Interview with Dom Pipkin

BEFORE bringing his show Tales of The Big Easy, Bourbon and Bad Boys to Florence Arts Centre, Dom Pipkin spoke to Robert Haile about New Orleans, piano and coming to Cumbria.


How did you first start playing the piano?

I was lucky, I wanted to copy my brother who had piano lessons but I was a lucky kid who was able to get piano lessons at school.

So I had classical piano lessons when I was a kid and just started to learn the standard way that you learn with the piano grades and then when I was about 11 we were doing musicals at school and it had rock and roll piano in it.

I remember going back and trying to sit there and work it out, so I went beyond the piano lessons and started fiddling on the piano hitting different notes seeing what sounded good together and trying to make a sound that wasn’t in the classical lessons.

Which was of course was an early stab at trying to make jazz sounds on it and blues sounds on the piano. I was about 11 or 12 when I did that, 11 I would say.

When did the New Orleans, blues, jazz sound first interest you?

I was starting to do the jazz thing when I was young, I spent a childhood listening to people like Oscar Peterson and Dave Burbeck and then later Miles Davis and these were jazz people of course.

It took me a while to settle down as a young man, I went to music college to study jazz but I didn’t know about New Orleans Piano until a friend gave me a cassette tape.

It was a long time ago like 25 years ago, and it had New Orleans piano players on it. Professor Longhair, Dr John and Huey “Piano” Smith and that wasn’t normal blues but it was like a kind of a deeper sort of Latin American sounding version of jazz and blues.

So it was like a mix tape and that just sort of led the discovery, which led to me going over there as well.

Which musical acts have inspired you?

These are the guys from New Orleans so there’s Professor Longhair, James Booker, Dr John, and then there’s jazz players like Oscar Peterson, Earl Gardener and Jelly Roll Morton.

What was it like to go out and perform in New Orleans?

It’s really amazing.

When I first went there I was in a British band called Mortcheva, I don’t know if you would know those guys, it depends on what sort of age you are.

Anyone mid 40s the band Mortcheva was a trendy band and at the end of the 1990s, and I played keyboards with that band.

We went to New Orleans as part of a tour and that was amazing.

I didn’t go back until after, you remember New Orleans was hit by this hurricane in 2005, Hurricane Katrina.

When that happened the partner I was with at the time we decided we really should to go there as I like the music from there so much.

I went over by the beginning of 2006 and I have been back about six times since then and I am probably heading back later this year and definitely heading back for longer next year.

I was advised when I went over there by a friend don’t try and play everywhere when you go there.

So I waited a couple of times and listened to people and met people and then bit by bit showed them what I could do in the next visit.

It is amazing playing out there even to this day I feel nervous if I have to play out in New Orleans, it feels like the home territory playing all those styles but it’s kind of amazing, it does feel like what I am doing belongs there when I am playing it.

It’s a great feeling.

Having been out before Hurricane Katrina did you see much change to the atmosphere in New Orleans after the disaster?

It’s a good question, the first time I was there it was just amazing to arrive, and it’s funny when you are touring on a tour bus you kind of get there and they put you in a hotel and your tired cause you’ve been travelling day in day out.

It is quite easy on tour to not soak up the atmosphere, but I made sure I did because New Orleans is important to me.

I could tell it is sort of a party destination of the country, its one of those places where people do head to even if they are not into music.

Even if they are just into drinking and getting together, boys and girls and that sort of thing like being on holiday.

When we went there nine months after Hurricane Katrina had happened, it was chilling in a way it was like a city that had been evacuated, people that had been moved, forcibly.

There were big piles of debris all over all areas of the city. People’s possessions, broken up wood, furniture and that is just piled on the streets and there was a real absence of people, like you would go past places would be open and two or three places in a row would be shut.

Almost perhaps more places would be shut than were open.

The places that were open were just trying to be exactly like they always would have been.

Music was going on all over the place when we went, which is quite weird to think when the whole place had been flooded out and people had died in that city.

They rate music and they rate being a good time city that much and they rate not in a superficial way, its important in life, it’s a carnival city and it was almost a matter of pride that they managed to put on a massive jazz festival that year, nine months after that massive disaster.

Which I think is astonishing, I didn’t realise how astonishing it was at the time but now I am more struck by it.

To think of the effort to get it all together and everyone in the mood to play is amazing, but people were frazzled.

We would meet musicians and they were kind of drinking more, they were shocked and there were some scary stories of people who had lost people.

It has then kind of been like a development ever since its been building up to now back 12 years on and people are its quite recovered and its not that badly hit from what it was anymore.

I wasn’t there all the time before hand of course.

There are some slightly unsavory things people say about it lets try and make it more sanitised than what it used to be, get the crime down but it seems to be doing pretty well, pretty robust.

Where did the title Tales of The Big Easy, Bourbon and Bad Boys come from?

There was one British fellow and another up in Sheffield, but there is one British fellow who is doing New Orleans piano that I was aware of, it turns out there are a couple more hiding in the woodwork but I would go out and do bar gigs and play songs by these people, Pro Longhair, Dr John and especially by a piano player called James Booker.

