Appropriately enough, it was a piano player who helped save WWOZ's Piano Night.
In early 2017, the community radio station’s management team was in transition. It wasn’t clear who, if anyone, could take charge of Piano Night, which for nearly three decades had raised money for the station on the Monday night between New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival weekends.
Local keyboardist Joe Krown, whose résumé ranges from the Gatemouth Brown and Kenny Wayne Shepherd bands to his own trio with Walter “Wolfman” Washington, had performed at every Piano Night since 1996. When he heard the show might not go on, he called his buddy Marcia Ball, another Piano Night regular.
“With or without WWOZ, we were going to do Piano Night,” Krown said. “But the preference was to go with WWOZ. We wanted to use the name, and it’s a benefit for the station; we wanted to continue that.”
So WWOZ enlisted Krown as Piano Night’s volunteer producer. Working with a small committee that included co-producer Ruth Chouest, he returned the show to its roots.
“We stripped it back down to solo piano performances, with local piano players celebrating the tradition of the New Orleans piano style started by Professor Longhair,” Krown said.
The 30th anniversary WWOZ Piano Night on Monday at the House of Blues will continue in that mode. In addition to Krown and Ball, scheduled performers include Jon Cleary, Ellis Marsalis, Davell Crawford, Henry Gray, Bob Seeley, David Torkanowsky, Tom McDermott, John Autin and Al “Lil Fats” Jackson.
Most of them will be alone onstage with a grand piano for either 25 or 30 minutes. The show starts at 6:30 p.m. and is scheduled to conclude at 11:30 p.m., far earlier than some previous marathon Piano Nights.
General admission, standing-room only tickets start at $50. Various VIP options with seating and a buffet from Jacques-Imo’s also are available.
Professor Longhair, aka Henry Roeland Byrd, is the patron saint of New Orleans piano, cited by the likes of Allen Toussaint and Dr. John as a primary inspiration. Longhair’s image hangs above the stage at Tipitina’s and atop Jazz Fest’s main Acura Stage. He died in 1980 but would have turned 100 this year.
Over the years, Piano Night strayed from its focus on Longhair.
“The whole thing changed,” Krown said. “It evolved from Tipitina’s with a piano and a skeleton band to more of a keyboard festival. Which is not necessarily a negative thing — it’s just different. There were international acts, organists, full bands, solo players, all kinds of different stuff.
“But the original concept was not bringing in guys from all over the world to present their music. It was about us presenting our music.”
Looking to return the focus to the piano, Krown ditched the show's house band. “They were all great musicians — the best in the city. I play with them all. But as a producer, I have to think about what’s best for the audience.”
A house band “limits the piano players to playing material everybody knows – they can’t stretch out. And it’s the same sound because it’s the same band with a different piano player dropped in.”
Alone onstage last year, the pianists’ unique personalities came through, Krown said.
“From piano player to piano player, there was a whole different thing going on. When Ellis Marsalis played, you could hear a pin drop; his touch was so soft. And his sound is so different from Jon Cleary, who is different from Marcia Ball, who is different from David Torkanowsky.”
Not everyone on this year’s roster lives in New Orleans. Ball is based in Austin, Texas, but, as Krown notes, she is “in New Orleans all the time, and her style is based on Longhair’s style.”
Krown also booked legendary Baton Rouge blues pianist Henry Gray “just because he is Henry Gray, and he’s from south Louisiana,” as well as 89-year-old Detroit native Bob Seeley, one of the greatest living boogie-woogie pianists.
Gray and Seeley “are getting up in age,” Krown said. “I want to get them while we still can.”
This year’s show is dedicated to New Orleans’ most famous piano player, Fats Domino, who died last year at age 89. The official 2018 Piano Night poster features a painting of Domino by his longtime friend Haydee Ellis. Al “Lil Fats” Jackson’s Piano Night set will consist entirely of Domino material.
And though Domino is this year's focus, the spirit of Professor Longhair will very much be present.
“He influenced all these players,” Krown said. “When the identity of the New Orleans piano sound came out, he was the focal point. So there’s always a tip of the hat to Professor Longhair.”