Text and Photos by Larry Benicewicz

Let’s see. Where are they now? It’s been nearly two years after Katrina and stellar musicians of that great Diaspora have not yet returned. There’s the great Allen Toussaint ensconced in New York City and blues diva, Marva Wright, right in our own backyard in Bel Air, Maryland. And Walter Payton is in northern Louisiana, a good couple of hundred miles from the Crescent City in Tallulah, near the Mississippi border and Vicksburg.

Outside of the Big Easy, Walter Payton, the father of the much heralded jazz trumpeter, Nicholas Payton, is not a household name. In fact, as the esteemed bassist for the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he is much better known in Japan and Europe than he is in the states. But in New Orleans, Walter was a fixture, always commanding the utmost respect. He was the consummate musician’s musician and seemingly the self appointed minister of intelligence as far as whatever was going on musically in this town; at least that was his status pre-Katrina.

I’d come here many times over the last 25 years and, upon my arrival, had a ritual of partaking of an afternoon bloody Mary (I liked the local custom of inserting a piquant, pickled snap bean as a garnish au lieu du celeri) while I perused the Offbeat or Gambit, both free city papers which included extensive lists of entertainment venues. Besides, these weeklies could be obtained at Matassa’s grocery on Dauphine St. in the French Quarter, which gave me a handy excuse to pay the illustrious engineer, Cosimo, a call and catch up on all the musical scuttlebutt since my last visit.

No, there wouldn’t be any Margaritaville for me; nor would there be any part of the House of Blues (nowadays a misnomer, since it is rarely offered). Maybe, I’d go to the Maple Leaf or Tipitina’s--only the uptown version. But outside of the Funky Pirate, where blues belter and former tuba player, Big Al Carson, holds court nearly every day, I’d hardly ever set foot on the tourist trap of Bourbon St. If nothing interesting appeared on any of these slates, I never panicked. Indeed, it didn’t really matter what the attraction was in these big rooms, because Walter Payton, with his secret network of informants, would most assuredly direct me to the “real thing,” some fish fry, rent party, or spontaneous happening, guaranteed to be well off the beaten path.

It was Walter who introduced me to the joys of such clubs as the Little Peoples’ Place at 1226 Barracks Street, a tiny dive with an equally miniscule bandstand where all the brass bands would congregate and play. Then he brought me to Joe’s Cozy Corner at 1532 Ursulines in the Treme neighborhood, where on Sunday nights, some R&B group would start late and finish about dawn. Another then yet undiscovered watering hole was Vaughan’s at 800 Lesseps in Bywater, wherein on Thursdays, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and the Bar-B-Que Swingers would rock the house and on Sundays, the Mardi Gras Indians would practice on their sundry assortment of drums and other exotic rhythm instruments.

But I remember Walter best for affording me access to the truly special rendezvous, off-limits to any tourists. Whether invited or not, Walter would always make or crash the most private of gatherings. Seemingly, everyone of note knew him and his request to enter was never denied. As for me, he’d invariably say, “Come on. It’s OK. You’re with Walter.” One memorable Christmas Eve, Walter smuggled us into a soiree hosted by Hilda, the German-born ex-wife of alto sax legend, the late Jackie McLean. It was also the coldest night in New Orleans’ history when all the exposed pipes froze and toilets were rendered useless. Then there was one of the last of countless jam sessions held at the storied Dew Drop Inn at 2836 La Salle, which in its heyday in the 50s was managed by booking agent (Guitar Slim, Earl King, Huey Smith, etc.) Frank Pania. During this magical evening, trumpeter LeRoy Jones of Harry Connick’s outfit, Walter Kimble, longtime tenor for Fats Domino, studio bassist Fred Kemp, and Cosimo Matassa’s former session pianist, Edward Frank, all took solos. Frank, paralyzed by a debilitating stroke, could then only play with one hand, but most keyboard players, I’m sure, would be satisfied to accomplish as much as he with two. On yet another occasion, Walter, who never paid a cover, prevailed upon the doormen to admit us to a New Year’s Eve extravaganza at the Mid City Rock ‘N’ Bowl on S. Carrollton Ave. It turned out to be one long boozy affair. While blind blues guitarist Ford “Snooks” Eaglin and his band revved up the revelers, we bowled on lanes that were literally awash in beer. And each ball that found the pins left a small wake.

