Perched on a stool in a Carrollton home studio, Reggie Scanlan cradled his bass guitar, preparing his bandmates for a future without him.
He and the New Orleans Suspects, the band he co-founded as his 33-year run with the Radiators wound down, were rehearsing “Yield Not to Temptation,” an old Bobby “Blue” Bland song.
During a typically busy and collaborative New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivalseason, the Suspects planned to play “Yield Not to Temptation” with guest bassist Oteil Burbridge, an alumnus of the Allman Brothers Band.
Burbridge won’t be their last replacement bassist.
In the spring of 2012, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor surrounding Scanlan’s pancreas. He underwent a 17-hour operation to remove it.
Two days after his discharge from the hospital, he joined the New Orleans Suspects onstage at the 2012 Jazz Fest. He has continued to record and tour with them throughout the ups and downs of his medical ordeal.
But his doctors have advised him that the rigors of the road — uneven sleep, questionable food and, most critically, long hours in a van — are taking too much of a toll. One complication of Scanlan’s condition could result in internal bleeding, potentially fatal if he’s not near a hospital.
And so he has decided to resign from the New Orleans Suspects and give up touring. The band’s Sunday performance at 12:20 p.m. on Jazz Fest’s main Acura Stage kicks off his farewell week.
For more than 40 years, Scanlan has exported New Orleans music to the world. He backed such local legends as Professor Longhair, James Booker, Earl King, Snooks Eaglin and Eddie Bo.
For three-plus decades, he anchored the Radiators, one of the city’s best-loved and most widely traveled bands.
Since the Radiators disbanded five years ago, Scanlan, now 64, has built the New Orleans Suspects into a globe-trotting enterprise of its own, with more than 500 shows to its credit.
But when the Suspects next climb into the van, he won’t be with them. And he’s fine with that.
“I’m thankful that we got as far as we did, and thrilled that they’re going to carry on,” he said. “It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than any person in the band. I’m anxious to see what happens with them.”
When the recent rehearsal concluded, Jake Eckert, the band’s guitarist, picked up his bandmate’s bass. As they headed toward Scanlan’s car, Eckert said, “You’re looking so much better.”
Scanlan agreed. “I’m getting closer to being able to carry my bass,” he said. “My back still has a couple issues, but it’s getting better. That’s all I care about.”
New Orleans pedigree
Based on his accent alone, Reggie Scanlan’s deep New Orleans pedigree is apparent. He grew up Uptown, not far from where he and his wife still live.
High school did not agree with him. After stints at De La Salle and Redemptorist, he finally graduated from Fortier. “There were a lot of subjects I wasn’t interested in,” he said.
One subject he was interested in was the bass. As a teenager, he hung out at Preservation Hall, pestering bassist Chester Zardis, one of the hall’s old masters of traditional jazz, with questions.
At 19, he was working in a warehouse and playing late-night gigs on Bourbon Street. He’d go get blown away by the Meters at the Nite Cap lounge: “They would make your hair stand up.”
He got hired by James Booker, the flamboyant, supremely talented and utterly unpredictable pianist. As they arrived at Orleans Parish Prison to perform for inmates one day, Booker confided that he had a bag of marijuana stashed in his pants. During the show, Booker called for “When the Saints Go Marching In” — which Scanlan had never played. “From the first two measures, I was lost.”
But he found his way.
“Playing with Booker was a real education,” Scanlan said. “I think he liked me being in his band because I didn’t know much and he could tell me what he wanted.
“ ‘Iko Iko’ would turn into a Chopin piece and then a Frank Sinatra song and then back to ‘Iko,’ and it all made sense. It opened up the idea that everybody plays with the same notes, so all music is basically the same. Genres don’t matter. Music is music.”
Scanlan followed his future wife, Sally Cornelsen, to California as she worked toward a degree in art. He detested Los Angeles but liked the San Francisco Bay area. He found work on the “chitlin circuit,” making $25 a night.
Violence was not uncommon in the clubs. “It was a big adventure,” he said. “I thought, ‘This is really the blues.’ ”
The older bluesmen liked that he played “old-school.” Other young musicians wanted to slap and pop the strings. Scanlan knew how to lay back and let a ballad breathe.
A call from back home
His California residency ended the day he got a call from New Orleans piano master Professor Longhair. “To me, that was like the Beatles calling,” Scanlan said. “I told Fess I’d be on the next plane.”
Playing with Longhair, Scanlan “was in hog heaven. It was one of the biggest honors of my life to be onstage with him. It was the same as if you came up in Chicago and you were in Muddy Waters’ band. Fess was a prince.”
After a year, Longhair’s manager fired the entire band. Their last show was Jan. 28, 1978, at the Dream Palace on Frenchmen Street.
That afternoon, Scanlan joined guitarist and singer Dave Malone at a five-hour jam session that included drummer Frank Bua, guitarist Camile Baudoin and keyboardist Ed Volker. They reconvened two days later and learned a Volker original composition, “Red Dress.”
With that, the Radiators were born. “It was a seamless transition,” Scanlan said. “We had a rapport with each other from the very beginning.”
The rowdy Radiators
Their initial ambitions were modest. “We figured that if we stayed together for six months and made enough to pay rent, we were a super-successful New Orleans band,” Scanlan said. “But then the whole thing ran away with us.”
The Radiators built their reputation via all-night gigs at the Dream Palace and rowdy sessions at Luigi’s, a pizzeria near the University of New Orleans. Shirts were set on fire at Luigi’s. One time, a chainsaw destroyed a table.
The “jam band” movement, with its emphasis on improvisation, was in its infancy. That audience, and far-flung pockets of Tulane University graduates, embraced the Radiators. They toured relentlessly, logging more than 4,500 shows and building a catalog of hundreds of songs.
“We were extraordinarily lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” Scanlan said. “I don’t think those things can happen anymore.”
By the time the Radiators ran out of steam in 2011, Scanlan had already assembled the New Orleans Suspects as “a fun little thing? its members could pursue on the side. Their all-star roster included longtime Neville Brothers drummer Willie Green, Dirty Dozen Brass Band guitarist Jake Eckert, classically trained keyboardist C.R. Gruver and, as the most recent addition, saxophonist Jeff Watkins, a veteran of both the James Brown and Joss Stone bands.
Hitting the road
Two weeks after the Radiators’ farewell shows, Scanlan hit the road with the Suspects. He talked his bandmates “into believing it could be a real, full-time band. Once I browbeat everybody into doing it, it took on its own life and developed its own sound. People responded in a very positive way.”
In early 2012, Scanlan returned home from a Suspects tour of Colorado. His wife thought he looked jaundiced; otherwise, he felt fine. The next day, he went to a doctor.
Scans revealed an enormous cancerous growth had encased Scanlan’s pancreas, creating its own vascular system. Two weeks later, he underwent a complex surgery called a Whipple procedure. His surgeon, Dr. John Bolton, opened him up and removed his entire pancreas. “Dr. Bolton is the reason I’m still here,” Scanlan said.
He spent a month in the hospital, dealing with various complications. Upon his discharge, he insisted on joining the New Orleans Suspects for their opening-day show on the Acura Stage at the 2012 Jazz Fest.
The gig was too important to miss: Scanlan had lobbied hard to persuade Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis that the Suspects were no longer just a side project, but a real, full-time band that deserved a spot at the festival.
“The Radiators had broken up; the Neville Brothers had broken up. Jake had quit the Dirty Dozen to do this,” Scanlan said. “After all that, I told my surgeon that there was no way I wasn’t going to do this.”
Scanlan agreed to follow a strict regimen: He would arrive at the Fair Grounds 30 minutes before show time, play the gig, then leave immediately afterward. No hanging out backstage, no roaming through the crowds to the food booths.
“My doctor basically said, ‘I don’t want to have gone through a 17-hour operation and then have you kill yourself at Jazz Fest,’ ” Scanlan said.
He credits his team at the Neuroendocrine Tumor program at Ochsner Medical Center’s Kenner campus for his survival. “They’ve kept me up and running for the last four years,” he said. “Whatever they tell me, I take that to the bank.”
Cancer cells are still present, but they are slow-moving. The strategy is to monitor their progress closely, then stamp out brush fires as they flare up. “If the cancer makes a move, then we make a move,” Scanlan said. Otherwise, “we’re not going to wake a sleeping snake.”
Last August, spots appeared on his liver; a specialized chemotherapy treatment addressed them. In December, doctors radiated a lesion on his spinal column.
That lesion was discovered when he was hospitalized for internal bleeding triggered by a condition similar to an internal varicose vein. He missed an OffBeat magazine photo shoot with the other Radiators that was to promote their annual reunion.
Lately he’s been “eating like a horse,” regaining the weight lost while he was in the hospital. “I feel good. I have the energy to work. Everything else as far as my cancer is going along pretty good. It’s not an issue with me playing or not playing,” he said.
‘Other stuff I want to do’
He’s being treated for the vein condition, but doctors were concerned about him suffering a recurrence of the potentially fatal bleeding while in a van in the middle of nowhere.
“I just can’t put myself in a position where I might be dealing with a medical issue and I’m not around a hospital,” Scanlan said. “The doctors basically told me that the long drives have got to stop.”
At age 64, “I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have come to the same decision if I didn’t have cancer. This just hastened it a little bit.
“When you’re 20, you’ll jump in a van and go anywhere. You’ll even go to Indianapolis — it doesn’t matter. It’s an adventure.
“After 40 years on the road, it’s not really the big adventure it used to be, except when you’re onstage. Those two hours are the reason you put yourself through all that stuff after the adventure of being on the road wears off.”
But at some point, “you start thinking that maybe there’s some other stuff I want to do before I check out.”
For Scanlan, that includes catching up with friends, reading a backlog of books and working in his darkroom — photography has long been a passion. He looks forward to spending quality time with Sally; they’ve been together since 1973.
Free agent, full time
“My wife is thrilled. After 40 years, we get to spend time together. I’m going to be home for more than two days at a time. I’m looking forward to what the future holds,” he said.
He fully intends to keep playing music locally “as much as I can. Basically, anything that my phone rings for. It’s more of a semi-retirement, turning into a full-time free agent.”
He may occasionally join the New Orleans Suspects onstage, and he doesn’t view the circumstances that forced him from the band as remarkable.
“A lot of people have these turning points, something that makes them readjust. You don’t get through life without having to deal with them. Life is about dealing with the roadblocks.”
And about knowing when to say when.
For years, Scanlan tried to book more Jazz Fest week gigs than fellow bassist George Porter Jr., to no avail: “One year, I had 18, but George had 21.”
This Jazz Fest, his swan song with the Suspects, he has “only” eight shows lined up.
“Eight’s plenty,” he said. “Eight feels like a nice amount right now.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.