The pianist and singer Davell Crawford
follows in the great New Orleans piano
tradition passed down from his grandfather,
James “Sugar Boy” Crawford. Davell attended
Catholic and Baptist churches and got
his start early as a young boy in the gospel
community. Now forty-one, Crawford’s
music dips into a gumbo of jazz, gospel, funk
and R‘n’B, affecting across his pianism,
singing and songwriting.
We’re at Steinway Hall in New York City. So
the last time you were here, I gave you a more
Steve Harvey–esque introduction than I would
Did you listen?
No, I was backstage. What happened?
I really got worked up and I started stringing all
your honorifics together, and people got louder
and louder and more excited—
Was I late?
No, no! But by the time we brought you on,
everyone was raring to go and I had forgotten
what it’s like when you have a ‘family concert,’
where people are supportive of you already
and you can do no wrong, in a good way. And
addressing that crowd, I said ‘Good evening,’
and everybody was like ‘GOOD EVENIN’!’ and I
thought, ‘Okay, it’s church.’
And I had forgotten about that, because I grew
up in east Tennessee but I’ve spent seventeen
years in New York and you forget. And it made
me think of New Orleans, when I go down there
and I go to D.B.A. or The Red Cat and it’s locals
watching locals —
There’s this cloud of support there that
embraces you and, as a performer, I would
imagine, lifts you up.
Listen: New Orleans is the perfect breeding
ground for musicians, because we are a very
tribal community of people. We eat, breathe,
sleep and love and live as a tribe. We depend
upon each other. And when you do something
wrong, and you’re part of the tribe, the
whole community, that whole tribe corrects
you — with love. And when you do something
right, that whole tribe takes you in and
celebrates you with nothing but love, and what
a wonderful way to be raised, to be nurtured!
New Orleans does that better than any other
place in the world. I’ve traveled as a musician,
and I think that New Orleans — and Louisiana
as a whole, right? — gets that. And we have
several other American pockets that get it:
Nashville gets it, Austin gets it, San Francisco
gets it. And as much as I love New York, and
I live here, New York used to get it. And it’s
getting back to that. I see it. I go out to Harlem
and over in Brooklyn, little pockets, they’re
starting to get it, it’s a different generation.
Why did New York lose its way for a time?
Several reasons. I’ve been here eleven years
and I should write about this. I think the
masters and the guys that took you in and
loved you — as Lionel Hampton loved me
from the time I was a little child up to his
passing — they’ve gone; they’ve left. They were
raised with tough love, and once they left us,
we had a generation that really did not school
the generation that came after them.
MUSIC FROM THE TRIBE
Davell Crawford on the rich jazz tradition of New Orleans,
the fall of New York, moving forward and employing the
multiple personalities that live within you
BY BEN FINANE