In 1992, I lost a close friend of mine, Jeff Knapp, an Abraham Lincoln look alike and a much beloved prankster bartender in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, who was known to give away drinks like water. He, in keeping with his flair for the dramatic, told me that he’d always want to go out with a flourish—something along the lines of a jazz funeral. But, when died suddenly of a heart attack shortly thereafter, I didn’t know if I could ever honor such an outlandish request. But on very short notice, it was Walter to the rescue, having engaged both the celebrated Treme Brass band led by Benny Jones and Alfred Lizardus, a veteran grand marshall, who would, umbrella in his hand, lead the parade down Wolfe St to the harbor. In fact, the animated procession proved such a spectacular send off that it was covered by the Sunpapers and filmed by native director Barry Levinson to be used in his Homicide television series, the headquarters of which were on nearby Thames St.
Ironically, it was another student of New Orleans music, erstwhile disk jockey Ernie Novello, who first introduced me to Walter Payton. The gregarious and engaging Ernie, affectionately dubbed “Head Slug” by the late president of the Baltimore Blues Society, Dale Patton, also knew all the artists here, however obscure, while his good buddy, Walter, knew where they performed. As the years wore on, Ernie’s existence became more and more marginal. He never remained at one address for very long and his phone was always disconnected for nonpayment. His whereabouts today still remain a great mystery.

But it was back in 1988 and there we all were at the Jackson Brewery enjoying a live set by the late Alvin “Shines” Robinson, who first recorded for Imperial in the late 50s and had distinguished himself in Dr. John’s band during his ATCO years. He had had several area hits on this own--- “Something You Got,” “You Brought My Heart Right Down to My Knees,” and “Down Home Girl,” the latter covered with much success by the Rolling Stones. It was the year before his death (he also suffered a heart attack), and he still was a popular figure in the Big Easy.

I’d have to say that I was not only wowed with Robinson’s guitar work and vocals but also by his supporting cast (all identified by Ernie), which included veteran studio hands, Morris Bashmfut on tenor and Walter on bass. During the break, I got to talk to Walter and I discovered that his musicianship was only exceeded by his breadth of musical knowledge and agreed to meet him the next day at his home for an interview.

Walter during that era lived on St Philip St in the Treme section of New Orleans which was just across Rampart St. and not far from the former site of Cosimo’s old J&M Studio. Though only a stone’s throw from Bourbon St, few tourists venture into these parts, which, especially at night, can prove dangerous. Walter’s house was the former residence of the late legendary trombonist, Jim Robinson, a seminal figure in the development of Dixieland and jazz—the Crescent City’s most notable exports.

In order to enter Walter’s apartment, I had to wait an inordinate length of time while he struggled to open what seemed to be an interminable number of locks. I soon was to conclude that these precautions were entirely justified as he ushered me into his inner sanctum adjacent to the vestibule. Upon glimpsing the surroundings, you did not have to be an expert detective to realize that this was the abode of a creative genius, who was always vigilant, at the beck and call of his particular Muse.

It was a combination library, study, and recording studio dominated by a baby grand piano and a huge upright string bass. Books of music theory, history, and composition lined the shelves, which were crammed to the gills. Sheet music was stacked everywhere and whatever space remained was allotted to various musical devices, such as metronomes, tuning forks, and recording machines. I had expected to have a tete a tete with merely a session musician. But what I encountered was a musicologist, conservator, and composer. I knew I was in for a long evening.

This soft-spoken and articulate man was born August 23, 1942. Reared by his grandmother, he was already playing trumpet in elementary school. Although initially inspired by the iconic cornetist, Buddy Bolden (1877-1931), perhaps it was another local, historical figure, Pops Foster (1892-1969), who supplied the impetus for his fateful decision to switch to the tuba in high school. As a member of the school’s marching band, he carried the sousaphone, a modified bass horn which prepared him to later accompany the traditional brass bands for which New Orleans is renowned.

Although he had become quite capable with the tuba at this time, even filling in for Doc Poland’s ensemble, he broadened his musical horizons considerably by attending nearby Xavier University, wherein he not only studied instrumental music but also vocal harmony and opera. Of critical significance, at least career-wise, was Walter’s introduction to Bob Rohe, an instructor and double bassist for the New Orleans Symphony. Exploiting his young protégé’s musical eclecticism, Rohe convinced Walter to take up the string bass, an instrument which by now had more than piqued his interest. Under the tutelage of Rohe (a relationship similar to that of Mingus and Rheinschagen of the N.Y. Philharmonic), he made the transition from tuba to string bass in the same manner as predecessors Red Callender, Paul Chambers, and Ron Carter. As events transpired, such rigorous practice in the nuances and subtleties of this complex instrument were soon to reap dividends.

