01 May 2010 - by David Kunian of OffBEAT
Once away from the strip malls and family businesses that alternate on Highway 90, the road to the Hollywood Casino in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi winds through the swampy woods until it rises at the back of a parking lot. For a casino, it is a modest one with a hotel on one side and ceilings against which a basketball player might knock his head above the constant "ching-ching" of the slot machines. Past the entrance, there is a clear spot with several cocktail tables facing a stage with a bar directly in front. The audience sits, drinks and listens. The music, although not out of place in this part of the world, seems a little out of place at the Hollywood. This is not where you would think to hear music 50 years old in the 21st Century. Yet, on the first Tuesday and Wednesday of each month, this stage is the only place fans get to hear the twin tandem clarinets of the world famous Pete Fountain and the soon-to-be world famous Tim Laughlin.
Fountain and Laughlin do many of the New Orleans traditional jazz standards, sometimes trading choruses, sometimes playing melodies in unison. There is something special going on here. It is easy to see when Laughlin the Earnest Acolyte and Fountain the Hip Wizard exchange glances and smiles, and when they don’t. Either way, the music weaves in and out almost as if each of them knows what the other is about to do. It goes beyond telepathy and borders on instinct.
The story of Pete Fountain might be well known to the generations that came up when he played in the Dukes of Dixieland or was the featured soloist on The Lawrence Welk Show in the 1960s. Maybe they bought his records "Walking Through New Orleans" or "South Rampart Street Parade." Maybe they remember hearing him on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, or going by his club in the French Quarter in the 1960s and 1970s, or the Hilton in the 1980s and 1990s. Some paraded with his infamous Half-Fast Walking Club on Mardi Gras.
Over lunch with Fountain at the Hotel Monteleone, Tim Laughlin confesses, "It was my 17th birthday. My family and I were having dinner at the Hilton. I snuck up to his club and started listening. Actually I talked to his son Jeff, and I said, ‘Do you think I can meet Pete?’ He says, ‘Yeah, come by after the show.’ I ran back down to tell my family, ‘I’m going to meet Pete Fountain.’" Laughlin ran back upstairs and by the time his family followed, he was in Fountain’s office.
Laughlin had grown up listening to his father’s Pete Fountain records, and they had a great effect on him. "That sound," he says. "That’s Pete Fountain. His Mardi Gras record was a great album to play along to. I wore that out." As Laughlin tells this story, Fountain sits to his left and smiles.
"For an entire year, I was too young to get into the club, so they would have a chair outside for me," Laughlin continues. "I would make a reservation like, ‘This is Tim. I’m coming in tonight.’ They’d have a chair outside, and I’d sit and hear the music. The funny thing is that Wimpy, the doorman, would say, ‘Hey, kid, you want something to drink?’ He was thinking I was going to have a coke and..." Pete interrupts, laughing. "He didn’t want a coke. He wanted a beer!" They both laugh. "So he would bring me a beer," Laughlin says. "I used to haunt him every couple weeks. I could have been some loon. Pete always treated me great."
By the time Laughlin met Fountain, he had already been playing clarinet since the age of nine. He’s played with many of the New Orleans greats, including Fountain, the Dukes of Dixieland and Jack Maheu. Recently, his records have been marked with a number of original songs, putting him in the company of Matt Perrine, Rick Trolsen, Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott as people who are adding to the repertoire of New Orleans traditional jazz instead of playing the standards. He is the latest in a long line of white clarinet players that reaches back to Leon Rappolo and moves to Irving Fazola and then to Fountain. Laughlin has been influenced by all those players as well as Benny Goodman, Jack Maheu and cornetist Connie Jones. But the main person that Tim patterns his playing off of is Fountain.
But it’s not just the playing; they share several traits. According to Tom McDermott, who has done gigs and sessions with both, "Tim’s a real people person and Pete is a down-to-earth, regular guy. He’s a regular guy who happens to be world famous."
Connie Jones, who has played with both and has known Fountain since 1950, agrees that both are "very self-effacing and very gracious." Both of them also have a great sense of humor. When talking about what makes Laughlin a good player, Fountain jokes, "He has a wife who likes clarinet players. Like mine." When asked whether he is passing down anything to Tim, Fountain says, laughing, "I hope so. I gave him one of my clarinets."
At the Hollywood Casino, it is evident to the audience that this is not simply another casino act. The band looks like a caricature of a bored Vegas act, but everyone performs like the music matters. Fountain and Laughlin play with a tone that can only come from years of searching and practicing. Fountain’s is a little reedy at times, but still beautiful. Laughlin’s is gorgeous, like a warm shower on a sunny day. It is obvious to band members and observers that Fountain is passing the proverbial torch to Laughlin, but what exactly does that mean? That cliché does not by itself illuminate what is being exchanged between these two musicians. When asked later about it, Fountain says of Laughlin, "He can do it. He can play with anybody. He doesn’t need me."
