“I had a hell of an upbringing in New Orleans—rich, rich, rich,” declares Shannon Powell. The drummer, who shows off his prowess as vocalist on his recording debut as leader, Powell’s Place, is most assuredly a product of his environment. On the disc as on bandstands around the world, the always-smiling Powell, 43, digs into his huge bag of resources and influences acquired through a lifetime of living in the Tremé. Residing at his grandmother’s St. Philip Street home since the age of six, the lively and curious child was in the heart of this city’s musical activity. He heard the ring of tambourines from the nearby church and Mardi Gras Indian processions, the drumbeat of passing second line parades and the rhythms emanating from Preservation Hall. On Sundays, after serving as an altar boy at St. Louis Cathedral, the youngster would check out the activity in Jackson Square. At the time, he remembers lots of guitar-playing hippies and lots of dogs. Buster Holmes’ restaurant was also a stop and with much relish, Powell talks of eating the “best red beans” and all the bread and butter he could consume while listening to Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday on the jukebox. The late-great drummer James Black was also a Tremé resident and sparked the young drummer’s interest in modern jazz.
“That’s when my life really started,” Powell realizes of moving into the Tremé. He then admits, “I was in a lot of places I had no business being when I was a little boy. I was a young swinger.”
Coming from this background, Powell intrinsically draws no distinct lines between musical styles as is clearly demonstrated on Powell’s Place. He’s at once a traditional jazz and modern jazz musician, who early on worked with banjoist/guitarist Danny Barker as well as pianist Ellis Marsalis. Powell undoubtedly received his widest recognition during his six years in Harry Connick Jr.’s band that resulted in two platinum records hanging on his wall. The rhythm and blues scene also utilized Powell’s huge abilities and he boasts recordings with vocalists Johnny Adams and Tommy Ridgley. He holds down two nights a week at Preservation Hall and on Sundays he swings out, leading his own group at Donna’s. At the Satchmo SummerFest he’ll be hitting with pianist Henry Butler’s traditional jazz ensemble the Steamin’ Syncopators.
When Shannon Powell is behind the drums, his fellow musicians and audiences are assured of the most solid, swingin’ and stylistically simpatico rhythms to be found anywhere on the planet. Stepping out for the first time as a vocalist on Powell’s Place adds yet another resource to his big bag of musical talents.
So you’re singing on this album. Why now after all these years?
I had to get the courage to come out singing. I’ve always been a musician who’s played behind people. I’ve always been a sideman. You’ve got to develop being in the front. It’s not easy. You have to have personality; you have to have charisma; you have to have stage presence. You can’t be shy.
But you’ve always sort of been in the front even though you were in the back. I don’t think anybody would consider you, well, shy.
That’s because I open my big mouth all the time and holler out. I learned to sing in church in the youth choir at the St. James Methodist Church. I grew up Catholic, of course, but I switched over when I was 15 or 16 years old. I never kinda left the Catholic Church but I used to go to the Baptist church a lot because I dug what was happening when I went there the first time. I didn’t know you could have that kind of music in church. Of course, I grew up next door to a sanctified church—St. Philips Church of God in Christ. I knew what that was like. That’s how I learned to play tambourine at the sanctified church. Every Tuesday they would have a prayer meeting and mostly all the women were musicians and they were good. They played the hell out of the tambourine. But when I got to the Baptist church as I got older and I started seeing the drums and guitars and the electric bass and the big Hammond organ, the piano, the electric piano and it was like “Wow, there’s a band here.” When I was in Clark Senior High School I got back in the choir by popular demand because they knew I could sing. I was in the chorus class but I wasn’t participating in the choir. But when they discovered I could sing everybody was like, “We need you; we need you.” I never was a soloist. This was always backup. I never had the opportunity to sing solo but when someone was on a gig I’d always be backing them up singing and they always told me, “You ought to start singing”—people like Juanita Brooks, Wanda Rouzan, George French, David Lastie. Snooks Eaglin, I played with him the other night and he said, “Man, I like your record. I didn’t think you had it in you son.”
