Tim Laughlin: Bourbon Street in the Yucat


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A Mardi Gras parade in the nucleus of the Mayan culture? Were we hallucinating? Not really, since the people of Mérida, capital of the state of Yucatán had the fortune of seeing two concerts by a traditional New Orleans jazz quartet led by clarinetist Tim Laughlin, which included pianist Tom McDermott, double-bassist Bradford Truby and drummer Ronnie Magri.

Tim Laughlin was born and raised in New Orleans, where he still lives and works, and the music of his quartet was a heartfelt tribute to his recently devastated city. The history of such concerts could make for a novel: Tim Laughlin (pronounced: Lock-lin) and his band started touring around Europe and South America since the end of the summer, and in the midst of their South American presentations they were contacted by the State Department of the United States and informed that they could not go back to their hometown of New Orleans due to the desolation caused by hurricane Katrina. They were also offered to continue their tour in México and the subsequent concerts they gave in said country were also fund-raisers for the hurricane relief efforts.

Laughlin was a warm, eloquent person to talk to. At one point in his second concert, after having discussed the issue with him, he paid public tribute to the early jazz clarinet masters Lorenzo Tio Sr. and Lorenzo Tio Jr., who taught clarinet lessons to Jimmie Noone, Barney Bigard and Omer Simeon, among others. The Tio family can be traced back to the Yucatán region (and certain parts of Spain), and Laughlin expressed onstage that Latino people should be more recognized for their contributions to the origins of jazz. Such embrace of Latino culture was warmly greeted by the audience, who corresponded with generous in-kind and cash donations for the hurricane relief.

Laughlin's latest CD is this year's Live in Germany, featuring Jack Maheu on clarinet, Tom Fischer on clarinet and tenor sax, John Royen on piano, Matt Perrine on bass and sousaphone, as well as Hal Smith and Ronnie Magri on drums. The following interview took place after a master class to Yucatecan jazz musicians as well as backstage before Laughlin's final concert in Mérida.

All About Jazz: We discussed earlier about your band having more of a swing kind of sound [than a traditional New Orleans sound], and that you grew up listening to swing, so could you explain more about how swing music influenced your sound?

Tim Laughlin: Well, the reason why I am more of a swing player is because that's where my ears went when I first listened to Benny Goodman and Pete Fountain; they were swing players, "sweeter players. I guess that's closer to my personality, and that has a lot to do with the way you play...Those were my first influences, Benny and Pete, so what I try to do is to combine elements of the [New Orleans] traditional style with elements of the swing style, and the clarinet is known for being both, both traditional and swing, so it's really easy to lay down something that people can accept. So I think that's the main reason why.

AAJ: And what made you pick up the clarinet?

TL: I think I started playing the clarinet because it's so beautiful, I mean...I just fell in love with the sound of the clarinet before I even started playing it. A friend of mine who lived down the street used to invite me over to hear him play; he was a "reader, he wouldn't play jazz but he would read tunes like "Bill Bailey, won't you please come home. And I was really impressed by the sound of the instrument, the range, the three octaves, and he showed me how to play [the embouchure], and how to play the notes.

So my mother finally got me a clarinet when I was nine and I started taking lessons at the music store, with a guy named Bill Bourgeois, who played with many of the early great jazz players... I didn't know this until I saw his name in a book, you know, like: "hey, that's my teacher! So when I started playing the clarinet I had a smoother start because I already knew how to play, so that helped me. I accelerated a little better and actually felt like I wanted to play the instrument.

AAJ: At what point did you begin to listen to jazz?

TL: About the same time. I heard Pete Fountain on the radio and that kind of spoke to me, right there. I remember exactly where I was when I heard it: it was like a Sunday morning, my dad was reading the paper and I heard the song, I asked him who it was, and he said: "That's Pete Fountain, so they gave me my first album, with that song on it...

AAJ: How old were you?

TL: I was nine. And it was Pete's Mardi Gras album, and it was all Mardi Gras standards. And it was done in a way, it was such a good production, because he had Paul Barbarin on drums, and then all these guys in the studio...it was sort of an arranged album, but it swung, and that's the most important thing. And it's still my favorite album, you know, I can just put it on any time of the year and it feels like it's Mardi Gras.

