Interview by Nick Compagno
New Orleans, the birthplace of Dixieland jazz, has been home to many legendary jazz clarinetists, including Irving Fazola, Alphone Picou, Big-Eye Louis Nelson, Eddie Miller, and Pee Wee Spitelera. This legacy of clarinet playing lives on today through the music and artistry of Pete Fountain.
Pete plays the music he loves for capacity crowds at his famous club in New Orleans, appearing regularly on network television shows, including more than 58 performances on the "Tonight Show". Pete has had four command performances at the White House for United States Presidents. He appeared on ABC's "The Lawrence Welk Show" from 1957 through 1959. And at the New Orleans Papal Mass in September 1987, Pete performed for Pope John Paul II, who was quoted as saying, "I have always heard about the beautiful music of New Orleans. Today I have been able to hear it and admire it personally."
Pete is one of the most recorded clarinetists in music history, having recorded more than 92 albums, three of which have "gone gold" ("Pete Fountain's New Orleans," "The Rules" and "Mr. New Orleans"). His new recording, titled "Paradise," features Pete playing arrangements for clarinet, four trombones and rhythm section.
Pete Fountain has been married to Beverly Lang for 41 years and has three children and five grandchildren. One of his other passions besides playing the clarinet is collecting automobiles. Pete says, "I'm a car junkie, a car nut. We never strapped ourselves over cars, but sometimes we came close. Through the years, I've owned more than 50 cars...My attitude about cars is that they should be driven and enjoyed."
Pete has been influential in preserving and furthering the development of the clarinet in jazz since the early 1950s. Although his playing defies an adequate description, his music represents the essence of swing, blues and New Orleans-style jazz. He is a living legend, and it's time to reflect on Pete Fountain's impact, contributions and significance.
Pete: If I had grown up in any place but New Orleans, I don't think my career would have taken off. I wouldn't have heard the music that was around this town. There was so much going on when I was a kid. Movies were a big thing. I used to listen to all the jazz bands going to the movie houses. I would go to the Top Hat Dance Hall to hear Sharkey Ronano, Louis and Leon Prima, and a lot of great bands playing there. I used to listen from outside the club as a kid. That's fun music!
When I was seven and eight years old, I had weak lungs. By the time I was nine (1939), I started playing the clarinet to strengthen my lungs. That's when I really got into liking jazz more and wanting to play it. I had a good ear and that's what started it.
Pete: One of my teachers was "Professor Johnny Hyman." He played cornet, and he used a stage name when he wasn't teaching because he didn't want people he was teaching to know he played jazz. His stage name was "Johnny Wiggs." He was one of my first teachers who saw a little jazz in me. He was my first teacher at McDonough 28 [Elementary School].
Then at Warren Easton High School, there was Anthony Valentino. There was also Rene Louape, who was the head of the public school music department and had a dance band in town for years. Rene Louape heard me at McDonough 28 and told Anthony Valentino about me. I was playing in Warren Easton High School Band two years before I graduated from elementary school. They gave me a uniform, which I thought was such a great thing. By the time I got into high school, they had already seen me around all the time, so that they didn't even initiate me when I was a freshman.
I had those two teachers, and another one who taught private lessons named Emmanuel Allessandra. He played clarinet and was an oboe player in the New Orleans Symphony. He tried to pound solfege into my head, which he couldn't do, and he tried to pound musical notes into me, too. He was funny; I liked the oboe, so he said to me, "I will teach you the oboe, if you will teach me a couple of hot licks on the clarinet." I played the oboe for a while, but I could only get a couple of notes out it.
Pete: My dad, Pierre Dewey (Red) Fountain, was a drummer and played a little country fiddle. He was the type who could pick up any instrument and play it. He used to make me so mad. The first day I got the clarinet, we put it together. He put the reed on the mouthpiece and started playing something. I said, "Have you ever played the clarinet before?" He said, "No." I couldn't even get a thing out of it. He was one of those people who had the kind of talent that would scare you. He was that type of musician.
From there I was listening to Irving Fazola (Irving Prestopnick) as a kid. Fazola was just unbelievable - the sound he got. He played an Albert system clarinet which had a big, tremendous bore, but he filled it up. He was a great musician.
Fazola loved Leon Roppolo. I never did hear too much of Leon. I've heard one or two of his records in my whole lifetime. He had that good, fat sound. Faz idolized Leon Roppolo, so much of his style was passed down. Faz's mother gave me his mouthpiece, which broke later on in years. Then his mother called me and gave me his clarinet after he died, which is an old Albert system Buffet. I still have it, but every time I play it, it reeks of garlic. I swear! He loved to eat garlic! When he died, they put his clarinet in a case. I guess he didn't swab it out too much, and so the garlic just sort of "marinated" in there. After two or three years his mother gave it to me. I sent it to Leblanc to try to get the garlic smell out, but they couldn't get it out. It's in the wood. I can take it on stage and play a couple of choruses, but once the wood warms up, the garlic smell comes right out.
I used to listen to a lot of George Lewis. Another clarinet player who also played tenor sax with me later was Eddie Miller. People didn't realize it, but he played a great subtone clarinet. He was in my band for 10 years.
I used to listen to Benny Goodman on the radio. Between Faz and Benny, I tried to come up with my own style. I loved Benny Goodman's drive and technique. What a technician! I also loved Faz's sound. I tried to combine Faz's fat mellow sound together with Goodman's drive and technique. I never did catch up to Benny, I think he was the old master for technique.
I loved Barney Bigard's style. It's real different, really "flighty." He had great technique. He got around on the clarinet and was gone.
Pete: As a kid, I used to play in a jazz band at football games with the Assunto brothers. It started like this. I went to a football game and heard their jazz band playing on the other side, so I walked over there. The Assunto brothers (Frank and Fred) played trumpet and trombone, and they also had a drummer in the group. I said, "You all need a clarinet player?" They said, "Yes." The next game I went over and played with them. It was for a school that didn't have a band, uptown in the Irish Channel of New Orleans. The band later became known as the "Junior Dixieland Band." We then won the "Horace Heidt Talent Show." From there the Assuntos formed "The Dukes of Dixieland," whom I later played with. They did some great recordings throughout the years.
I next played with the Phil Zito Band, the Basin Street Six, Pete Fountain and His Three Coins, and I also worked with Sharkey Bonano, Al Hirt and Lawrence Welk.
Pete: Lawrence is the one who started me off. From Lawrence my career just took off. I didn't realize how big his show was until I left it (in 1959). Then I recorded, and my albums sold like crazy. I had the thrill of playing in Carnegie Hall on the Welk show with a jazz quartet. I remember saying during the performance that night, "Whatever I play tonight these walls have heard; I pray that they will again," I was referring to Benny Goodman. We played "China Boy" and a lot of the stuff Benny did on his concert there.
The funniest thing that ever happened to me while I was with the Welk band happened one night at the Waldorf Astoria. Mr Welk said to me, "Peter, I would like you to run the bubble machine tonight. You will be backstage anyway, waiting to come on, so just put the fluid in it and then let the machine run during the first number."
We got the usual cue that we were on the air, and the band struck up the theme. I poured in too much fluid. I didn't know any better. The bubbles were supposed to drift gracefully up from behind the band and float out across the ballroom...an impressive trademark of the Welk show. That night they crowded down over the band like Niagara Falls! There were bubbles everywhere. I thought that the effect was great, so I poured in some more. There were so many bubbles that the guys couldn't even read their sheet music. And in the middle of all that stood Lawrence Welk -- completely helpless. It was the most memorable opening of any live television show. (A Closer Walk: The Pete Fountain Story)
Welk taught me how to run a band and how to be strict sometimes, because for years jazz musicians didn't care -- "Manana." That's why I've had the same band for so many years. I've also had my own saloon for 31 years. It's unheard of for a jazz musician to have a nightclub that long.
I left the Welk show because champagne and bourbon don't mix. Don't get me wrong, Welk was a wonderful man and his TV show did plenty for me. But I just couldn't play the kind of music I wanted.
I did three albums with Welk. The next album, "Pete Fountain's New Orleans," I did on my own. That's the one that took off and went gold. The single that made a little notice was "Just a Closer Walk."
Nick: Is "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" one of your favorite tunes?
Pete: One of my favorites? I have to play it every night whether it's my favorite or not! Once in a while, I get away without playing it.
Nick: When did you form "The Half-Fast Marching Band," the group you march with on Mardi Gras day?
Pete: You mean "The Half-Fast Walking Club." We can't march. Our club is 30 years old this year. Most of the same guys that started it with me are still with it. We've all gotten old together. Beside the parades, we have a lot of functions that we do together -- picnics and dances. So it's pretty good.
Nick: You spent a lot of years on Bourbon Street. What was it like playing on "The Street"?
Pete: Bourbon Street is my love. I went through McDonough 28. Warren Easton, and then I went through the Conservatory of Bourbon Street. Yes, Bourbon Street was my conservatory. I spent over 30 years there, and that's been a long time off and on Bourbon Street.... When people ask me about the Quarter, I tell them that it's like a roller coaster. It had its ups and downs. Some years it's really down, and then they clean it up and it goes up again....
Jumbo (Al Hirt) is still playing. He opened up a new club on Bourbon Street. I worked with Jumbo for a good while before I went with Lawrence Welk. We had four guys in the band. Whoever got the job wore the bow tie and led the band.
Nick: You have big, fat sound. How do you produce it?
Pete: I think it comes from the throat. I open the throat when I play.
Nick: You have a distinct vibrato that you use. How do you produce it?
Pete: It just comes naturally. That's something Benny Goodman liked about my style, my vibrato. One night when he came in the club, he asked me, "What are you doing?" I said, "I don't know!" Once in a while I try to catch myself to find out what I'm doing, because at times I try to get more vibrato.
Nick: I noticed during your show that you put different parts of the clarinet up to the microphone when you play, depending on the register, dynamics, vibrato, subtone and the style of music.
Pete: I learned that from Fazola. In trade talk it's called "riding the mike," which means moving closer to and farther away from the mike as you play. By doing this, I can make all the notes come over the sound system evenly. It also helps with a particular sound I'm trying to produce.
Nick: Pete, what method, if any, did you use to learn how to improvise?
Pete: I was improvising before I was reading music. I was just trying to play things on the clarinet by ear. I think my ear is one of my greatest assets. I could always hear it. I got away with a lot of stuff in high school playing first clarinet. I read, but I didn't read that great. But if they would play it once, I had it. I could cut the parts, 'cause my ear would catch it and go right along. It was my secret for playing first chair for a while.
Nick: Do you prefer to play songs in certain keys?
Pete: Yes. I'm so used to playing in the keys we do our stuff in, like F, B, E, and A. But when you start playing it in G and E, awh no. Benny didn't like those keys, but Fazola could play in them. He used to amaze me, 'cause he could play in all those keys. He just had something up there. Artie was good, he liked to play in E, but I'm not too crazy about it.
Nick: Did you listen to any classical clarinetists?
Pete: I used to listen to Reginald Kell, and I still have some of his stuff. He's a fantastic clarinetist. He was one that I thought had a big, fat sound.
Nick: What advice do you have for any aspiring jazz clarinet players?
Pete: Play trombone! No. Sometimes I wonder why you take up the clarinet when you can't find a reed. Why didn't I play the trombone? .... I get one reed that will last for a month, and then it goes out, and then it's difficult to try to get one to sing.
To me, the clarinet has always been "a love-hate instrument." You can love it when it's singing, and when it's playing it's the greatest. But when it's not working...
What I would tell the clarinet players today is to listen to records, but don't just listen to one player. You might get three or four players and pick something you like from each one. Then you don't have a carbon copy of Pete Fountain, a carbon copy of Benny Goodman, a carbon copy of Irving Fazola, and so on.
Pete Fountain's warm personality and down-to-earth manner leave a lasting impression on those who meet him. His stage shows are a thrill for everyone in the audience. His band consists of superb musicians, all with the same inventive ideas. Recordings cannot fully capture the rapport between Pete and his audience, who actually become a part of the performance. When this sort of spontaneous combustion between Pete and his audience become a reality, one experiences authentic New Orleans jazz.
Pete's musical story spans a period of more than 50 years and has contributed more than a little to the evolution of jazz. His clarinet playing continues to soar to the forefront of jazz performance. His career is detailed in his 1972 autobiography, A Closer Walk: The Pete Fountain Story, which is out of print.
A special thanks to Jeff Fountain for his help and support in making this article possible.
About the Writer...
Nicholas A. Compagno plays clarinet in The United States Continental Army Band. He received his doctorate in music education from the University of North Texas, studying clarinet with James Gillespie and Lee Gibson.
(Editor's note: Reprinted with permission of Nick and Pete Fountain Enterprises)