So when did you first sing out front? Did you turn to anyone for help?
At the Preservation Hall. I play every Tuesday and Friday and so what I did, I said to myself, “I’m just going to sing some songs at the Hall and break myself in—start getting myself some confidence and running my keys.” So if you come over there now, you’ll hear me sing a lot, especially if there aren’t any trumpet players there. And lately, I’ve been singing at Donna’s on Sunday. I don’t need no help because I’m influenced by so many people. I have so many idols—Johnny Adams, Topsy Chapman, Juanita Brooks, Ray Charles, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra. These are the people I listen to to learn and motivate me on how to really do the thing right.
How about singing drummers?
Yes, one in particular who I admire a lot and who encouraged me to sing too, a good friend, Grady Tate out of New York. What a great singer he is. I’ve noticed that a lot of drummers have been singing around here lately. Bob French has been singing at Donna’s and Herlin [Riley] did a couple of tunes at Palm Court. He used to sing with Leroy Jones when he had the first New Orleans Finest band and Herlin was the drummer back in the 1980s. His number one tune is “St. Louis Blues.” Herman Ernest sings and Zigaboo sings. Yep, singing drummers, yes indeed.
I assume that Harry Connick influenced you as a vocalist.
Of course, especially on the tune “Taking a Chance on Love.” I kind of thought about Harry when I did that, especially the ending because he and I used to listen to Frank Sinatra a lot. When I first started out with him he wanted me to check out how Frank Sinatra’s drummer played [Harold Jones] and the way Frank sang on the album he did with the Count Basie Orchestra. Arrangements play a big part in the way that song is presented. I kind of got a great idea of what I wanted to do—it came right to me—from being around Harry and watching how he does his arrangements and listening to Frank Sinatra which came from being around Harry.
I never exactly understood the reason you left Harry’s band.
It was all business. It was nothing personal because me and Harry love each other. I love Harry and Harry loves me and he brought me out to the world and gave me an opportunity. He introduced me to the world and if it wasn’t for him a lot of the world wouldn’t know me today. I can truly say my name rings a bell all over the world in the business and that’s because of Harry. He gave me the opportunity to sing too. He and I did duos together. He and I used to do a lot of New Orleans things together like “Basin Street Blues.” He was a guy who likes to entertain his audience and he used what he had on the bandstand. That’s what I learned also from being around Harry is that if you have two-and-a-half hours on the bandstand you can’t do it alone.
So Harry and I didn’t have no beef. It was a management thing. Basically the way I look at it, I saw it coming so I thought it looked like it was time to get off the bus. I got some really great endorsements – I’m still with Zildjian [the cymbal manufacturer].
Let’s talk some more about the album. There’s quite a variety of styles here – there’s swing, a spiritual, jazz ballads, R&B, traditional jazz, pop, modern jazz. What ties them together?
What I try to capture is a mood for everybody’s likings—a child, adults, elderly people, Christian people, people that like blues, jazz. I think more CDs should be like that. There are so many CDs out here that people are just making to present themselves—like, “Hey, check me out. I can do this.” I mean you find musicians buying CDs to check out cats, but most people are buying it to soothe their souls and do something for their weekend morale—you know, get themselves prepared.
Do you think that part of New Orleans’ persona is that music is also viewed as entertainment?
Yeah, and I’m glad. I try to select things that I feel. If it makes me feel good I know it’s going to make someone else feel good to. Like the way we did “Taking a Chance on Love,” the way we presented that. It’s been done millions of times but it’s not like you’ve heard it. It’s quite different.
You did a very unique version of “Lord, Lord, Lord.” The spiritual was offered almost in a folk style or like a field chant—very simple and empty.
Okay, that was for two different audiences—for the church people and for the local Tremé people. They can recognize that feeling and the way that I did that more than anyone else in the world because it’s rooted in that neighborhood.
