Musicians, fans celebrate the life of Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint’s blue Rolls-Royce leaves the Orpheum Theater, passing a second line led by members of Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Treme Brass Band following Toussaint’s memorial Nov. 20. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber)

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Allen Toussaint’s blue Rolls-Royce leaves the Orpheum Theater, passing a second line led by members of Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Treme Brass Band following Toussaint’s memorial Nov. 20. (Photo by Cheryl Gerber)

Brian “Breeze” Cayolle removed his black cowboy hat before performing “Ave Maria” on clarinet. The room — full of hundreds of mourners at a tribute to Allen Toussaint — fell a beautiful kind of quiet after a powerful string of performances and shared memories from music luminaries, paying their respects to the giant of New Orleans music and rock ‘n’ roll. Cayolle, who performed alongside Toussaint for several decades and was among his pallbearers, made the reeds weep, sweetly, then he bowed his head.

More than 1,500 fans filled the Orpheum Theater and crowded the street Nov. 20 to pay tribute to the songwriter, who died Nov. 10 after a performance in Spain. Toussaint’s casket, draped in white flowers and flanked by lilies, daisies and white roses, sat just below the stage — a piano, Toussaint’s musical vessel, was above it. Among the tribute’s many performers were Cyril Neville, John Boutte, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Deacon John Moore, Jimmy Buffett, Boz Scaggs, Davell Crawford, Jon Cleary and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Toussaint, said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, is the “embodiment of a New Orleans icon” and was a “dignified presence with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes.”

“We haven’t had a greater godfather than Allen,” Landrieu said. “He’s not only from New Orleans … he’s of New Orleans. He was about New Orleans.”

“Mr. Toussaint, we will think of you on those southern nights, and the tunes you gave us really were the soundtrack of our lives.”

Neville’s aching, soulful voice lit up “Let’s Live,” among Toussaint’s early hits. Deacon John Moore, in a dark suit and bow tie, choked up as he introduced “Any Day Now,” which he released with all his power.

“If I were a king I’d give you my crown,” he said to Toussaint, “but my gift is my song, and this one’s for you.”

WWL-TV’s Eric Paulsen read a poem from Aaron Neville, who wasn’t able to attend the service. Neville envisions Toussaint seated at a gold piano in heaven. “Play on, Allen, till we all meet you up there.”

A recording of Neville’s “I Bid You Goodnight” played against photographs of Toussaint — always sharp in a colorful suit, though there was a break for laughter and applause for a photograph of Toussaint’s signature socks and sandals. (Jimmy Buffett — in a stout black fedora and black sneakers — later remarked on the sandals photo and its reception: “As one who has no footwear except for today, I thought that was pretty cool.”)

Davell Crawford, seated alone onstage at the piano, pressed heavenly twinkles into a dreamy take on “Southern Nights,” which Boz Scaggs later recalled hearing as the foundation for Toussaint’s gentle soul. At a concert in San Fransisco earlier this year (“a masterclass in mastery and class,” Scaggs said), Toussaint shared stories of growing up while playing that melody on the keys — Toussaint, among family members on his childhood porch, saw his grandmother, “who knew more than anyone on the pitch but said considerably less,” Scaggs remembered Toussaint saying. Scaggs said he he learned from her a “quiet, wonderful reserve.”

Irma Thomas — whom Toussaint embraced as a family member as he ushered her into a recording career as a teenager — received a standing ovation as she took the stage. Thomas said she couldn’t find

Deacon John Moore singing “Any Day Now.” (Photo By Cheryl Gerber)

the right words “when someone has written songs that mean so much to so many people.” She dedicated a slow, simmering gospel blues arrangement of “Walk Around Heaven All Day” to the Toussaint family.

Toussaint’s longtime friend Joshua Feigenbaum (who cofounded NYNO Records with Toussaint) said the pair “shared many adventures” — among them, eating “endless shrimp po-boys” (Toussaint’s always with cheese).

“Never pretentious, always asking questions” and “just the coolest cat on the planet,” Feigenbaum remembered, recalling a time Toussaint “strolled” (he never walked) through the French Quarter when a woman stopped to tell him, “Looking good, baby.” Toussaint, without breaking his stride, cooly replied, “Thank you, baby.”

Buffett brought an acoustic guitar to perform “Fortune Teller,” among the songs covered endlessly by bands broadcast on the Gulf Coast’s Mighty 690. “I knew those songs before I ever learned to play guitar,” Buffett said.

Those songs, Costello said, “echoed around the world in search of a home.”

“If those songs were for always, they were for right then as they are right now,” Costello said.

John Boutte singing “All These Things” with Todd Duke. Boutte later performed “Just A Closer Walk with Thee.” (Photo By Cheryl Gerber)

Costello first met Toussaint in 1983 and worked alongside Toussaint on the Grammy-nominated The River In Reverse following Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods and numerous, globe-trotting gigs. Costello admitted, however,  “I only recall him taking his jacket off once” — in Stockholm, and “only the sandals remained.” In place of his suit, Toussaint wore “the most immaculate powder blue tracksuit you’d ever seen in your life,” Costello said.

Costello’s eloquent farewell signed off the way Toussaint did in his correspondence: with a simple “Looking forward.”

John Boutte led a tender “All These Things,” pulling each note from his inner depths. Scaggs was joined by Jon Cleary on piano and members of his Absolute Monster Gentlemen to harmonize, beautifully, “What Do You Want the Girl To Do.”

A recording of “Take Me the Rest of the Way” accompanied a slideshow of photographs of Toussaint, concluding with a black-and-white photo of Toussaint as a child followed by Toussaint in a glamorous green and glittering jacket, smiling into the camera while seated at a piano at Jazz Fest. It was the first and only time Toussaint’s voice would be heard at the theater, in a hymn that brought the tribute to its spirited finale. Following the song, Rev. Michael Green of LifeGate Church said, “You just heard the sermon.”

Crawford returned to the stage with the Preservation Hall Brass Band to perform a raucous, joyous “Yes We Can Can,” and the Pres Hall

Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Big Sam Williams and members of Preservation Hall and Treme brass bands led the dirge from the Orpheum Theatre into a second line outside. (Photo By Cheryl Gerber)

players remained onstage as Boutte began to close the ceremony with “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Trombone Shorty, Big Sam Williams and Cyril Neville, as well as a chorus of previous performers (including Landrieu), exploded “I’ll Fly Away” as mourners got on their feet, clapped, sang, and wept.

The performance — the kind of overwhelming sound that shakes any kind of spirit — served as a reminder that Toussaint’s music, and his humanity, came from that same place.

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