By the early 60s, he had already forged quite a reputation and was accepting invitations to play at upscale venues like Al Hirt’s on Bourbon St or the now defunct Playboy Club, where he would back jazz luminaries like Baltimore’s Ethel Ennis and Cab Calloway. It was also during this time frame that he regularly served as studio bassist for producers such as Marshal Sehorn, Allen Toussaint, and Wardell Quezergue, particularly at Cosimo Matassa’s famed facility at 523-525 Gov. Nicholls St in the Vieux Carre. You can hear Walter (along with pianist Allen Toussaint and guitarist George Davis) on virtually all of Lee Dorsey’s sides for Amy, including “Ride Your Pony,” Working In the Coal Mine,” “Holy Cow,” and “Get Out Of My Life, Woman.” In addition, he appears on many of Al Johnson and Irma Thomas recordings of that period, as well as the million-selling “Barefootin’” (Nola 721) by Robert Parker, longtime sax man for Professor Longhair.

Throughout this decade (1962-70), Walter also performed blues as charter member of Guitar Ray (Washington) and the Unforgetables. Guitar Ray, the brother-in-law of Earl King (Johnson), never quite achieved the cult following in the Big Easy of his relation, but, by entertaining at clubs like the Dew Drop Inn and Tijuana (off N.Claiborne), he and his band could jam and exchange ideas with all the big name blues artists who would sit in until the wee hours of morning ---Bobby Blue Bland and B.B. King. This experience was to provide Walter with a solid rhythmical foundation which would, more or less, complete his musical indoctrination.

In the early 70s, after parting ways with Guitar Ray, he decided to return to academia to study composition. It was a very hectic time in his life, as he was not only taking classes at Loyola when time allowed but also he was teaching music in school by day (eventually McDonagh No 15 Junior High in the French Quarter) and playing gigs at Leon Kelner’s Blues Room in the Roosevelt (now Fairmont) Hotel by night. Later he turned his attention to the Black Night club in the suburb of Metarie, where, as member of the regular house band, he would support all the touring superstars—Chubby Checker, Roy Hamilton, and Jackie Wilson. Nineteen hour days became the rule rather than the exception. But then, as now, he was living for music and loving every minute of it.

As if matters weren’t complicated enough, Walter continued his association with the old time brass bands, many of which had survived since the turn of the century. Lars Edegran, a Swede, formed the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, which was based on these traditional ensembles and sought out Walter as bassist. It was the music of James P. Johnson and Scott Joplin, a rudimentary genre of blues which antedated Dixieland and jazz, its logical successors. A fortuitous occurrence for the band was the release of the motion picture, The Sting, in 1973 whose theme, “The Entertainer,” helped to popularize this syncopated style of jazz. This timely event paved the way for Walter’s first European tour in 1974. Having already established quite a name for itself, this outfit was called upon to furnish the soundtracks for two feature-length films—Dennis Kane’s the French Quarter in 1977 and the late Louis Malle’s Pretty Baby in 1978, two period pieces in which this group also made cameos. In this configuration, the band made frequent appearances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as well as recorded an album for local producer George Buck.

In the 80s, there were more challenges to be met and projects to tackle. Walter as part of another traditional brass assemblage, the Young Tuxedo Band (modeled after trumpeter Oscar “Papa” Celestin’s creation in 1910), toured Scotland, receiving universal critical plaudits. In addition, Walter was chosen to supply the musical accompaniment to Vernell Bagneris’s “One Mo’ Time,” a quasi-vaudevillian stage production which conjured up images of New Orleans’ traveling troupes in the 20s. The much acclaimed play, which opened in the Crescent City, later moved to London, and Vienna, where it was filmed, and finally to New York. In this latter city, the performance so impressed Jerry Wexler (one of the principals of Atlantic records, a part of WEA), that he insisted that Warner Brothers record and then release an album of its presentation at the venerable Village Gate nightclub. As it turned out, the Big Apple was ultimately going to offer this young bassist more than just an ordinary sightseeing opportunity.

It was there while attending a Joffre Ballet program at Lincoln Center that Walter was first inspired to compose a jazz ballet—not an easy undertaking by any means, as he not only had to envision the choreography but also score the work for all the component instruments. As his reputation as a composer grew, more tasks were left at his doorstep, including devising the soundtrack for film sponsored by the New Orleans Board of Education. During this time frame, a Canadian Broadcasting Network also made him the subject of a video tribute.