It’s the humming. I thought about a motion picture coming on TV like The Color Purple or Roots or something like that. Old people used to hum when I was in church years ago. I used to hear them old ladies hum like that at all the wake services when I was a little boy and would sit on my mama’s lap. That’s where I get that from. I did everything on there—the lead vocals, background vocals, drums, the tambourine, cowbell. I also experimented for the first time with the drum machine. Ben Jaffe did the bass line on electric keyboard. I was also influenced by Cyril Neville on that. I thought a lot about him when I did that. [Shannon starts singing, “Hey, my Lord, Oh Lord…”] That’s Cyril Neville there.
You wanted to tell me about the percussion instrument you played on “I Wanna Know What Love Is.”
It’s a groove box. You sit on it. It’s got a string inside of it that makes one sound like a snare drum and the other sound like a bass drum. Michael Skinkus plays it all the time. I grew up listening to all kinds of music myself and that particular song was one that I really liked. Ben Jaffe, who produced the album, grew up listening to it too. A couple of weeks later [after laying down the track], I got a call from Ben and he said, “Listen to this” and he had Gena [Brown] singing it in Spanish. She’s singing it through a megaphone to give it an old-time sound.
“Hindustan” was one I wanted to do because I wanted to make sure I did a song that sort of represents what I do at Preservation Hall and what I grew up playing all my life. It was so funny because that day the piano player had left and the bass player had left so I didn’t have nobody else to do that with me except Ben Jaffe so he’s playing bass and piano. He sounds like Sweet Emma on piano because he grew up in the Hall so he knows all this shit. We brought in [trombonist] Corey Henry and [trumpeter] Kid Merv [Campbell].
You mentioned learning tambourine at church. I always thought you came to it through the Mardi Gras Indians.
That came afterwards. The church was first. The Indians that I saw on the streets that was a whole other different kind of rhythm but the same sort of technique—the way you hold it and all—but different tempos. [By clapping his hands, Shannon demonstrates the styles, first singing “Two-way Pockaway” and then going into “This Little Light of Mine.”] The same style—it’s all connected. The first time I grabbed the thing I was about 6 or 7 and I was scared to death of it because it was big and heavy. And I wondered how those women could play the thing. Just being there and seeing and watching I learned. Most of my career playing music is from watching and learning. I never really had formal training like theory and all that. Everything I learned was being around the great musicians of New Orleans. You know my mentors were David Lastie and Mr. Danny Barker. Danny Barker was first and then I fell into the hands of David Lastie who is Herlin Riley’s uncle. They kind of raised me as a young musician and I started calling them my family. Herlin is like a brother to me and his mother is like a mother to me and all of his family is like my real family. Herlin really opened my life up because as a kid I played a lot of hard core traditional music being around Preservation Hall. I learned from being in the streets at a young age—hanging in the Quarter. I used to go to the concerts at the Municipal Auditorium and sometimes I would get in from meeting people that were part of the show and sometimes I would sneak in. I was so small, I could sneak in easy. That’s how I ran into Kidd Jordan and Clyde Kerr and all the people that were playing in the orchestra.
You play tambourine on “Lord, Lord, Lord” and also on the CD, Shake That Thing, with the Preservation Hall Band.
I play tambourine on a lot of recordings, especially with Irvin Mayfield. I’m getting gigs at playing tambourine like drums. I don’t mind. They call me “The Tambourine Man.” I wasn’t playing tambourine on gigs but when I saw Herlin play gigs on a tambourine one day that told me this can be done.
That’s my student on tambourine on “You Are My Sunshine.” Wait till I tell you who my student is—Joe Glasper Jr., Little Joe. See Joe used to play drums in high school and Joe knows the same kind of thing I know about—he’s got that natural feeling. He’s my student ’cause he hangs under me. I’ve taken him on other sessions and he’s gotten paid. I gave Bill Summers some tambourine lessons on traditional gospel.
So when did you start playing drums?
I really started playing drums in the church. I was influenced by this preacher at the St. Philip Street Church, Reverend Shelton. My first paid gig was with Danny Barker and the Jazzhounds at the Jazz Fest [at age 14]. Of course, I had played with his Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band.
Let’s talk about the musicians on the album. Jason Marsalis is a very important element on the CD. How long have you been playing with him?
