Dear Pete, when you announced your retirement a few months ago, the bitter-sweetness of such a difficult decision weighed on so many who know and love you. When I spoke to you that day I didn’t have the words, but now I do and I want to say thank you.
We all have our favorite Pete Fountain moments. Some only met you once. That was theirs. Others recall Lenfant’s in the ’50s with the Basin Street 6, or the ’60s and ’70s at your clubs on Bourbon Street. Of course, millions watched religiously during your two years with Lawrence Welk. Then there was your club at the Hilton Riverside Hotel, where a fresh-faced clarinet player met you on his 17th birthday. How about Mardi Gras Day—your Day? The Tonight Show. French Quarter Fest, with Connie Jones’ All-Stars. Jazz Fest, since day one at Congo Square in 1968. Personally, I have too many; but if I had to choose, my favorite Pete moments were off the bandstand, with my good friend. Many see you as the always-swinging New Orleans clarinet player on stage, with Pouilly-Fuissé in his blood. Just a lucky few know you as that humble, funny, generous and loving man. I am blessed to be one of them. Thank you.
I am reminded of a movie quote that asks two important questions when looking back at one’s life: Have you experienced joy in your life? Has your life brought joy to others? Naturally, anyone who has heard you perform or knows you, or even met you once, can easily answer the latter. For the former, it is obvious that your wife Beverly, your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and your many friends have given you endless joy.
Katrina did a real number on us. When I spoke to you shortly after the storm, I heard the expected sadness in your voice. What I did not hear was any anger, bitterness or resentment, and I never forgot that. You not only lost a home you loved but you lost so many memories of a remarkable musical life. Fazola’s Albert System clarinet, personalized photos from Sinatra, Armstrong, and Johnny Carson were “in the Bay,” as you would often say. My anguish was watching elders having to go through this, and having to start over. Many would have just given up, and did. Not Pete Fountain. You kept performing. You needed to perform and we needed to hear you. Hearing Pete Fountain play made us feel normal again. The clarinet did not define you the man, but it did help define New Orleans. In a moment in time when so much was taken from you, Katrina could not wash away your resolve. Thank you.
The late, great clarinetist Kenny Davern once told me, “Pete is one of those clarinetists I could pick out of the crowd. That big, round sound. And I always knew where [beat] one was.” Kenny nailed it. You could play in a room all by yourself and make anyone dance. All jazz musicians are the result of our early influences; one of the things that makes a musician great is a nurturing of the “gift” of a good ear or an acute sense of timing, not necessarily a “gift of music.” At age nine you began your own musical journey, taking the best from Fazola, Eddie Miller, Goodman, Bechet, and others, and created your own sound and style, easily picked out of a crowd. That is why Goodman loved your playing. The first time I heard you on the radio in 1973, I didn’t even know your name or that you were famous. I just knew what I heard drew me in to listen. Every note had a smile on it. It taught others and me not to copy but to create our own sound, something no one could take away from us. You didn’t follow trends. You were the trend. Your music had no agenda. It was all about joy. Pops recorded pop songs of the day and so did you. You created something so unique and wonderful: the Pete Fountain sound. Defining versions of “Just a Closer Walk,” “Basin Street,” “While We Danced at the Mardi Gras,” “South Rampart Street Parade,” and many others, were and will be enjoyed by countless fans for a long time. During the ’80s and ’90s, you were likely New Orleans’ best ambassador. Your 59 total Tonight Show appearances were a reminder to the rest of the country how unique your town was. You made us proud to be from New Orleans. Thank you.
Since I was a teenager your club and office were always open for me to visit. You always had time to talk to me, every time asking if I needed reeds. Regardless, I always said yes and went home with a box in each pocket, looking forward to showing them off in band class. Recalling even if someone famous was backstage with you, you always pulled me over and told them, “Hey, meet a good clarinet player. This is Tim.” You never introduced me as your protégé. You never had one. You treated me as a peer, even if I wasn’t. Thank you.
Last time we talked, I told you about a trip Juliet and I took to Italy, which included the Vatican with some VIPs. We had the opportunity to have a private audience with Pope Francis in the Papal Palace. He entered the room and gave us a Papal blessing which blessed anything on us. I was holding Ole Betsy, the horn you played 50 years ago and recorded those wonderful early albums. Last year, Archbishop Aymond blessed it before our set at French Quarter Fest. As happy and blessed as I felt, it occurred to me that the most meaningful blessing came from you, Pete Fountain. You played it and broke it in for me decades ago. Thank you.
Not many folks out there know that in 1952 Louis Armstrong wanted you to join his All-Stars to replace Barney Bigard. You said you couldn’t because you had just gotten married and were still in the National Guard. When I asked why that story was not in your book, you simply said you were asked to join a lot of bands. Not many know you were “42 Across” in a nationally syndicated newspaper crossword puzzle, or were mentioned in a skit on Saturday Night Live in the ‘90s, or were the answer/question “Who is Pete Fountain?” on a Jeopardy clue.
Well done, Boss. As you move into a well-earned new chapter in your life with Beverly, just know how much we will miss hearing all those sweet notes with smiles on them. Your music is timeless, not only as a part of history but also as a musical voice of a grateful city. Remember—clarinet players don’t retire, they just keep looking for the perfect reed.
Love ya, Boss,