New Orleans pianist/composer Tom McDermott has never played in a bordello (although he could once see one from his home), but he has absorbed the New Orleans piano professors’ traditional approach to the eighty-eights. That tradition owes a significant debt to the Big Easy’s classier houses of ill repute, which expected the solo pianist to reproduce all the excitement of a small combo—but at a much lower cost.
Relying on phenomenal technique, a deranged but dead-on rhythmic sense, a Pan-American repertoire of syncopated music and an antic fearlessness, McDermott is one of today’s bona fide New Orleans professors—even if he is originally from St. Louis. On Wednesday, he’ll solo at the Outpost, and he’s likely to feature the stylings of such figures as Louis Moreau Gottschalk, James Booker, Jelly Roll Morton, Pixinguinha and Scott Joplin, among others—including himself.
Growing up in a musical family, “I took classical lessons,” says McDermott, “then got into ragtime in high school and at the same time started playing the trad jazz that kind of overlaps with ragtime—like Jelly Roll and James P. Johnson, and things like that, stride piano.”
After earning a master’s in music at Washington University, working as the jazz and rock critic for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and getting kicked out of the house by his girlfriend, McDermott decided to see if he could study with the New Orleans piano monster James Booker.
His hair-raising extemporizations, aside from being technically stupefying, often seem to surprise even him.
“It just seemed like doors were shutting in St. Louis, and I had a gig at the World’s Fair. So that door opened. It seems kind of fated,” he says. Booker, however, didn’t cooperate, dying before McDermott got there.
McDermott did find work, though, starting with the renowned Dukes of Dixieland. Soaking up the music of New Orleans and its many relatives, McDermott has long since become a Crescent City fixture. He’s arranged music for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and, along with sousaphonist Matt Perrine, started a brass band, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers.
He’s renowned for his contemporary renditions of the “music at the roots of jazz,” as he calls it, renditions that might include, say, a Professor Longhair rumba layered into a Morton composition. His hair-raising extemporizations, aside from being technically stupefying, often seem to surprise even him. “I’m not afraid to make mistakes,” he says, by way of explaining his willingness to venture down unfamiliar paths and find a way out.
At a solo gig in 1984, McDermott was approached by a fan who asked him if he knew the music of Brazilian composer Ernesto Nazareth. Thus began an ongoing love affair with the Brazilian choro, “a cousin to jazz,” says McDermott.
He’s traveled several times to Brazil, despite being “robbed repeatedly” on his first trip, to dive into the music. Hooking up with clarinetist Evan Christopher in 2002, McDermott founded the duo (sometimes quartet) Danza, one of the hottest tickets in New Orleans. The group combines the ragtime/trad jazz of North America with the choros, tangos and calypsos of South America and the Caribbean, and it features a number of striking McDermott compositions.
Along the way, McDermott has released several critically acclaimed CDs. Among others, there’s All the Keys & Then Some—McDermott compositions for solo piano that show his “affection for bittersweet waltzes, manic humor, morose habaneros, crazed boogie-woogie, and ... obtuse rhythms,” as his liner notes say. There’s also Danza with Christopher, Choro do Norte (with Christopher, trombonist Rick Trolsen and Brazilian musicians), Live in Paris (solo), Creole Nocturne (with trumpeter Connie Jones) and New Orleans Duets (each track with a different New Orleans musician—including two who are long dead).
With composers living or dead, it makes no matter—McDermott’s hands find what’s alive in the music.