Sunday, May 4, 2008

Pete Fountain to Open French Quarter Festival - News

Pete Fountain to open French Quarter Festival

Reprint courtesy of Keith Spera, Music writer, The Times-Picayune April 11, 2008

Jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain is slated to open the French Quarter Festival on April 11 with only his third hometown performance since Hurricane Katrina. He'll join cornetist Connie Jones & the French Quarter Festival Allstars at the Nola.Com Stage in Jackson Square at 11 a.m. Friday, April 11.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Fountain said. "Connie is the greatest cornet player in the country, and I've played with a lot of them. I enjoy working with him whether I'm in his band or he's in my band."

They share a long history. Jones' cornet -- a more mellow variation of the trumpet -- was featured in Fountain's bands in the 1960s and '70s. Jones is once again playing with Fountain for his twice-weekly gigs at a Mississippi casino.

Fountain appeared at the first French Quarter Festival 25 years ago, but only intermittently since then. He closed his namesake club in the New Orleans Hilton in 2003. His only formal local performances since Hurricane Katrina have been at the 2006 and 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festivals.

Pete Fountain, photographed in Pirate's Alley on April 4, 2008.

But more than ever, Fountain, 77, is a walkin', talkin' and tootin' metaphor for New Orleans. Buffeted and knocked down by forces beyond his control, he's battling back. And his joie de vivre endures.

The storm washed away his 10-acre waterfront estate in Bay St. Louis, Miss., along with several decades' worth of memories and memorabilia. Since the storm, he's undergone quadruple bypass surgery and suffered two minor strokes. The lingering effects sometimes slow down the lifelong entertainer's self-deprecating one-liners -- but not his clarinet.

"I can play, but I can't talk," he said. "I never could talk before, so it's work for me. I'm tellin' ya, this stroke is a pain in the butt. That's what happens when you get old."

A device to manage pain was inserted in his lower back. That was later disabled after the implantation of what his wife Beverly describes as the "Cadillac of pacemakers." "He's becoming the bionic man," Beverly said.

Fountain spends the early part of each week in Bay St. Louis, where he bought and renovated a property several blocks from the bay ("Even with the name Fountain, I don't get out to the water no more," he said). He performs at the Hollywood Casino on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, then returns to his unflooded Lake Vista house on weekends.

"I'm tootin' as much as I can, and enjoying it," he said. "I'm tryin' like hell."

At 9:30 a.m. Friday, he plans to attend the unveiling of pianist Ronnie Kole's statue in the New Orleans Musical Legends Park at 311 Bourbon St. Fountain's own statue premiered in 2003. Might he sneak in a bit of maintenance on his statue during Friday's visit?

"I think I'll Simonize it," he joked. "Just see if the birds got on it."

Fountain's sense of humor remains intact. To mark his 70th birthday, he got a tattoo of an owl pulling a snake from his belly-button. Since then, he's lost significant weight.

"I went from 240 to 160," he said. "The owl is a lot smaller now."

Story and photos courtesy of Chris Granger / The Times-Picayune

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