As the board of New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness assembled on the evening of Nov. 9, its members had every reason to be optimistic.
Ticket sales for the charitable nonprofit’s upcoming benefit concert at Le Petit Théâtre du Vieux Carré were strong. And the performance promised to be one of the most memorable in the organization’s 30-year history.
It would pair homegrown pianist Allen Toussaint, a co-founder of the group, with legendary singer-songwriter Paul Simon.
Before the board meeting, Kathy Sebastian, a longtime Toussaint confidant, tried to call him in Spain, where he was on tour. She knew he would be excited about the latest sales figures.
But Toussaint didn’t answer. And he didn’t answer when she called again after the meeting.
Hours later, she discovered why. After his performance in Madrid that night, right around the time the board convened, Toussaint had collapsed, felled by a fatal heart attack at age 77.
For Sebastian and her fellow board members, the personal loss was tremendous, the pain acute. But once the initial shock wore off, they forced themselves to temporarily set aside their grief and confront a more practical, but no less immediate, concern: the fate of the fundraiser.
“Just because your heart is broken, the world doesn’t stop,” Sebastian said. “We couldn’t ignore the reality that this show was on the table and the tickets had already been sold. We had a bunch of people wanting to know what we were going to do.”
Ultimately, the show would go on. Tuesday’s concert at Le Petit Théâtre, still featuring Simon, is now a tribute to Toussaint. All tickets, priced at $300 or $500 apiece, are sold out.
But the long-term implications of Toussaint’s passing for New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness are unclear.
Toussaint, even more so than co-founder Aaron Neville, served as the organization’s public face. But he was much more.
“He was really the rock that held us together,” said Sister Jane Remson, the Carmelite nun who was the group’s president for 24 years and still serves on its board. “He was a motivational force.”
He also was their conscience. As Remson recalled, “Allen always said, ‘Remember why we formed this group. We are blessed. We need to see about people who are not as blessed.’
“We want to continue that mission. It shouldn’t go with Allen.”
‘A star magnet’
New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness took shape during a 1985 meeting in the office of then-New Orleans Mayor Ernest “Dutch” Morial.
Toussaint and Neville wanted to help alleviate persistent local need for food and shelter. Remson, representing the local chapter of Bread for the World, a national, church-based, anti-hunger initiative, also was invited to attend.
She, Toussaint and Neville resolved to launch a nonprofit with the literal moniker New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness. They’d fund it with benefit concerts and celebrity mixers.
To date, the nonprofit has distributed more than $2 million in grants. This year’s recipients included Ozanam Inn, the Lazarus Project, the St. Jude Community Center, Luke’s House Clinic and Food for Families. The organization also operates on a micro level, dispensing small amounts in emergency situations.
“We’re not a mega-charity. We’re nimble and personal about it,” said NOAAHH President Pierre “Pete” Hilzim, proprietor of Kajun Kettle Foods and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s popular Crawfish Monica booth. “We like people who are actually doing the job — feeding people, housing kids and mothers.
“We do our homework. We know them, and how they operate. It’s very satisfying to know that what we do goes directly to where it needs to be, without any interference. It’s an act of love by all of us.”
Board members are unpaid volunteers; expenses are kept to a minimum. “The only money that doesn’t get given out is what it costs to do the shows,” Hilzim said. “With very few people, we’ve done a whole lot.”
The group has been successful at soliciting celebrities to donate their time. They include Linda Ronstadt, Huey Lewis, Rita Coolidge, Albert Finney, John Goodman, Nicolas Cage, Woody Harrelson, Emmylou Harris, Stephen Stills, Joan Baez, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Chris Owens and Ed Bradley.
In 1995, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, in town for their own concert, showed up at the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary gala at the House of Blues; Page donated an autographed guitar that netted $9,000 at auction. Jimmy Buffett, a repeat performer, flew in his entire Coral Reefer Band, on his own dime, for the 25th anniversary.
Sometimes, Jazz Fest producer and director Quint Davis helped recruit talent. Sometimes Neville did, or Sebastian. Hilzim contacted Stills through a poker buddy. And Remson has amassed an especially impressive show business Rolodex for a nun; her pal Buffett even bought her a new 2010 Ford Escape after her previous car was stolen. “She’s the only nun I take fishing,” Hilzim said. “She’s so funny and so real and so fun to hang out with. That’s why all these artists love her.”
But Toussaint was arguably the organization’s greatest enticement.
“He was a star magnet,” Hilzim said. “Allen called people he worked with, and he worked with so many people. Everybody loved Allen. He was so cool. When he would ask, they would come if they could.”
A dream concert
In the 1990s, Remson wrote to Simon, via Toussaint, hoping to enlist him for a fundraiser. One day, she picked up the phone at her office. The voice on the line identified himself as Paul Simon. Remson thought it was a joke. It wasn’t.
