This week on American Routes Shortcuts, we celebrate New Orleans piano man and producer extraordinaire, Allen Toussaint, who passed away in November 2015. Back in September 2005, just weeks after Katrina, Nick Spitzer interviewed Toussaint at his New York hotel. He was dressed impeccably as ever, with suit and sandals, plus colors that matched from socks to tie to hankie. In a few days he’d headline the Big Apple for the Big Easy fundraiser at Madison Square Garden. When we spoke, he made clear his vision that New Orleans would recover from the almost biblical flooding resulting from the broken levees.
Allen Toussaint: I, like many others maybe, I thought I could weather the storm, having weathered all of them since I’ve been in New Orleans, which is all of my life. The day before the hurricane hit, I checked into the Astor Hotel on Canal Street. I thought it would be okay, and after the storm passed the first day it seemed okay; just a little water in the gutter. But when they had the breach in the levee, and the water began to rise, it was inevitable that I wouldn’t be going back home as usual.
AT: So I walked around the corner to the Monteleone where it was dry. And most of the quarter was dry. And I purchased a bus ticket in the lobby of the Monteleone Hotel where there were to be buses coming over to take people to Houston. However, after four hours, no buses came. But I saw a friend of mine, Leonard Lucas, who was walking up and down a street. And he had a chartered school bus that was going to the Baton Rouge area. So I boarded the bus to Baton Rouge, and there I spent the night in the airport and at 5:55 in the morning I boarded a continental flight to New York.
Nick Spitzer: You left quickly; you’d been at a hotel. What kind of belongings were you able to scrape together to get out town with?
AT: Hardly anything because I was planning on going back the next morning and taking the boards down. So I took some CDRWs, cause every day I write at the piano, and I put things in the computer, and in the event that I would run into a computer in a hotel center or something. I have whole home movies that I’ve taken since my parents were alive, and I always take them. And a second shirt to wear because I thought I’d change shirts in the morning and be okay. So everything else was at the mercy of our arch enemy lady Katrina.
NS: Tell me where you live in New Orleans and what happened to your home and studio.
AT: I live on Frey Place, which is near the Fairgrounds where the Jazz Festival is. The bottom floor of my house had seven or eight feet of water. So everything in my room where I do my editing and writing and arranging and all of the musical things that I do, it’s all gone.
NS: In that room I assume is at least one piano.
AT: Oh yes, my Steinway. My Steinway is the most important thing there, and then everything that surrounds it, like synthesizers, recording equipment, and it’s all gone. Sorry to say. But the spirit didn’t drown.
NS: I know you must feel some enormous sense of sadness and loss, I think everyone does in one way or another, even if it’s just the loss of the life that we knew.
AT: I think I care more about the city than my own material losses. My most personal possession is life and health and maybe running a close second, my family and friends. And those things seem to be fine, and I mean because we are alive and well. But as to my personal losses, I have thought about those things for a moment, but I immediately begin thinking how exciting it’s going to be to rebuild life there, bigger and better than ever before. And it will be. And I'm so glad I was in New Orleans to witness this great event.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 7 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.