You would do them and people would go I like the piano your playing there and managed to keep working. Someone would go can you play us some jazz that we know, can you play Summertime, It ain’t what you do its the way that you do it, any sort of thing like that and I found that if I could get peoples attention and tell them were this music had come from and give them a background to it.

It made more sense than trying to play bar gigs were I couldn’t really get the story across.

So I figured it was good to go back to the beginning of this music, its turn of the last century 1900s.

It comes out of a piano player called Jelly Roll Morton and others like him playing in brothels in New Orleans.

New Orleans was famous for its red light district and what its got now is strip clubs that still stick around and how it came around from a clash of sounds that was happening there and I explain about the what they call the Spanish Tinge which comes from Spain and some classical music and the jazz sound and then I tell the story of how jazz moved away and how the Rhythm and Blues explosion came about and how New Orleans was uniquely situated to kind of capture that because it has marching bands and it has a very musical history and tradition a mixture of Africa and Europe all in the same place.

I introduce people to different piano players I demonstrate their style for a second then play a rocking tune by them and go all out with it.

The characters are funny to, they need telling.

There are those who are living and alive today within living memory and probability the most notable is James Booker he was a piano genius, he was a child prodigy who unlike a lot of blues players he could play classical music as well.

Which surprises people and he had an eye patch, a drug habit, would wear a cape on stage and was prone to very eccentric behavior and then would play piano like an angel, jaw dropping in its virtuosity and then really beautifully as well.

I thought that rather than the ones the world know about like Ray Charles, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, I thought these guys from New Orleans in its little basin shape at the end of the river that it lives in is just beautiful and romantic and it’s a good narrative from the early days of the brothels into the jumping days of the French quarter, which is full of transvestites and hedonism, amazing piano and these musicians who would struggle.

They weren’t all doing well, the musicians life has always been an interesting side to while everyone was partying the musician was making that party happen.

Then behind the scenes there all kind of on drugs and boozing and living just tragic lives.

In putting the show did you do a lot of research?

I had been soaking it up over the years, I know about how they played and what there approach to the piano and I kind of studied it in a way over the years.

I would read a whole load of books, I have a big stack of biographies on New Orleans players.

I would talk to people and of course we have the internet which has been most helpful I would just sit there and absorb it.

I did quite a bit of digging, it’s fascinating to me and once I had enough information inside me I have been able to tell these stories back.

Have there been any musicians that you didn’t realise had been influences?

Like with any scene you have the big stars and they are normally there for good reasons, though some people are pushed forward.

All the guys I talk about their contribution is unique because of how committed they were but all around them there were some amazing supporting piano players.

There was a guy called Ed Franks and he was a one handed piano player from New Orleans.

He taught a friend of mine to play, which in itself is interesting the idea of being taught by a one handed piano player if you are a two handed piano player.

Then there are all the soldiers who play in the, when I say soldiers I mean the troops, the musical troops.

Who play in all the bars and clubs and have kept that sort of thing going and all the sidemen in the different bands there have just been so many.

You are constantly hearing of new people and there are some great players, I just can’t cover everyone who is doing it even nowadays there’s the great Henry Butler who is a living New Orleans piano player, blind and it is just frightening how powerful his piano playing is, it’s amazing.

Are there any of the jazz and blues musicians you wish you could have played with?

I would like to play with my hero Jon Cleary, which I do I jam if I go to his house, but as an act on a stage somewhere.

As a keyboard player the living New Orleans acts from the Metered from New Orleans one of the great funk bands of all time.

As far as all the big names in Jazz from Gregory Porter and all them.

It would be nice to play piano with all those kind of guys.

I would like to play with those that aren’t here anymore, some of the old dead greats.

Apart from that I am happy to nurture British talent and international talent that lives in this country.

I do have a band as well and with the band we make our own sound which is strongly influence by the jazz, blues and New Orleans music and make it as polished and as heartfelt as we can or in my case playing solo.

That is almost as exciting as playing with another act.

Are you looking forward to performing in West Cumbria?

I am very much looking forward to it yes. I have been up to Keswick in the past, I did a couple of appearances up there.

I played a double piano bill with an older piano player than me at Theatre by the Lake, he was more of a specialist in the early jazz styles and I was playing the rhyme and blues style and it was all about New Orleans that was great fun, apart from that playing the jazz and blue this will be my first visit to West Cumbria.

So I am hugely looking forward to it.

The Arts Centre looks really cool, the people sound really nice there and it’s kind of a thrill and an honor to go to a new place and meet a new audience, and go here is what I do take me into your hearts and let me play you something.

What can the audience expect from your show?

What I heard my times from the show is people saying somebody has come with somebody and one person would come up to me and say that they weren’t sure they would like this jazz and blues piano or know about it but this was amazing and I loved the stories.

You made it really accessible and I think a real eye opener of a particular city and how much music can grow from there.

They can expect fiery, sparks flying, boogieing piano and they can expect tender playing of old New Orleans and just amazing stories.

It’s a bit of a ride and a journey.

Audiences seem to like it, they do seem to enjoy it.

They give me good feedback.

Dom Pipkin will be bringing his show, Tales of The Big Easy, Bourbon and Bad Boys to Florence Arts Centre on April, Tuesday 17 with tickets priced at £10 and available from the Arts Centre website (click here) or by phone 01946 824 946.