,” a tune reminiscent of Ray Charles’ venture into the country music genre.

Davell Crawford, Elsa Hahne, photo, cheers

Davell Crawford (photo: Elsa Hahne and Golden Richard III)

Crawford, who shares Charles’ deep foundation in gospel and rhythm and blues, led a big band in an amazing tribute to the legend at Tipitina’s—unfortunately its only staging in New Orleans—and again at several concerts in the United States and abroad. He would like to pay similar tributes to Fats Domino and to the music from New Orleans starting with traditional jazz material to the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, the sounds of the city’s R&B heyday, modern jazz and the funkiness of Dr. John. A musician without boundaries, Crawford is more than capable of doing it all.

Which Davell Crawford turns up at a gig—or on an album, for that matter—depends on a lot of things. At just 10 years old, he became the accompanist to the St. Peter Catholic Church choir; at 11 he was choir director at St. Joseph Baptist Church; and his reputation in gospel grew for his work at St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church, as well as the leader for his Davell Crawford Singers. He brought a group of the Singers in for the exhilarating night of gospel music that concluded a monthlong series at Snug Harbor spotlighting a different style of music every Tuesday night.

In December, near the late, great New Orleans pianist James Booker’s birthday, Crawford played two brilliant solo sets in honor of his predecessor. “I loved Booker and respected him, but I didn’t want to do it,” Crawford says, acknowledging the demands of being alone at the piano for the tribute. “But when I got up there, I didn’t want to stop. I had a ball. If I get a good script, and a little more access to his personal life, I will play James Booker,” he adds.

“For my appearances, just like I’ve done for Quint [producer Quint Davis] since I was 14 years old and worked at Jazz Fest, my closest promoter friends have always either given me free rein to provide the best performance for them, or they have asked if I could do a certain thing. They’d say, ‘I’d love to hear you do this. Can you bring your background singers? Can you bring the gospel choir?’ One of my specialties has always been to tailor-make my performances.”

Even just a certain piano and the way it is tuned can affect what the always spontaneous Crawford will decide to play. One morning while alone at the Music Shed, he sat down at the piano to find it particularly perfectly tuned. “I landed on a key and it dictated the song and that song was ‘Southern Nights,”’ explains Crawford, who hadn’t intended to put Allen Toussaint’s hit—or any solo piano—on My Gift to You.

Plans already existed for Basin Street Records to release previously recorded solos as a six-CD set tentatively referred to as Solo Piano from the Vaults. “The piano just led me to that key and it led me to that sound,” Crawford continues. “That’s what most pianos do. When I touch the piano at a sound check, that determines a lot of what I’m going to play that night and how much of my soul that I’ll give away. I’m just privileged to be able to not only play differently but to allow myself to listen to my inner spirit and change a whole set.”

Crawford’s early experience as a choir director has proven useful in arranging music, as he is able to hear all of the instruments’ parts in his head. He grew up in both the Baptist and the Catholic church in New Orleans and Lafayette and recalls that they always had full-fledged bands and choirs of some 40 to 80 members. The pipe organ was the first organ he ever played.

“I understood it before I even played it because I watched,” he explains. “I understood the stops. I understood that you pull out one stop for the oboe, that you could pull out a stop for the trumpet. I understood all of this.

“Every child, any child, is like a sponge,” Crawford says as he looks out the window of a coffee shop at a young girl mastering her bicycle. “Children know so much, they’re very wise. They listen, they want to learn though they may learn differently than you.”

Whether Crawford is directing a band at a gig or in a studio, his abilities as a leader are apparent. He knows what he wants. The regular members of his groups, filled with lifelong friends and collaborators—like the band assembled for the recording of My Gift to You—are familiar with his style and approach.

“Writing and arranging have always been very easy processes for me,” Crawford says. “I sit at the piano or the keyboards and everything comes to me at one time. When I get up from the piano after the song is done, I know when the cowbell will come in, I know when the strings will come in, I know when the drummer will come in, the background singers. The song, the lyrics, the melody and the arrangements come to me. I’m so grateful that I write in that process.”

