Isadore ‘Tuts’ Washington provides a wider perspective on the phenomenon of New Orleans piano that is called the Storyville tradition. Storyville was an upscale brothel district that operated in New Orleans until 1917. Every first class whorehouse had one or more pianists, who were called the Professors. Since the clients were white and often made requests, the Professors developed a repertoire much more diverse than the barrelhouse players, including ragtime and the popular music of the day. Although Tuts came along slightly after Storyville, he was an example of the wide range of musicianship characteristic of the tradition. His forte was that he could play most any request in any style. A master of the country blues since his boyhood, he used to amaze the audience with astonishingly beautiful original compositions of his own.
Tuts Washington was born in New Orleans in 1907. He grew up always around a piano, he quit school after the sixth grade, and was soon working in local bands and making the rounds. He learned a lot from the older players, as “Red” Cayou, who was his personal mentor, until 1925.
Throughout the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, Tuts was playing in the clubs and barrooms along South Rampart Street. This is about the time that a young Roy Byrd would follow him around picking up on his style, many years before he would be known as Professor Longhair. One of his friends was blues pianist Champion Jack Dupree, who also played the clubs in the area.
Washington achieved his greatest success in the company of singer/guitarist Smiley Lewis, with whom he joined forces during the late 1940s; prior to the 1952 breakup, they cut for Imperial some of the landmark New Orleans R&B sides of the period. He then went to the band of local legend Papa Celestin.
He was in the ‘50’s a principal teacher of James Booker, as he was a close family friend and always at the Booker home, where he took the young pianist under his wing at an early age. He remained close to home in New Orleans and did not venture out of the city much as he always had work and was in demand.
He was “rediscovered” in 1983 by the people at Rounder Records who had the foresight to record and produce him on the excellent “Tuts Washington New Orleans Piano Professor.” This is a high quality solo session that displays his virtuosity and fine technique over a nice set of traditional standards.