Having retired from teaching in the 90s, Walter remained busy as always. He formed his own outfit, the Snap Bean Band---John Brinson on piano, Kirk Ford on alto, Frederick “Shep” Sheppard on tenor, Elijah “Louisiana Bill” Williams on trumpet, Adonis Rose on drums and Sharon Martin and Albert “The Dog Man” Smith on vocals---whose repertoire encompasses R&B, contemporary, traditional, gospel, and funk, and immediately began fulfilling engagements around town—Sweet Lorraine’s on St.Claude, Snug Harbor on Frenchmen St, and the Funky Butt on Rampart. In 2000, Walter recorded a CD, Red Top, at the downtown Louisiana Music Factory, a live production which was released on the 504 label. The selections within give testimony to the orchestra’s versatility—“Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Georgia on My Mind,” “Stormy Monday,” and “Mr.Bojangles, just to name a few.

And no longer being tied to his day job, he could now go on the road (and overseas) with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band not only during just his former summer vacations but also whenever he wished. Walter explained that the group is composed of a pool of musicians who become like interchangeable parts. When one team embarks on tour, there is a “home team” which performs at the Hall (which since 1961 is situated at 726 St Peter St. in the French Quarter). It’s never without a show. Walter has appeared and recorded with this contingent since 1965, when old guard characters like trumpeter Percy Humphrey (1905-1995) and his brother, clarinetist Willie (1900-1994), and pianist/vocalist Sweet Emma Barrett (1897-1983) were still on the scene. But the act has endured and will continue, as it turned out, literally through hell and high water.

It just so happened that Walter visited Baltimore this past February as part of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band fronted by trumpeter John Brunious, which would play several gigs in the company of another Big Easy favorite, Banu Gipson and the New Orleans Hot Jazz. Both would be backed by the Baltimore Symphony at the Meyerhoff and also at the newly christened Strathmore auditorium in Bethesda, MD. This stop actually was part of quite an extensive junket, dubbed the Mardi Gras Celebration, which included stays in New York, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and other points west. But I have to admit that it was still quite a surprise to find out that he’d be in town for a whole week and that I could not only hear him play before a really big band (he set aside for us complimentary, $80 front row tickets) but also use this opportunity to ascertain how he fared during Katrina. Needless to say, I arranged to meet him and his significant other several times during his sojourn, first extending him a dinner invitation.

At my place, it was like an old homecoming for Walter, who had not been in Baltimore since bringing the Treme Brass Band up from New Orleans for the jazz funeral. Could it really have been nearly fifteen years ago? But anyway, Walter related that as far as Katrina was concerned, he was one of the lucky ones. He had moved several times since our first encounter and had bought a house on Dufossat St, not far from the uptown Tipitina’s on Napoleon. The night before Katrina struck, he heeded the mayor’s evacuation order and by automobile attempted to head east out of harm’s way past Slidell; but the authorities there were turning people back on Interstate 10, since the track of the storm indicated a swing in that direction. “I then veered north on old Interstate 11 and eventually got on over to Atlanta [where he had kin] without too much delay,” he said. By thus fleeing the stricken city, he was spared much of the horror---the drownings, the wretched conditions of the survivors (including Brunious) inside the Convention Center and Super Dome, the subsequent fires, and the widespread looting--which accompanied the breach in the levees (which he suspects as a deliberate act). “My house never got flooded but a falling tree put a hole in it. Most of my instruments were saved and actually kept dry. But, they weren’t letting anyone back in and even if I could, I wouldn’t have had power,” he added.

This answered the question as to why I couldn’t communicate with him for months. Having called him after the catastrophe, for days I received a busy signal. And thereafter the phone just continued to ring without an answer.

Walter had intended to head much farther west with the rest of the refugees, maybe Houston or beyond, but an acquaintance suggested Talullah. And it couldn’t have worked out better. Not being able to find sufficient venues to sustain himself in this new territory (nor definitely not back in New Orleans for that matter), he reluctantly resumed teaching while still drawing his former pension. And not only that, the local school board here, sympathetic to his plight, has accorded him a liberal leave policy in order that he can substitute as needed in the peregrinating Preservation Hall Jazz Band—a third source of income. Now, he has no regrets about returning to the classroom. “You know I had my doubts, of course, being away so long. But I found I actually enjoy it,” he said.

Of course, Walter recognizes that the only downside to this “relocation” is that he can never really return home, outside of an occasional visit. “Larry, I don’t want to seem paranoid, but I think that there are forces beyond our control at work to forever change New Orleans. And, I’m afraid, not for the good. It could very well become a theme park for the rich and famous. Whatever it becomes, like the song, New Orleans won’t be the same,” he said.

As I sat across the dinner table from him, I seconded his emotion but responded:
“For me, New Orleans can never be the same because of one simple fact-----you won’t ever be there.”

Larry Benicewicz, Baltimore Blues Society, BluesArt. 

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