Music fans are enthralled with outsize personalities, the visuals, the stagecraft and the sheer volume, but musicians are concerned with their instruments. Like BB King or Willie Nelson, they might forge an identity around the sound and vibe of a specific instrument. New Orleans music and the piano are bound tightly together, along with the voice, the strings, the reeds, the brass and the drums.
Gottschalk, Jelly Roll, Tuts, Fats, Fess, Mac and Toussaint: New Orleans loves its piano players. There’s a viable movement to replace a recently vacated statue of a Virginia-based historical figure with a monument honoring any of several legendary Louisiana ivory ticklers.
According to no less an authority than the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Joe Krown is a “Master of Piano.” Although he’s also known for his Hammond B-3 artistry with Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Kenny Wayne Shepherd and his trio with Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Russell Batiste, Krown’s first love is the piano. He’s the current producer of WWOZ’s annual Piano Night, a Jazz Fest-season tradition for almost 30 years. When he’s not touring, Krown can be heard in New Orleans performing solo piano at Ralph’s On The Park, The Jazz Playhouse and at Le Bon Temps Roule, where he sat with OffBeat.com for a chat about the crucial tools he uses to create the rolling, majestic magic of tropical-tinged New Orleans piano.
Krown’s home piano is “a Yamaha U-1 or U-2, 48 inch studio” model, but locally, he likes the grand piano at Snug Harbor. “Sound, action, it’s great. I think Ellis Marsalis had something to do with that.”
The Wurlitzer upright at Le Bon Temps, around the corner from his house, is “funky” but “stable…this thing, it holds together, it’s doing its job.” In its years at the club, since replacing its well-worn predecessor, Krown estimates he has knocked out “a couple hundred” gigs on it.
When traveling, a pianist must accept the house piano, humble or grand. Krown says, “It’s always about the action of the piano…yeah, it bothers me if I hear it’s a little bit of out of tune…but as long as when I play the keys, the note triggers properly…I don’t like a real heavy action, just ‘cause I play a lot.”
Unsurprisingly, Krown thinks that the nine-foot Steinway grand piano is the ultimate: “You go to a nine-foot piano, and nothing replaces the length of those strings.”
“The Steinways are like the benchmark,” says Krown, “everything else is OK compared to the Steinways…just the nine footers, though. They’re set up and they play great, and they have the fullest of full sounds.”
And who ought to sit on top of the pedestal at the former Tivoli Circle? No hesitation from Joe Krown as he says “Toussaint” before adding “Allen was a Steinway endorser, it was in his contract, it had to be a Steinway piano.”
Chip Wilson is a New Orleans-based guitarist/singer/songwriter and retired guitarmaker. A writer for Vintage Guitar magazine, Chip Wilson is an ArtistShare recording artist. His upcoming 2018 all-originals solo release was recorded at the Ellis Marsalis Center, and will feature Nels Cline, Julian Lage, Sean Harkness, William Thompson, Marcello Benetti, Mark Rubin, Tom Chute, with production by ArtistShare founder Brian Camelio.