A fitting tribute to Allen Toussaint, beloved musician, composer, producer, and gentle friend, was held at the renovated Orpheum Theater this morning before he was laid to rest.
Visitation for Toussaint opened at 8 a.m., as thousands poured through the doors of the Orpheum to view Toussaint’s casket. Doors were closed at 11 a.m. for a two-hour-long tribute produced by Jazz Fest’s Quint Davis and his team at Festival Productions New Orleans. Davis also served as master of ceremonies. Well over a thousand musicians, music business associates, friends and family crammed into the Orpheum to pay final tribute to Toussaint, arguably the city’s most prominent musical ambassador.
The tribute included performances from Cyril Neville (“Let’s Live,” a song penned by Toussaint); remarks by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (who called Toussaint “our godfather of music”), and remembrances and performances by Deacon John. Speaking at the ceremony, WWL-TV’s Eric Paulsen explained:
“Allen had gift from God, and he gave that gift—the gift of music—to all of us. If you knew Allen, he was a gentle man, who was a true gentleman, humble and soft spoken, and part of his genius, was how he could transform the deep thoughts he had about life, love and the place where he grew up into simple lyrics that we could all feel and understand.
When Allen was honored by President Obama with the National Medal of Arts, he told us from the White House that wherever he goes, New Orleans goes with him. Allen said it best in his song… ‘It’s a New Orleans Thing’:
It’s the charm of the city…it’s the Crescent City in me
It’s a New Orleans thing…it doesn’t leave you just ‘cause you leave town
We’ve got our own special swing…it’s a New Orleans thing.’
Allen has left us much too early, and while we mourn his loss, we will bask under the light of his southern skies, where Allen will join the rest of the greats… in that heavenly chorus.”
Davell Crawford then performed a heartfelt, expertly melodic version of “Southern Nights”
Aaron Neville was not able to attend, but he sent pre-recorded condolences via his appropriate song “I Bid You Goodnight.” Irma Thomas (who “stands at the every center of Allen’s greatest work,” according to Davis) sang an emotional rendition of the gospel standard “Walk Around Heaven All Day.” New Yorker Josh Feigenbaum, a personal friend of more than 20 years (“my best friend”), co-founded NYNO Records in 1996 with Toussaint. He recalled his first meeting and dinner with Toussaint, and their blossoming friendship and musical and personal relationship over the years. Feigenbaum said that he would end his remembrance by repeating what Toussaint always said to him in emails and voicemails: “Looking forward…”
Jazz Fest staple and “troubadour” Jimmy Buffett performed “Fortune Teller,” a song that Buffett said showcased Toussaint’s quick, sly wit and his storytelling abilities.
Elvis Costello, who released The River In Reverse with Toussaint in 2006 and performed with him worldwide, recalled him as an “elegant prince, modest, gracious, and ever-curious.” Costello told stories of his kindness, as well as Toussaint’s predilection for always dressing to the nines. Hundreds of photos of Toussaint were shown on a film loop, but when photos of Toussaint’s feet donned with his famous socks and sandals popped up, the audience could not help but laugh.
John Boutte sang “All These Things,” and Boz Scaggs—who supposedly forgot his notes for the tribute—described Toussaint’s incredibly moving rendition of “Southern Nights,” which harkened back to a childhood memories of spending time with his family on their porch in the country. “I think he was referring, in the song, to his grandmother,” said Scaggs, “who knew more than anyone but said less, secure in her wisdom.” Just like Toussaint.
“In that song you could feel that Allen had never felt more secure than when he was on that porch, and that after evertyhing that was the most important thing in his life.” He said Toussaint had an inner peace, and that we were so lucky to have experienced a talent whose eloquent words and chords expressed what we ourselves might never be able to say. “There was something about Allen that was really sweet,” he said. “He was a sweet man.” Scaggs joined with Jon Cleary and the absolute Monster Gentlemen to perform “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” a song that Scaggs said went “deep into the heart of what women are really like.”
The minister at Toussaint’s church, Pastor Michael Green, lauded Toussaint as a true New Orleanian who got his inspiration from his native city. A recorded version of Toussaint singing “Take Me The Rest of The Way” was then played. Brian “Breeze” Cayolle, who was in Toussaint’s band for decades, performed a heart-rending rendition of “Ave Maria.” Dr. John, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and John Boutte closed out the tribute, with Trombon Shorty leading the audience through the traditional New Orleans funeral song, “I’ll Fly Away.”
Finally, a funeral procession took Toussaint’s casket from the Orpheum to the burial, which was a private affair for friends and family.
All photos by Noé Cugny. Click here to view the full gallery on Flickr.