Simon said he would be performing at the University of New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena and was willing to make an appearance afterward at a private reception to benefit the nonprofit. The event at socialite Mickey Easterling’s lakefront home raised $51,000, Remson said, including a five-figure donation from Simon himself.
More recently, Sebastian aspired to pair Simon with Toussaint onstage. But the demands on a star of Simon’s magnitude are immense. Scheduling a night when he, Toussaint and an appropriate venue were all available was tricky.
“He’s a busy guy, but he wanted to do it,” Hilzim said of Simon. “He’d say, ‘Please keep calling me.’ ”
Late this summer, the nonprofit reserved Le Petit Théâtre for Dec. 8 on the tentative promise that Simon would be available. As the date loomed ever closer, Sebastian still hadn’t received confirmation from Simon’s camp. Quoting one of his most famous songs, she intimated to his management that the window of opportunity was “slip slidin’ away.”
That afternoon, she got an answer: Simon was in.
“These two incredible songwriters, doing an intimate performance in an intimate setting — it was something I really wanted to see happen,” Sebastian said. “And now it was happening.”
Locking in the date was only the first step. Hundreds of emails addressed logistical issues from transportation and lodging to what, exactly, Toussaint and Simon would play.
Pinning them down on the details was not easy. “Those two men live today, as in, ‘What am I doing today?’ ” Sebastian said. “The development of the show wasn’t on either one’s front burner.”
Eventually, she succeeded in sketching out a basic framework. Toussaint would open the show with his combo, followed by Simon, who would perform acoustically with the guitarist from his band. Simon and Toussaint would conclude the show onstage together.
What they would play for their collaboration was unknown. Maybe something from Simon’s 1973 album “There Goes Rhymin’ Simon,” to which Toussaint contributed horn arrangements. Perhaps the New Orleans-flavored “Take Me to the Mardi Gras” or “Tenderness.”
Artistic potential aside, the show would raise tens of thousands of dollars for the organization. Toussaint was overjoyed, Sebastian said: “We had the best time talking about how it was going and all the excitement.”
That excitement turned to despair in the early hours of Nov. 10, as news broke of Toussaint’s death in Spain.
Later that morning, a member of Simon’s management team called Sebastian to express sympathy and suggest they talk about the future of the Dec. 8 concert later, when emotions weren’t so raw.
“We didn’t know what would happen,” Hilzim said. “They were in shock, too. Allen and Paul were friends.”
Sebastian reached out to Toussaint’s family, asking for — and receiving — their blessing to carry on with the concert. Simon’s camp soon sent word that he still very much wanted to perform.
In place of Toussaint’s opening set, his band will perform his songs with Cyril Neville, Deacon John, John Boutte, Davell Crawford and Erica Falls, most of whom also participated in a Nov. 20 memorial for Toussaint at the Orpheum Theater.
With the opening segment nailed down, Sebastian believed preparations were complete. But a subsequent email from Simon’s team introduced a fresh wrinkle: Instead of performing acoustically with just a guitarist, Simon wanted to bring his entire band to New Orleans for a full show in tribute to Toussaint.
Originally, his entourage was to consist of four people: Simon, his guitarist, a guitar tech and a manager. Now, 10 more people were coming. Simon’s reps told Sebastian not to worry about the additional logistics and expense — they would handle everything.
The end result? An act that normally fills arenas will play to fewer than 400 people in a small theater. “Paul wanted to honor Allen by benefiting his charity,” Sebastian said. “It’s going to be incredible.”
What will happen beyond Tuesday night, however, is less certain. Toussaint’s death was undoubtedly a blow to New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness.
Despite an increasingly busy tour schedule in the decade since Hurricane Katrina, Toussaint was still hands-on. Traditionally, the charity doles out grant checks during a symbolic, no-frills meal of red beans and rice at Loyola University. “He came to every event, ate his red beans and rice, and met with every grant recipient,” Remson said.
They had discussed the need to involve younger artists. Going forward without Toussaint, that initiative takes on greater urgency.
“Allen suggested people that he had mentored,” Remson said. “Now they recognize that it’s time for them to step up.”
Case in point: Just this week, pop singer Cyndi Lauper, who employed Toussaint’s skills on her 2010 album “Memphis Blues,” ponied up a $5,000 sponsorship for Tuesday’s show.
That show will, at times, be bittersweet. “But Allen was a happy person,” Remson said. “I expect that his emotion will be there. The memorial (on Nov. 20) was a celebration. I think this show will continue that.”
Without Toussaint, says board member Stephen Klein, “we will have to work twice as hard to be half as good. The fact is, Mr. Toussaint’s clout in the music industry, and his respect around the world, was paramount. We will be OK, though. We will take what we have learned and try to build on that.”
Tuesday’s concert will conclude Toussaint’s 30-year affiliation with the charity he loved. Fittingly, the finale is yet another memorable night of music.
“We’ve had some really fun nights with this thing — it’s been a fun ride,” Hilzim said. But, he adds, “I worry about what we’ll do in the future.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera