In the month preceding Mardi Gras, the city of New Orleans sees its lowest temperatures of the year (usually in the fifties), but on the bright January day when I visited earlier this year, the mercury had fallen well below thirty-two — not quite the weekend escape from winter I had conceived. Leaving my hotel at one o’clock in the afternoon, I started the day too early. The wind was whipping off the Mississippi and the streets of the French Quarter were nearly empty. By four o’clock, after perusing the Royal Street art galleries and inhaling a bowl of indomitable jambalaya at Coop’s, I inevitably made my way to Frenchman Street: It was clearly time for a drink.

I tumbled into The Spotted Cat. It wasn’t much warmer inside. I walked back to the bar, where the bartender–owner poured me a generous Maker’s ‘n’ soda (in a plastic to-go cup, naturally).

Eyes on the booze, I hadn’t yet noticed the pianist, a large man in a large coat wrapped in a large scarf, seated at the barrelhouse upright. But he immediately earned my attention with his stride piano — old school with a pounding bass. Keen rhythm with an aggressive right hand. After the stride, he played a rag by Joplin — discreet and articulate with the same driving pulse. Then, he caught me off guard: a Chopin waltz, warm and singing. Next some Fats Waller, and then a morsel of Debussy.

By now some groupies had gathered in the front. They were enjoying the Poulenc as much as the old standards, the Satie as much as the stride. The pianist, whose name was Brett, was downing plastic cups of Merlot at regular intervals in an effort to stay warm, and by the end of the set his dexterity on the classical selections was suffering — not that anyone seemed to mind. I certainly didn’t, as the juxtaposition of Chopin and James P. Johnson and Beethoven and Joplin and whiskey was making me reconsider the possibilities of programming. After dinner that evening I would return to the now-packed establishment to hear Brett play with the latest formation of the New Orleans Jazz Vipers: piano, rhythm guitar, upright bass, trumpet, alto sax and trombone. All jazz. No drums.

 “I first came to New Orleans when I was fifteen, and I knew it was where I had to be,” twenty-eight-year old Brett Richardson tells me via phone a month later. “It just took me twelve years to settle.”

Richardson went to Northeastern Illinois University (where his father, who introduced him to Bach, taught linguistics), but after several years studying John Cage, Paul Bowles and Robert Muczynski, he left without a degree. He had also discovered Ray Charles — “a spiritual influence though not so much a musical influence” — and later Gershwin and Fats Waller. After leaving school, Richardson found himself working on a cruise ship, which was “god-awful.” He quit and made his way to New Orleans, where he lived in a tent in someone’s backyard for a time, and then “basically hooked up with some females who took me in.” His sole gig is at The Spotted Cat, where he plays four to six on weekdays and teaches a free swing-jazz class Wednesdays at five. 

His set lists run the gamut. “You can hear Debussy, Hank Williams, obscure vaudeville, Latin American, doo-wop, tango, waltzes, some originals as well, basically whatever’s good. . . . Not a lot of people mix in other genres, certainly not classical. In fact, I’d say classical is the biggest non-popular style in this city.” But mix it in Richardson does: “Chopin, Poulenc, Bach, Prokofiev, Schumann, Ravel, Satie, they’re all good. I’m pretty well suited to a lot of the French stuff, maybe Beethoven if I work on it enough.

Three’s a crowd. Brett Richardson tears into some stride during his late-afternoon set at The Spotted Cat in New Orleans.

“I’m on a huge Gershwin kick right now,” he says, “and I want to learn as much of it as I can — people don’t play him enough. Gershwin’s got everything: rhythmic and harmonic mentality, from popular music to jazz to Latin, to Eastern, a lot of classical…he’s really American. American, to me, is being aware of all these things around you and then making them your own.”

Though he has love for classical music, Richardson has lost his love for the institution of classical music. “I’m disgusted with it,” he says. “And I participated in it for a long time before I was able to articulate what bothered me. Basically, I don’t think the tradition is currently conducive to the masses. It’s a stuffy thing. To force someone to sit still and pay attention, it’s just alienating and frustrating. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone! But if you go somewhere and play some Scott Joplin, play some blues, and then sneak in some Beethoven, people are like, ‘Oh, man, that’s great! Some fine piano-playing right there.’ People like Beethoven, they really do. But if you present it in a lofty way, people will be put off, agitated, even insulted. I have no desire to get back on a stage or even attend classical performances where it’s still supposed to be this sophisticated, cultural thing. Because here, in New Orleans, there’s culture everywhere. Michelangelo, Mozart — yes, that’s culture, but it’s one kind of culture. And I’m unnerved at how, within the classical world, people that might really enjoy the music aren’t enjoying it because of a tradition that keeps the music in their hallowed halls. It’s not comfortable for regular people. My experience, playing at the bar, people love it. They love it all. People love music.”

For Richardson, maintaining his classical chops permits him to go further within other musical genres. “Classical music requires a broader scope of technical figures. By playing the hell out of classical stuff, I think you become a lot more literate with your instrument, whatever your instrument is, and that allows you to do whatever you want.”

Classical music also brings with it challenges of interpretation. “With some classical composers,” says Richardson, “you’ve had performers lined up around the world for a hundred years playing the same thing and, I mean, what are you gonna do? It’s probably easier to reinterpret ‘Sweet Lorraine’ than it is a Chopin waltz — to really, truly reinterpret it yourself. Because when you have the notes that Chopin gave you, there’s a lot of room in there, but you actually have to play those notes. And you’ve heard everybody play it, your whole life. And lots of times it sounds the same. But then you’ll hear, say, Paderewski — and it’s clearly not the same. Not at all. So if you have enough consciousness as an artist you can truly reinvent the stuff. I’m not into too many pianists today in the classical world. This is not to say that I have anything over on them. I also struggle with trying to give life to something that is so limited on paper. 

“Ultimately,” says Richardson, “I would prefer to contribute to the atmosphere rather than be at the center of it. To be on stage and playing Rachmaninoff is a big responsibility. To say, ‘Okay, you have to be still and quiet and pay attention while I do this,’ well, hey, you better do it damn good. But if you’re playing where people are telling jokes and flirting and you’re contributing to that, that’s the whole point of sharing music. If people want to sit and listen quietly, they can do that, but if they want to get in fights,” he says, laughing, “well, that’s fine, too.” 

This article originally appeared in Listen: Life with Music & CultureSteinway & Sons’ award-winning magazine.

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