Davell and his grandfather, Sugar Boy, weren’t the only musicians in the pianist’s family. His mother also played piano. “She taught me how to sing in harmony and some of my first pieces on the piano. My dad played drums, and my uncle is a music teacher in Alaska. It was in my blood,” says Crawford, who notes that drummer Joe Dyson, a member of his band on the new album, is his cousin.

Just when you think you’ve got a handle on what makes Davell Crawford tick, he reveals another one of his interests, another new direction.

“Something I’ve always wanted to do is play with an acoustic string band, but I was too afraid to say,” Crawford admits. “Most people don’t know how much I like that kind of mountain music and country music. It’s all related and relative to the music I grew up to listening to in Lafayette. It’s a cousin, and not a distant cousin.”

Crawford has been offered the opportunity to fulfill his wish by the National Council for the Traditional Arts. The pianist will present a series of concerts this year with a band made up of Louisiana musicians combined with artists from the mountain areas of North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. He’ll arrange the material, to come from the traditions of both musical cultures.

“Two things we do have in common are gospel and blues,” says Crawford, who appreciates the Council’s acknowledgment of his roots in American music. The pianist will also lead a traditional jazz band on Sunday, March 24 as part of the Nickel-a-Dance series presented at Frenchmen Street’s Maison club.

As a classic and modern jazz, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues and funk artist, Crawford’s musical foundation is obvious. Yet in his life, he has hardly been rooted into one locale or one culture. His father’s side of the family originated in the northern Louisiana towns of Kentwood and Wilson, which Crawford describes as a different kind of country when compared to the southwestern part of the state and towns like Lafayette, Youngsville and St. Martinville, from which his mother’s family hailed. Then, of course, Davell was born in New Orleans, spent most of his life here and now also has a residence in New York City.

It’s no wonder that Crawford offers such a wealth of diversity in his music.

“I can display that in my cooking too,” he announces. “I cook Lafayette soul food and I cook Mississippi soul food. All my friends know I can cook my ass off. People kind of go crazy over my ribs and I make tons of different barbecue sauces.”

Crawford has been away from the recording industry for 14 years, though he’s hardly been idle. He has toured in the United States and Europe, played both private and public gigs in New York, still keeps his hand in the gospel world as a consultant and has been more prominent on the New Orleans scene in recent years. And yes, he’ll be back at Jazz Fest after a two-year absence.

Given the time elapsed since Crawford last released an album, he’s making the new disc a special affair—15 songs, several bonus cuts and an elaborate booklet complete with imaginative photos plus lyrics.

“I wanted to give people a lot for their money,” Crawford says of the highly anticipated album. “I feel like I owe them that. The packaging of it meant a lot to me. I didn’t want people to just buy the music. I wanted them to read the liner notes and then listen to the music. This has been one of the greatest pleasures in working with Mark Samuels at Basin Street because he didn’t say no to my ideas. He understands why this particular album needed to be released this way.”

“I like Bacchus, I love Endymion,” Crawford exclaims, recalling past Mardi Gras and looking forward to Carnival 2013. “When I’m here, I’m up and out like everybody else. That day is the day I visit friends—I know their stops as they’ve been on their corners for 20 years. I drive Uptown around my grandfather’s post at his church and I see all of the people I know there. I used to go to Dryades Street and see the Wild Magnolias. I would end up Downtown by Antoinette’s [the Mother-In-Law Lounge] or somewhere around there. I did Mardi Gras in my own little special ways.

“I’ll be out walking around and begging for beads,” Crawford shares of his plans for the holiday. “I would love to ride in a parade and see all the people and be the Prince of New Orleans for a day.”

Full disclosure: Geraldine Wyckoff wrote liner notes for Crawford’s yet-to-be released CD, My Gift to You.