We just recently started playing together since he been playing vibes. I think Jason started his vibes career about six or seven years ago and since then he’s really gotten great on vibes as far as I’m concerned. He had a little gig every Monday night at the Funky Butt where he was playing with some young cats from UNO. I happened to stroll through there a couple of times checking Jason out and I saying to myself, “Whoa, one day he’s going to be a great vibist.” Indeed, he became that. I heard him playing on a CD with Mr. Henri Smith. They did a tune entitled “Old Black Magic” and it sounded so good. I told Henri when I do my CD I’ve got to get Jason to put some vibes on it. Me and Jason had gotten together on a couple of occasions at Donna’s at my gig on Sundays. And we spoke about him playing on my CD.
Because Jason is a drummer too, how does that work with your drumming and
his vibe playing?
It works so good because of the fact that I’m from a different sort of school than he is. And the way I play, he much prefers that type of drumming behind him. He and I both had an opportunity to play on a gig with Lionel Hampton at Jazz Fest a couple of years ago. He played a couple of tunes with Hamp but Hamp begged for me. What happened that day Jason was playing a more modern feeling and I was playing more roots, old-fashioned. So I think that’s the day that Jason found out some things about me. Now, when we play together he feels what happened that day. We’ve even talked about it. We shared that on the airplane coming home from Switzerland the other day because he just came back from Ascona [Jazz Festival] with me. I took my band to Ascona—the Shannon Powell Quartet—Jason, myself, Roland Guerin and Steve Masakowsi.
So did you play mostly traditional jazz?
Well, we played most of the stuff off of the CD which was good and the people liked it. But I learned that people over there really like traditional music. When I got there and saw what was happening I told the guys in the band, “Look man, I need you guys to go your rooms and study every traditional tune you know.” So the next night they all came with lists of the songs they knew—and well, you know I know them all. So I was calling tunes that everybody knew and was singing tunes like “Lily of the Valley” and “Muskrat Ramble.”
Back to Jason for a minute… I think people who haven’t been to your gig at Donna’s would be surprised to find Jason and you playing together. As you said, you come from two different musical schools.
Jason is such a great talent and he’s just so good to be around because he’s serious about his music and he’s a serious person, period. I like having conversations with him because we talk a little bit about everything. My favorite is when he talks about cartoons. The reason I know about them is because of my kids. That’s [conversation] why my CD came out so good and so fast because the four of us—Todd Duke, Jason, Roland and Larry Sieberth—we just sat down and talked about what we were going to do and did it. That’s what’s great about dealing with professional musicians. That day in the studio was like magic. We didn’t have no music scored, we didn’t have any written arrangements.
Todd Duke really sounds wonderful especially on “The Nearness of You.” I’m not sure that people appreciate him enough. Also, what are you connections with the other musicians on the disc?
Todd Duke is another guy who I recently started playing with. I had played with him with John Boutté. Todd is a wonderful player and wonderful person. He has just gotten so good. He’s been around playing with a lot of New Orleans vocalists—he plays with a lot of people. Now Larry’s my regular piano player every Sunday at Donna’s—this my fourth year at Donna’s coming up.
People think of Larry, Jason and Roland as quite modern and you as a little more old school. How did this become the band that plays this music?
I was trying to capture the sound of the Modern Jazz Quartet. I’ve listened to a lot of their CDs and I like the combination of the piano and vibes, drums and bass. It’s such a great sound. The day that we made the magic, it just blew me away because I accomplished the sound that I was hearing. I told everybody how much I appreciated them—it was like a dream come true.
So what do you see in the future?
I want to branch out a little bit more. I want to start traveling again playing music with my own band. I don’t want to leave New Orleans though. I just want to go back on the road as a leader and a singer and a drummer. I’ve been on the road just going out every now and then like I did the gig with Diana Krall for a year and I do tours with the Hall every now and then. I always have some little things happening here and there but nothing really like when I was Harry—but I don’t want nothing like that. I don’t want to go on the road that serious. I just want to go out with my own band to get something established so I have the option.