Laughlin says, "I think the most important thing Pete passed down is the fat sound. That’s the New Orleans sound. Fazola had it. Johnny Dodds had it. Jimmie Noone. That’s what I got from Pete was the fat sound to fill up the horn, the big sound." Fountain adds, "I got it from Fazola. It’s gone from one end to the other."
But, according to Fountain, there is another element to the clarinet besides getting that New Orleans sound. Laughlin says, "He would tell me to get my own sound and listen to other guys." The idea of developing a unique, recognizable sound seems to be the most important piece of wisdom that has passed between the two, and that is something that is discounted in the music world these days. Developing that sound is not easy, though. "It takes a while because the sound pretty much comes from your head," Laughlin says. "You have to hear it before, and it’s kind of a unique thing when you find it."
"He knows it," Fountain says. "He has the sound. No problem there. He’s got that locked up. I don’t have to teach him that." Laughlin agrees. Other than encouraging him to develop a signature sound, "Pete never once gave me advice," Laughlin says. "Never had to," Fountain chimes in. "Nobody gave him advice. I just tell him ‘Don’t drink too much.’" Quickly, Tim replies, laughing, "That’s the only thing where I didn’t listen to him."
Tim also says that he learned from Fountain’s professionalism onstage. "The way he treats the musicians and how he treats the audience," Laughlin says. "I’ll never forget: One time I was at the Hilton, and there was a guy who was talking real loud. Pete did the coolest thing. He took two steps back, and all you heard was this guy talking, ‘Yar yar yar...’ and suddenly everybody is like, ‘Sssshhhhh.’ Then Pete came back to the microphone and everyone applauded. I was like, "Okay, I want to do that some day."
Connie Jones says that Fountain has taught Laughlin "sounds and notes and knowing your role. You know your role and how to play your role. There’s a difference between jazz choruses and playing ensemble choruses. You have a certain role to play in an ensemble and a different role to play in your solos. It’s knowing that, and learning how to do that is the most important part of being a good, successful jazz musician. Tim has learned that very well."
Jones also thinks that Fountain’s support has helped Laughlin. "Tim was able to play at an early age," says Jones, "and I think the thing that Pete gave him was the encouragement to keep going. It’s been a continual learning process, and a good learning process for Tim. Now it’s almost the other way around. Tim is right there when Pete needs him. If Pete needs Tim to take over at a certain place, Tim is available and jumps right in. There is no visible loss of quality."
Even though neither one will say it, there is a small amount of the jazz mystique that passes between the two of them. Tom McDermott puts it like this: "I think there is something more than the notes. Just to talk to people with the experience that guys like Pete or Connie Jones have had, to have been on the stage with Louis Armstrong or to have met Duke Ellington and hear about all the people that these guys have consorted with. The stories-it’s great. It’s like the people you’ve read about come alive when you hear them talk. Pete, he’s been a star for 50 years. And he’s still a rock star around New Orleans."
And he’s still a rock star at the Hollywood Casino. The audience applauds as they recognize the first notes of Fountain’s hit version of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." At a certain point in time, this was the hippest thing going, and then it wasn’t, and now that doesn’t matter. It’s simply great music, and Laughlin and Fountain are giving it their all. Fountain still has that cool swankiness to him that is a great contrast to Laughlin’s earnest enthusiasm. Fountain moves haltingly back to his stool when he finishes his solo, but he’s still solid. And there is something still absolutely hip about him. He knows what’s good and what’s cool and is confident about it without any ego.
"Just a Closer Walk with Thee" finishes up and the band begins the last song of the set, "When the Saints Go Marching In," of course. Fountain and Laughlin play the chorus, then Fountain steps back, snapping his fingers and smiling. He has played this song a million times and he’s still enjoying it. He’s here, in the moment, and there is nothing phony about this performance at the Hollywood Casino off a back road on the Gulf Coast in Bay St. Louis. He’s enjoying himself, and why not? He’s still here despite a heart attack, a mild stroke and advancing age. He’s still got the music, that fat sound, and a great musician in Tim Laughlin who will make sure that the sound will continue.
"It’s a cool thing to make a living standing next to a legend and playing with him," Laughlin says. "A guy I first heard and didn’t know who he was, but it was that sound. It wasn’t because he was famous. It was because he could play."
Reprint courtesy of OffBEAT Louisiana Music and Culture article by by David Kunian
Pete Fountain and Tim Laughlin photo by Elsa Hahne.