AAJ: What's the name of that album?

TL: The album is called Pete Fountain and his Mardi Gras Strutters ...I think it was released in the '60s, early '60s I think. What I did was to just play along with that album, play along with Pete, and he made it so simple that you could actually play along with him, you know; I didn't really had his timing, and all that, but I understood what he was saying in the ensemble...

AAJ: The embellishments...

TL: The embellishments, the harmonies, and the solos, you know, and he played so pretty...so it was a little easier for me to pick out than if it would have been a Benny Goodman album, you know.

AAJ: Do you see yourself as part of that [New Orleans clarinet] style, you know, like Johnny Dodds who had this amazing lower register...

TL: Well, that's what New Orleans clarinet players are known for: their jazz sound...Irving Fazola is another one.

AAJ: Fazola, that's right...

TL: But those guys played [the clarinet using the] Albert system. And I've been accused of playing Albert system, you know [laughs], because I get the same type of tones, that fat sound. But yeah, that's why Goodman liked New Orleans players. And I think that's why I was more of a Goodman fan than an Artie Shaw fan, you know, because Benny played the whole register. So there's definitely a distinction between the New Orleans players and the other [clarinet] players, I think it's the sound they get.

AAJ: Let's talk about something else. I got through the Internet a few months ago a recording of a concert by Ornette Coleman playing at the New Orleans jazz festival, and Ellis Marsalis went on and jammed with him. So I sort of got the impression that even if their music styles don't seem compatible at first glance, there's really a continuum, you know, some people might still say that Ornette is "out there, but people can just play together...

TL: Sure.

AAJ: So do you feel the same way, or rather, how do you feel about the avant-garde, the more experimental kind of jazz, do you see it as part of the same tradition [than you]?

TL: [Hesitates] Well... probably not in the same tradition as [to] what we're doing, you know? The only thing new and experimental we're doing is the new melodies. Although I wouldn't consider myself a modern player, I have some borrowed licks that I play on here [holds the clarinet] [from sax players] that I like, you know, like Paul Desmond, Sonny Stitt, I grew up listening to them but later; [this happens] especially when I play the saxophone.

But I was never a big fan of the avant-garde or the way-out experimental stuff, because my roots are in New Orleans. So I don't know if there's a connection between the two per se, but some of the stuff Jelly Roll Morton was playing could have been considered avant-garde by some people, in making the piano sound like an entire orchestra, the way he played...

AAJ: And the way that he used random noises in his music, car honks, city noises, that's what Rahsaan Roland Kirk or the Art Ensemble of Chicago did later, they incorporated noise into their music, that's definitely avant-garde.

TL: Exactly.

AAJ: And how do you feel about bebop clarinet players like Buddy DeFranco and Tony Scott?

TL: I know Buddy!... I really like this guy, I played with Buddy DeFranco when I was seventeen... and I really think there's a place for that, but you know, talking to guys like that, they kind of looked down at the New Orleans guys, like Pete Fountain, because they don't do what they do, you know.

When I talked to Buddy about Pete Fountain, he kind of looked down at him, and I was kind of surprised at that. And speaking of Tony Scott, he made some comments on a magazine that I don't agree with... you know, but on the other hand guys like Cannonball Adderley, he loved Pete, Benny Goodman loved Pete, so I don't think there should be room for any kind of jealousy, it's a wasted emotion. Nobody plays like Buddy DeFranco and nobody plays like Pete Fountain, so it was kind of disappointing to actually hear them say things like that.

But I think they're remarkable musicians, you know. I listen to Buddy a lot, and he changed the way we think about the clarinet...

AAJ: By transposing what Charlie Parker had done in the alto into the clarinet...

TL: Exactly. I think my ears went towards the swing players, but I admire the stuff Buddy can do, you know, and when I heard him live, when I was in a band playing with him, he blew me away. Totally.

AAJ: I can imagine.

TL: What an spectacle!

