As some New Orleans stars fade, others rise

With this week's death of Fats Domino, a generation of New Orleans musical royalty fades further away

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NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans lost Fats Domino this week, but some of the city’s old guard are still going strong.

Dr. John turns 77 in November and plans a monthlong musical celebration. Irma Thomas, the 76-year-old “soul queen of New Orleans,” has been touring lately with the Preservation Hall Legacy Quintet. Aaron Neville is still performing at 76. So is Deacon John Moore, also 76 and playing everything from wedding receptions to block parties, rarely far from where he grew up in New Orleans’ 8th Ward.

Tuesday’s death of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Fats Domino came a year after the passing of jazz clarinet great Pete Fountain and two years after the city said goodbye to producer-writer-performer Allen Toussaint. All were members of a disappearing generation of New Orleans royalty: artists who put the city on the musical map in the mid- to late 20th century, much as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong had earlier.

“The rhythm and blues people from my era are truly fading away,” Moore said Thursday. “There’s not many of us left.”

The losses are a reason to grieve, but not to despair, Tulane University professor Nick Spitzer said.

Spitzer is the host of the public radio music program “American Routes.” He speaks with a kind of reverence about Domino’s devotion to New Orleans, his gentle personality and his original piano style, driven by Caribbean rhythms.

“Fats was one of the people — along with Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet and Wynton Marsalis and Allen Toussaint and Professor Longhair — all of whom gave the city a sonic visibility at one time or another at different levels and abilities,” Spitzer said.

New Orleans musicians remain on the national scene. There is, for instance, Harry Connick Jr., who learned piano from such New Orleans greats as Ellis Marsalis (the 82-year-old patriarch of his celebrated New Orleans musical family, who still plays gigs at Snug Harbor jazz club) and the late James Booker. Connick made his mark not only as a pianist and singer, but also as a television and movie actor and, now, a talk show host.

Marsalis’ sons are also accomplished musicians — Wynton Marsalis is artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center. Meanwhile, Jon Batiste leads his band, Stay Human, on The Late Show with Steven Colbert.

“The worry is, people think the story has ended,” said Matt Sakakeeny, associate professor of music at Tulane and author of “Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans.” “But I think the New Orleans music scene now is maybe as vital as maybe it ever has been.”

Among those he’s watching is Christian Scott, a trumpeter who changed his name to aTunde Adjuah. “He has a unique sound — he calls it Stretch Music,” Sakakeeny said. “He collaborates with musicians not just from New Orleans but from all over the world.”