Orleans trains you to be that.
How is that?
It’s a generational thing. It’s the way we do
things and the way they have always been
done. We’ve not strayed away from learning
on the gig. I was thirteen hiring guys in their
forties and fifties for my gig, telling them
what to do, and them telling me what to do,
right? That’s the best way to learn. We get that.
Hopefully, with what I’m seeing in Harlem
and other pockets of New York, this will
happen here soon on a broader scale.
For those unfamiliar with the city, New Orleans
jazz can often be pigeonholed as a certain
old-tyme sound, frozen in time. We think of
Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which is a period
band, but I think many believe that that’s
the New Orleans Sound, unaware of the rich
musical diaspora that is there.
You are correct. And if they realize it, they
don’t give it the credit that they should until
they have to. When you think about New
Orleans jazz, you also have to think about
gospel. Mahalia Jackson, the most famous
gospel singer in the world, came from New
Orleans. She was the first person to bring
gospel abroad overseas. And of course,
Louis Armstrong. But you think about Jelly
Roll [Morton], Toots Washington. And you
can move on to early R‘n’B, people like my
grandfather, James Crawford, they called him
‘Sugar Boy.’ Fats Domino. And then there’s
funk, with The Meters. And these guys were
creating this stuff at the same time. Dr. John,
with the Bayou stuff and the Indian chants!
This was created, made up, they put it all
in the gumbo down there. People like Earl
Palmer, a lot of sidemen, moved out of town
and recorded for various labels — Motown
and Stax — and brought whatever ingredient
they had from Louisiana to various places.
Now we can’t take credit for everything!
As long as I’ve lived in Louisiana, the Delta
blues, right next door, is a whole different
thing. And we can play the blues, but when
it comes to the Delta blues, that is something
that you have to cross the border in order to
understand and to learn. We give that its total
respect. Tex–Mex, all of that, right across the
border in Texas, we give that its respect. But as
far as zydeco, fais do-do, Indian music, Mardi
Gras, New Orleans R‘n’B — which is the start
of R‘n’B, period, funk, traditional jazz, and a
lot of modern jazz, you’ve got to give these
guys the respect for creating it and carrying it
forth and bringing it to the world.
Where does your musical identity fit into that
I assume at this age — I’m still pretty
young — I’m the nephew of all these personalities. I was raised around all of it. I caught
the end of Ernie Kato, Barbara George,
Allen Toussaint, Dr. John. I grew up around
Given that heritage, are you now trying to take
I have to. I have to. As far as my instrument,
there are only a few of us [pianists]. After the
hurricane and considering various what-if-so-and-so-hadn’t-made-it-out scenarios, I
realized that I have a responsibility to preserve
the music, to carry it forth and to breathe new
life into the music, when it’s appropriate to do
that. Yeah, that’s why I’m around.
I was listening to your Piano in the Vaults, Vol.
1 (Basin Street Records), and you get into a
groove hearing this music, this pulse on the two
and four. To play this music, you really have to
have independent hands, like a drummer, and
then there’s the singing. It’s a lot that’s coming
together: the rhythm of the left, the magic in
the right, telling a story with your voice on
top of all of that. What do you try to remain
conscious of, while all that is happening? What
are you looking out for?
I’m not really looking for too much, I can
tell you that. I’m looking for a groove and
the truth. The truth is already there. And if
you listen to the truth and obey the truth,
the groove will be there. The groove will set
you free. So that’s where I live, in the groove.
I studied classical music and I still try to
study it. I was raised in the Catholic and the
Baptist churches and my grandfather was
a great piano player so I was born with the
groove. So if you put all those things together,
that’s what makes my music whatever it is.
That’s what makes my left hand. Being from
Louisiana, we are known for our left hands,
and if you don’t have a strong left hand, go
sell shoes. Go do something else. And with
the right hand and the melody and all of that,
I was raised in the church with Christian
music, which I still love to play. We learned
the melodies from listening to the trumpet
players and we put all that together and that’s
Last week, you and I were listening to playback
of some of what you had recorded for the
Steinway & Sons Spirio [a high-resolution
player piano], and your reaction was ‘Oh, okay,
interesting!’ You were surprised by some of
your own improvisations.
There’s a level of improvisation that was able
to still surprise you, on playback, even though
you had originally played it.
Well, I don’t know about that. I’m an artist
and I’m an artist at all costs. There are different personalities that live within me, you,
lots of other people, most everybody. The
most unique artists of our time — music, visual art, anything — they learn how to tap into
the other personalities that live within them.
Listen, if I was to play everything that Davell,
the guy who walked in here a few minutes
ago, had to offer, I would have been done a
long time ago. But, there’s also Davell, the guy
who’s been around forever, since the beginning.
There’s also the Davell that wants to play
Schubert, that wants to play Chopin. There’s the
kid who walked into his grandmother’s beauty
parlor with his Tonka trucks and said ‘I’m here
to save you all!’ and walked back out. I live in
all of that, and I acknowledge all of that.
And from seeing your reaction to the playback,
it sounds like it’s not always altogether
That’s correct. I have to think sometimes
how to approach something. For the Steinway
Spirio, I thought ‘I’m playing too much
this way, so now I should be someone else.’
And I’ll take off my jacket or put it back
on or sit a different way. And sometimes my
head is almost on the keys. Other times,
I’m sitting straight up. Those are two different
personalities and two different people. And
they have two different levels of ability
when it comes to playing, when it comes to
how they think, how they process and how
they execute what’s going to happen.
The theater of performance.
Yeah! Yeah. . . . Yeah.