Toussaint and Craft

Allen Toussaint obit and celebrations from New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Robert Craft New York Times obit.

My first serious musical love was boogie woogie piano. Imagine my 12-year old excitement and astonishment when the documentary Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together turned up on PBS one night. Fortunately the program ran again the following week and I was able to tape it on VHS.

Allen Toussaint is wonderful throughout, in charge of general diplomacy, wrangling his elders,  and of course offering superb playing. Shockingly, Professor Longhair died during the making of the movie, which leaves only Tuts Washington and Toussaint to perform the final selection.

The director Stevenson J. Palfi left little besides this invaluable hour-long documentary. That was not Palfi’s intention: Palfi had created a large archive of unique footage of New Orleans musicians waiting for curation and dissemination. However, that archive was lost in Katrina, and Palfi killed himself.

Stravinsky, Webern, Schoenberg: When trying to hear the essential works of modernism, it was easy enough to look for the name Robert Craft. At one point I had almost everything by those three under Craft’s name, although by now those fairly raw early records are mostly supplanted by more deluxe performances.

Along with many others, I adore late Stravinsky atonal masterpieces like Agon and Requiem Canticles. There is no doubt that we owe Craft a debt for helping Stravinsky understand dodecaphony.

I sort of met Craft once. As recounted in the Irving Fine essay: “I was only 19 when my girlfriend got me the job of rehearsal pianist for the Gregg Smith Singers. Reading music was always easy for me but I had almost no experience with classical music in general. The first rehearsal was Stravinsky’s Mass with Robert Craft guest conducting.”

The “Sanctus” movement of the Mass has an exposed slow quintuplet that is a serious rhythmic challenge to the average oboist. In rehearsal with Craft, I somehow kind of nailed that quintuplet the first time (probably a mistake as much as anything). Craft looked over at me and muttered, “Not bad.”

Somehow that tiny exchange was an extremely helpful inspiration: almost an injunction to keep learning about classical music.