Fats Domino's Death Shines a Light on New Orleans' Old Guard and New Generation of Music Stars
Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville and Deacon John Moore are still performing, while Jon Batiste, Trombone Shorty and Tunde Adjuah are stepping up.
New Orleans lost Fats Domino this week, but some of the city’s old guard are still going strong.
Dr. John turns 77 in November and plans a monthlong musical celebration. Irma Thomas, the 76-year-old “soul queen of New Orleans,” has been touring lately with the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet. Aaron Neville is still performing at 76. So is Deacon John Moore, also 76 and playing everything from wedding receptions to block parties, rarely far from where he grew up in New Orleans’ 8th Ward.
Tuesday’s (Oct. 24) death of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Domino came a year after the passing of jazz clarinet great Pete Fountain and two years after the city said goodbye to producer-writer-performer Allen Toussaint. All were members of a disappearing generation of New Orleans royalty: artists who put the city on the musical map in the mid-to-late 20th century, much as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong had earlier.
“The rhythm and blues people from my era are truly fading away,” Moore said Thursday. “There’s not many of us left.”
The losses are a reason to grieve, but not to despair, Tulane University professor Nick Spitzer says. Spitzer is the host of the public radio music program “American Routes.” He speaks with a kind of reverence about Domino’s devotion to New Orleans, his gentle personality and his original piano style, driven by Caribbean rhythms.
“Fats was one of the people — along with Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet and Wynton Marsalis and Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair — all of whom gave the city a sonic visibility at one time or another at different levels and abilities,” Spitzer says. “It’s sad to see Fats go, but at the same time, I think there’s a lot of good music in the city.”
New Orleans musicians remain on the national scene. There is, for instance, Harry Connick Jr., who learned piano from such New Orleans greats as Ellis Marsalis (the 82-year-old patriarch of his celebrated New Orleans musical family, who still plays gigs at Snug Harbor jazz club) and the late James Booker. Connick made his mark not only as a pianist and singer, but also as a television and movie actor and, now, a talk show host.
Marsalis’ sons are also accomplished musicians — Wynton Marsalis is artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center. Meanwhile, Jon Batiste leads his band, Stay Human, on The Late Show with Steven Colbert. “The worry is, people think the story has ended,” says Matt Sakakeeny, associate professor of music at Tulane and author of “Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans.” ″But I think the New Orleans music scene now is maybe as vital as maybe it ever has been.”
Among those he’s watching is Christian Scott, a trumpeter who changed his name to aTunde Adjuah. “He has a unique sound — he calls it Stretch Music,” Sakakeeny says. “He collaborates with musicians not just from New Orleans but from all over the world.”
“We still have musical families who produce musicians, people of all levels,” says Michael White, a clarinetist and professor of Spanish and African-American music at Xavier University. In addition to the Marsalis family, he notes the Andrews family, whose best known member is Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. “I would definitely not be surprised if somebody else in New Orleans comes up to have a national influence in music,” White said.
“I think there is a vibrancy in New Orleans music today that continues,” Spitzer says. “And, you know, when Fats was a young boy or a teenager, no one knew that he was going to become what he did.”
But will anyone have an influence on a par with that of Domino? Or reach his level of international stardom? It might be difficult to find someone as unique and original as Domino, Spitzer says. And it would be difficult for such an artist to find such explosive fame in a world where downloading music makes for diverse audiences and hit-making means playing to the lowest common denominator: “The days of the crusading star breaking forward with some new sound that really is as organic as Fats’… that may have passed.”