Lil’ Sax O’ Gold
It won’t be long before Lousiana Swamp Pop supergroup The Lil’ Band O’ Gold return to our shores. With a group that includes CC Adcock, Steve Riley, Warren Storm, Richard ‘Dickie’ Landry, David Egan, Tommy McLain, Lil’ Buck Senegal, Pat Breaux, Richard Comeaux, every member has a fascinating life story to tell. Lucky for us, we had the chance to hear from the legendary sax master Dickie Landry. Now 73, Dickie has played with Paul Simon, Phillip Glass, Bob Dylan, Laurie Anderson, Talking Heads and countless others. And he’s still going strong.
Interviewed by Les Thomas
You’re heading back down to Australia with the Lil’ Band O’ Gold. It’s not your first visit is it?
I’m looking forward to it. It’s my third trip there and it seems it’s becoming my second home.
I was fascinated to read you haven’t spent the greater part of your life avoiding playing traditional or roots-based Louisiana styles of music. Why was that?
When I was in high school or grade school I became vey interested in jazz and also classical music and when I got to university it was more intense; I wanted to be a jazz musician and classical musician. I studied the clarinet and was active in jazz groups. I listened to music like Vince and Charlie Parker, Bartok, Stravinsky and Wagner, Beethoven, Bach. And swamp pop was just three chords, out of tune saxophones and chintzy lyrics and I wasn’t interested.
I find myself 40 years later a complete circle. But it’s a great band [Lil’ Band O’ Gold], an incredible all star band, and like I tell people, I haven’t played with a bad band yet. So I’m very excited to be playing. It’s going to be a lot of fun. I like playing with organised groups.
The new record is all Fats Domino music. Fats Domino is someone who came out of the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. What are your memories of that Fats Domino sound when it was contemporary?
I used to drive my mother’s car out of the driveway late at night and go hear Fats Domino about eight miles down the road. So I was interested in the music and it was something to do for a teenager, to go to a nightclub. I couldn’t get in; I was underage, but I could stand outside the door of Fats Domino. He had a great saxophone, he had a great horn section, so I was interested.
There’s a huge amount of vitality in the music and it comes through in the record as well. It’s charming in the amount of life you’ve got there.
Well Warren Storm grew up singing Fats Domino songs so it was easy for him to do. If we listen to Warren, he almost sounds like Fats. We all grew up with that music. We’re all very comfortable with it. We’re not trying to mimick it; we are doing it. It’s real. It’s not fake.
You were pretty young when you headed in to New York, and you were seeing players like Charlie Parker at Birdland. Exactly how much of a revelation was that to you?
I saw Charlie Parker when I was a junior in high school. When I graduated from high school in ’56 my brother was going to Columbia University in New York City. And a friend of mine bought a 1956 Corvette sports car. We drove to New York City directly to Birdland. We parked about two metres down from the front door of Birdland. And I was only 17 or 18. You have to be 21 to get into clubs, but they let me in and carded my friend. Anyway, that first night in New York City I saw Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and several other people. That excited me into thinking maybe I should move to New York City, and I did move there in 1969.
You also had early run-ins with the law around growing pot. It mustn’t have been a very comfortable situation to be in as a young man who was just starting out with his career in music.
It was very uncomfortable, because if I had been convicted it would have been 25 years mandatory in the State Penitentiary. But I had a fantastic lawyer who decided that I wasn’t going to jail because the law was such a bunch of crap. Things happen for a reason, and I believe in that. I didn’t get convicted. I got probated to the state for five years which meant I couldn’t leave the state of Louisiana or play with a band or anything else. But I circumvented that by playing in bands within the state. In the meantime, I got to play with Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Sam and Dave. I was with a band called The Swing Kings and we opened up for a lot what we called the Chitlin’ circuit where a lot of now famous people came through not once or twice but dozens of times. It was really the rhythm and blues circuit.
New Orleans seems to have a very cosmopolitan character in comparison to other parts of the US. You have clumps of different kinds of music that co-exist through that fairly small geographic area.
New Orleans is one of the biggest ports in America and it has been since early on. The Spanish reigned for a while, the English reigned for a while, the Italians came in, the Germans, the French and they all brought their styles of music. The brass bands came from the marching Spanish bands. In Louisiana we have five indigenous musics of America: we have Cajun, Zydeco, Dixieland, Jazz, and some of the Blues and maybe six with some of rock’n'roll, because Jerry Lee Lewis is from Faraday, Louisiana. So it’s a melting pot. Whenever I go around the world, foreign people ask me “What is Louisiana like?” and I say, “We’re still inventing music here”.
And so many key figures like Buddy Boldens and Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Domino himself.
Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong. It’s a gigantic long list.
I guess with the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, one of the questions is how well that music is doing in the aftermath?
Actually, New Orleans has really come back. The music is alive. I was at JazzFest and the amount of music that’s been playing in the clubs around New Orleans at the moment is unbelievable. And also, I think the world has discovered Cajun and Zydeco and stuff. There’s Cajun bands are going to Moscow next week for five days, taking washboards to Russia, which they’d never seen until recently. Of course you’ve got your jazz people from New Orleans who are travelling all over the world at the moment like Trombone Shorty and John Cleary. And Treme hasn’t done any harm at all.
