New Orleans Jazz and Pete Fountain
Pete Fountain is one of those New Orleans jazz musicians who's been there, done that…and hasn’t missed a beat. This man knows himself, is very content with the skin he occupies, and has enjoyed much success over the years.
It was on the recommendation of a doctor, who was treating Pete for asthma when he was nine years old, that he picked up the clarinet and started playing. The physician had prescribed a wind instrument to help strengthen his respiratory problems, not realizing he was launching the career of a New Orleans jazz musician. And it worked. Pete’s lungs grew to the point that they actually became oversized.
It wasn’t long before Pete got a taste of New Orleans jazz, peeking through the slats of a fence on his way to a movie one day. The sound and the beat intrigued the young lad and he was hooked.
Growing up in a New Orleans neighborhood that was only a block from a music store, he soon began to hang out with the store’s owner who encouraged him to pursue the clarinet. Before long Pete was playing for the store's patrons and that soon led to his participation in a small New Orleans jazz brass band called the Broad Street Social and Pleasure Club.
At age 14, Pete was playing dancehall gigs. He fondly remembers his New Orleans Jazz band of four was paid $5 a night…that's $1.25 apiece. Thanks to the trombone player, who would borrow his brother’s car, they always had transportation to make it to each job.
As time passed by, Pete got more and more serious about New Orleans jazz music. He would listen to the likes of New Orleanians George Lewis, Raymond Burke and Irving Fazola. Add Benny Goodman to the mix and Pete eventually came up with his own sound.
After laying the foundation for his craft, Pete left high school, and as he put it, laughing, he said, "I went directly from high school to the Conservatory of Bourbon Street."
It was while playing what he called "swingin' Dixie" with a group called the Basin Street Six in the late 1940s that he first met trumpeter Al Hirt. That meeting developed into a life-long personal and musical relationship.
The emergence of rock 'n' roll and rhythm 'n' blues in their hometown meant that the New Orleans jazz scene suddenly had some serious competition. A scarcity of jobs developed, and this, along with the fact that both Pete and Hirt now had families and responsibilities, meant for the first time music was neither musician’s main source of income.
Both musicians forsook there New Orleans jazz endeavors and went to work for a local pest control companyjobs that lasted for all of two months.
Shortly after leaving the world of cockroaches and termites, both Pete and Hirt got breaks that would completely change their future. Pete took his New Orleans jazz to bandleader Lawrence Welk and Hirt joined vocalist Dinah Shore.
Pete began performing weekly on Welk's national television show and it was one show in particular that jump-started his second career. The New Orleans Jazz clarinet player stepped out of the band and led a featured Dixieland combo in a variety of songs including the famous "Muscrat Ramble."
Getting only union scale from Welk, that was about to change. Pete had been gaining a loyal following of fans. After recording an album with Welk, Pete made his debut with "Pete Fountain's New Orleans" on the Coral label. It wasn't long before Pete had endeared himself to fans everywhere and he became a household name and flourishing New Orleans jazz artist.
Pete's success allowed him to return to his beloved New Orleans where he bought his first nightspot at 800 Bourbon Street. Over the years, the New Orleans jazz artist would move up to larger venues to lighten his playing load. Playing three shows a night had been taking its toll.
Pete Fountain's, as his nightspot is called, finally reached its pinnacle when it landed on the third floor of the Hilton hotel. Pete designed the venue to resemble the Blue Room Club in Las Vegas’ Tropicana Hotel. Guest appearances on the tonight show eventually became the best advertising Pete could get for "packing the house."
A lot of water's gone under that bridge, something Pete will attest to in a heartbeat. The number of live performances has dwindled over the years, but at a jazz fest in April of 2009, this New Orleans Jazz artist, at the age of 78 still proved he could pack 'em in.
The man's a legend, what more can we say!