Reprint courtesy of Keith Spera, Music writer, The Times-Picayune April 11, 2008
The old man in a checked shirt shuffles past the St. Louis Cathedral and ducks into Pirate Alley unnoticed. He opens a black case and carefully assembles a LeBlanc clarinet with gold-plated hardware. He touches the horn to his lips.
With that, he is anonymous no more. He is Pete Fountain, Mr. New Orleans, briefly restored to his natural habitat.
Aftershocks included quadruple bypass surgery and two minor strokes. His heart now beats to the rhythm of a pacemaker. Words sometimes get lost en route from his brain; self-deprecating one-liners don't tumble out so effortlessly. Growing old, he'll tell you, ain't easy.
But at 77, his eyes are still mischievous and his clarinet still sings.
Last weekend, Fountain visited the French Quarter for a photo shoot. Today he returns to open the 25th French Quarter Festival with cornetist Connie Jones' band on the Nola.com Stage in Jackson Square at 11 a.m.
Fountain appeared at the first French Quarter Festival 25 years ago, and returned intermittently. Since Katrina, he's tooted in his truck during his annual Mardi Gras morning ride, but only performed two formal concerts in New Orleans, at the '06 and '07 Jazzfests.
Once upon a time, he and fellow bon vivant Al Hirt's Bourbon Street joints defined New Orleans nightlife. Fountain doesn't make it to the Quarter much any more. He spends the first part of each week at a new house in Bay St. Louis; he works Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Hollywood Casino. On weekends he returns to his longtime Lake Vista home near Lake Pontchartrain.
The clarinet in his hands during the April 4 photo shoot survived Katrina because it happened to be near the door of his doomed Bay St. Louis house when he evacuated. As the photo shoot proceeds through Pirate Alley, Fountain trails surprised and delighted fans in his wake like a Big Easy Pied Piper. Two couples from northern Virginia stop and stare.
"What an honor to meet you after all these years, " says one man.
Mimi Richard, a local, approaches with a cellphone camera. "You're my dad's favorite!" she says. "He's just gonna die."
"Can you play for us?" asks another woman.
"Can you give me a dollar?" says Pete, grinning.
Bald and bearded Tony Seville, owner of the Pirate's Alley Cafe, tells Fountain, "You gave me my look." While trying to buy the cafe, Seville caught Fountain's act in Mississippi. He returned to New Orleans and the sale went through. "You brought me luck, " Seville says.
Terry Cowman of Los Angeles fawns over Fountain. "It's a pleasure, an absolute pleasure!" he gushes. "Oh my God, I can't believe it! Here we are in this little place . . . I think my heart is gonna crush."
Fountain finally emerges from Pirate Alley and settles on a bench facing Jackson Square. Nearby, trombonist Glen David Andrews fronts a brass band entertaining tourists outside the Cabildo. Not one to miss an opportunity, Andrews plays his way over to where Fountain sits.
Tony Seville, owner of the Pirate's Alley Cafe, tells Pete Fountain, 'You gave me my look.'
"Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Pete Fountain!" he announces.
Fountain rises and joins in "High Society." The tourists are enthralled. A man urges his four young daughters to pose for a photo near the legend.
"High Society" winds down and Fountain turns to leave. Andrews tries to prolong the moment by singing "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Fountain can't resist, and hoists his clarinet once again.
"What you got to say about that, Uncle Pete?" Andrews asks.
Pete Fountain couldn't refuse trombonist Glen David Andrews' plea to join him in 'Just a Closer Walk With Thee.' Andrews and his brass band perform for tourists regularly in front of the Cabildo.
The tourists clap and cheer; Fountain waves and walks off.
Roger Bird and Chico Thomas can't believe their good fortune. They traveled to New Orleans from Oakland, Calif., with their wives for the Golden State Warriors/New Orleans Hornets game. Moments ago, they took pictures alongside the bronze Pete Fountain statue in New Orleans Musical Legends Park at 311 Bourbon St.
"And then, holy cow, it's the real thing, " Bird said. "This made our trip."
At the northeast corner of Jackson Square, the sight of Fountain renders veteran tarot card reader Norman Oaks thunderstruck. As a boy growing up in the French Quarter, he peeped into Fountain's old club and marveled as the legend roamed the streets.
And now, on a Friday afternoon in the spring of 2008, Fountain has materialized in Jackson Square once again. A positive omen, for sure.
"It brought back a lot of good memories, " Oaks said. "You go through life and start missing things, and then you go around a corner and there it is again, and life isn't as screwed up. That's what seeing him did for me.
"It's like everything from the past is not gone. That's really encouraging."
Story and photos courtesy of Chris Granger / The Times-Picayune