I was very interested to read your early experience learning the flute from Arthur Lora the principal flute player for Arturo Toscanini. You were paying him $80 per hour for lessons, and you didn’t know at the time who he was or what he was doing. That seems like quite a huge financial investment in 1961.
Also, taking the Greyhound bus from Louisiana, which is a twenty-eight hour ride. I was forced to learn the clarinet in university because there were no flute or saxophone teachers. But as soon as I graduated from university I gave my clarinet away. I decided I wanted to play the flute, and I thought ‘where are the best flute teachers in the world?’ I thought probably New York City. I got in touch with Lora and I walked into his apartment. And right away he asked “Why do you want to play the flute? Do you want to go to Juilliard or do you want to play in a classical orchestra? Do you want a solo career?” And my answer was, “I just want to learn to play the flute.” He said “OK. I’ll take you, but we’ll start from the very beginning, one note at a time”.
Why was it important to you? What was it about the flute that really moved you?
My first real experience with playing the flue after high school was in my senior year of university when I was asked to play the second flute part in a Puccini opera Tosca. That really convinced me that I really wanted to learn how to play flute. It was just such a beautiful instrument. Puccini is a great writer, I really feel in love with the instrument and I decided then that I just wanted to learn the foundations of playing it. Doing all the exercises, getting back to Arthur Lora, actually set me up to be able to play with someone like Phillip Glass six years later.
I’m sure it must and it sounds like you played quite a role in Phillip Glass’s musical development, bringing in players that could actually play very well, including players from La Fayette.
Actually, six musicians from La Fayette went through the ensemble in that early period. I knew them personally. Three of them came up just because I was up there. They were personal friends, they were all jazz musicians. You had a group down here, and there were a couple of guys going to Colombia and Juilliard and I convinced them they should go with Steve Reich or Phillip.
The place that you inhabited sounds like you’ve got this formal side and this colloquial side as well, and you can bring the two worlds together in a way that a lot of other people just can’t.
I love to play any kind of music. I love to play punk music, reggae is my favourite music to play. I don’t play Cajun. It’s the only one I don’t play. I like the real serious avant garde stuff. I like to play Mozart and Bach and the flute. Big bans, whatever.
You also encouraged Phillip Glass to take on more challenging work?
At one point we were having a conversation, I’m sure he will deny it, because he was a Juilliard graduate. He said, “I can’t wait till I can maybe not work with the ensemble some day, maybe go on my own” and I said, “You should write operas and symphonies”. He said, “Do you think I can do that?” I said, “Phillip, you are a composer, a trained Juilliard composer. It’ll work.”
In the early days, Phillip would write a piece of music and bring it in to the ensemble to play and we’d say “It’s not quite right” and he’d get a little angry and pick up the music and come back the following week with a new piece. Then finally in 1975 he’d come in and say, “This is the music, this is it. No questions, good or bad”.
He must have valued your honesty in that situation. You were also very honest with Paul Simon in having the confidence to offer criticism of his lyrics and he took that on board.
I tell most people I’m the most loyal person. I’ll tell you exactly how it is. But if you fuck with me I’ll kill you. (Laughs) No, that’s my nature. I don’t hold anything back.
There’s no place to hide in music, is there?
No. It’s all laid out. It’s all laid out. No place to hide, exactly.
One of the tragedies of your life must have been losing your son at the age of 18. I did read about the let down of Phillip Glass not holding true to the promise that you would have your job after you’d had that chance to mourn, which would have been painful. As a dedicated life musician, playing music again would have been so important to your recovery, not that you can fully recover, just to be able to heal and function again.
Yeah, and Phillip was supposed to be a friend and told me even if we have the full five saxophones, no matter, you’re still coming back in. And then he turned the tables on me, which distressed me even more. I ended my blooming career in New York City, which I didn’t return to till a couple of years later. But everything happens for a reason. I returned to New York, and I’m sitting with Laurie Anderson and she says, “Come and do something with me at Brooklyn Academy”. And then I run into Paul Simon and Talking Heads. Everything happens for a reason. That reignited my career in a way so I could I feel comfortable about being with a lot of different musicians and doing work again.
Is it collaboration that excites you, working with David Byrne, Paul Simon, your fellow band mates in the Lil’ Band O’ Gold?
Of course. I like collaborations in any form. I just did something with Robert Wilson in Taipei, the Chinese opera singer. And I tried to do drum ensemble a couple of years ago. I also love to do solo work, I love to play in bands, but collaborating on projects is one of my joys in life.
What was it like the first time Lil’ Band O’ Gold sat down to play with one another?
It was astounding; it was fantastic. We all knew it was gonna work. We had Warren Storm on the drums. Come on, you know? And you got Steve Reily and you got David Egan, Richard Comeaux, and David Ranson. All great musicians and it’s fantastic! There’s nothing wrong with it. And it’s getting better.