Southern Legend: Interview with Allen Toussaint

There are very few musical artists who began their career in the 50s and are still going strong today. Allen Toussaint, at the age of 71, is not only going strong, but he may be in one of the most productive periods of his entire career, recently working with Levon Helm, James Hunter, and Elvis Costello.

To those who know the great history of American jazz music, Toussaint is a legend. He began his career providing organ to the classic 1957 Walking With Mr. Lee, from Lee Allen. He subsequently became one of the most in-demand record producers. He produced seminal tracks for such New Orleans staples as Lee Dorsey and the Meters. His compositions such as “Southern Nights” transcended New Orleans and became international pop hits.

It wasn’t long before Toussaint’s reputation garnered the notice of pop and rock musicians. He went on to work with Sandy Denny, The Band, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Joe Cocker, Little Feat and many others.

Toussaint’s latest project, though, is the one that may forever solidify his place in music as a solo artist. The Bright Mississippi (Nonesuch) is a pure jazz album and features interpretations of some of the most honored jazz compositions for piano of all time.

Soft-spoken, thrilled at his new-found place among today’s young, non-jazz music listeners and full of high praise for his current musical collaborators, Toussiant began our conversation by speaking glowingly about producer Joe Henry’s major role on The Bright Mississippi: “I trust him and I really have a lot of respect for him as a producer on his own. I didn’t know what to expect and he began to suggest these particular songs and I found it quite amazing that this is what he heard in me. It’s quite a luxury to have someone who chooses all of the songs and musicians and all I was responsible for was to do the best me that I could on the piano He has so much respect for the music; so much love for the musicians and musicianship and songs themselves.”

To those who know the great history of American jazz music, Toussaint is a legend.

Toussaint talked about how he became a producer. “The producing came about just because when you get with an artist to do something that you’ve written, you’re producing also—so that’s a natural thing to do.” He also spoke about how his earliest entrance into producing came about: “Being a sideman in the studio, I guess you might say that was training to be a producer.”

Toussaint has worked with so many legendary artists and as a part of countless historic sessions. There were a few that stood out that Toussaint discussed. As for The Band, Toussaint said he recalled working on their classic Cahoots album and admitted, “I didn’t know who they were. They knew so much of who they were.” He recalled the live recording of The Rock of Ages album and commented, “The last night Bob Dylan sat in for half of the set.”

There were, of course, all the sessions he recorded at his famed Sea-Saint studio in New Orleans, which was destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. With a hint of sadness he said there were “many spirits in the walls” and began listing some of the memorable sessions with the likes of the Meters and Robert Palmer and, when mentioning Lowell George, he paused and said, “What a dear man he was.”

Toussaint also remembered back to his earliest days playing piano at sessions in New Orleans when he was teenager. The recording of The Bright Mississippi has now brought his career full circle. “I thought if you played the piano, all piano players could play everything that piano players played,” he remarked. “I didn’t know there were specialists. I tried to learn everything. I thought everyone else knew (how to play all styles) but me.”