AAJ: Do think that New Orleans jazz is in a way closer to the people? You know, that people can get connected with it more easily...

TL: I definitely think there's more of a connection because of the dance aspect...and the movement, our New Orleans music has a movement and it has a groove of its own...but New Orleans jazz is not one thing; New Orleans jazz can be King Oliver, New Orleans jazz can be Jelly Roll Morton, New Orleans jazz can be Pete Fountain, and I hope that one day they can say that New Orleans jazz is Tim Laughlin, because of the material I'm writing.

Kids 200 years from now will be playing my songs and hopefully they will look at the tradition the same way I do, as far as it's evolving, not reinventing itself, but everybody is trying to put their own stamp on it, you know... to stand out, or maybe not stand out but to leave one's mark, and that's why I came up with the idea to have the swing songs with the originals, you've got to have your sound. And there are all kind of sounds; every generation has its own sound, what people look for...

AAJ: For example, yesterday people were dancing [during your show], how do you feel about people reacting, you know, like clapping after the solos, or standing up and dancing...Does it feed you?

TL: It feeds me in all kinds of ways [laughs]...dancing is the most sincere form of compliment to our music. And clapping after the solos, it doesn't really matter to me that much, you know; we played at a military base, for the army, and they didn't clap, but they clapped at the end. This music was never really concert music, it was dancing music, so you know, the protocols don't really apply.

AAJ: Of all the people you've played with, who are the people you have enjoyed the most?

TL: Oh God...these guys here, I've enjoyed playing with Connie Jones, my cornet player...some of the older players who are not here now, they've really taught me a lot...[pianist Tom McDermott walks in and announces that it's five minutes before the concert] ...in general the people who really want to play this music, not just the "lab band wonders that go to college and they learn all this different stuff and they start playing traditional jazz, instead of guys who grew up listening to this music and did their homework, which was to listen and play... those are the ones that...

AAJ: This leads us to my next question: what do you think of the academic system of teaching jazz in the United States? Do you think it works?

TL: It does not. Well, it works for what they're looking for but it doesn't round-out the musicians. I think they start with the book in the middle, and kids are coming out and there's a big world out there that they don't know about...

AAJ: Like playing live with older musicians, paying your dues?

TL: Yeah. A little bit of showmanship, a little bit of listening to the other players and not worrying about yourself, having yourself in a situation of playing in a traditional jazz band and knowing what's going on, you know, to be like: "oh yeah, I remember this piece! , instead of being: "oh, now what do I do?

I wish they would teach more [of what was played] before 1947, because they're calling 1947's music "traditional jazz . I think it would really open their eyes. That's why I call these guys "lab band wonders, you know, because they come into my bandstand and they don't have a clue about the groove I'm giving or how to listen. I wish that weren't the case.

AAJ: And finally, what do you think is going to happen to New Orleans in the next few months, or the next year?

TL: I think it's going to be tough next year because I don't know who's going to come back. I hope the best and brightest do...I'm coming back because I think my city needs me, I don't want to go anywhere else, I want to be heard in New Orleans, and I want to be one of the first ones back, you know, I think I have an obligation. We'll see. I have no idea who's going to be there, but I know the music will continue and I just want to be a part of it.

Selected Discography

Tim Laughlin, Live in Germany (Gentilly, 2005)
Tim Laughlin, The Isle of Orleans (Gentilly, 2003)
Tim Laughlin, Straight Ahead (Tim Laughlin Music, 2001)
Tim Laughlin/Hank Mackie, Great Ballads ... Past and Present (Louisiana RedHot Records, 1999)
Tim Laughlin/Tom Morley, Talkin' Swing (Jazzology, 1997)
Tim Laughlin, Blue Orleans (Good Time Jazz, 1996)
Tim Laughlin/Tom Fischer, New Orleans' Swing (Jazzology, 1995)
Tim Laughlin/Jack Mahue, Swing That Music (Jazzology, 1995)
Tim Laughlin, New Orleans Rhythm (Jazzology, 1993)
Tim Laughlin, New Orleans' Own (Jazzology, 1991)


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