Keys to the City

A ramble through the living tradition of New Orleans piano night

A century ago, you could hardly walk a block in New Orleans without hearing the sound of a piano. On crowded streets like Rampart, Basin, and Bourbon, a cacophony of piano keys emanated from every bar and cafe. Before the radio, and then the jukebox, every establishment that wanted their patrons entertained had to have a piano at the ready. The ubiquity of the instrument meant endless opportunities for musicians. Those wanting to immerse themselves in the city’s nightlife could get by playing for free drinks and tips, and those with loftier musical ambitions could develop their skills on the job until they earned such a reputation for excellence that more mediocre musicians would scatter whenever these “professors” entered the bar. As New Orleans piano legend “Tuts” Washington recalled to music historian Jeff Hannusch of his mentor, Joseph Louis “Red” Cayou, “Red could walk into any joint in town and run anybody offa piano. Piano players were scared to play when Red walked in the door.”

Today, the glory days of New Orleans piano are long gone, as is the entertainment economy that gave musicians the freedom to hone their craft while making a decent living. Gigs are hard to come by and rarely pay enough to cover the precipitously high cost of life in the 21st century. The club proprietors who hire them aren’t doing much better. But that doesn’t mean the tradition has died out completely. Every Monday night in New Orleans, a direct line opens up to the past, first with Henrietta Alves at Sidney’s Saloon and then with Brian Coogan at Saturn Bar, during which each bar offers the precious opportunity to see a New Orleans piano original in their element.

Henrietta Alves played on Bourbon Street at Pat O’Brien’s for 35 years and lived to tell the tale. She’s heard every dirty joke there is, has watched musical duets end with a choreographed bar brawl, and once chased an armed gunwoman down the street. When I ask her to tell me the wildest thing she ever saw on Bourbon, she looks me right in the eye. “Just know that it was so crazy and so bad that I don’t feel I can repeat it.”

Alves grew up in Clarkson, Mississippi, where she says every young lady was given ballet and piano lessons. “The ballet didn’t stick,” says Alves, “but I’m grateful I was one of the ones who stayed with piano.” But Mississippi was not somewhere she felt she belonged. “They were all these rich plantation owners, and there was a real caste system,” she says. “I decided I was not going to keep living with the feeling that I was an underling.” Though Alves temporarily submitted to the social pressure for young women to work in education, when she took a summer job as a singer in a Gulf Coast hotel she knew she had found her calling. “I never looked back,” she says.

After playing the circuit of high-end Gulf Coast vacation spots, in 1979 Alves felt she was ready to try her luck in New Orleans. When asked if she arrived in time to catch Professor Longhair before his death in 1980, she was pleased to say she did. “I went to his birthday celebration at Tipitina’s, and I went to his funeral,” she says. “I knew I was witnessing some kind of history.” The death of Professor Longhair marked a changing of the guard, a sign that the old days of New Orleans piano were slipping out of memory. But the city still had a high demand for piano players who knew how to entertain a crowd, and there were plenty of ways for newcomers to prove themselves.

Alves headed to Pat O’Brien’s, which she said at the time was like “Valhalla for cover piano players,” where she got a job that they wouldn’t let her quit—though she tried a few times. She traveled for a while, including to Brazil, where she met her second husband—also a musician. But when she got pregnant after they came back to New Orleans and he was struggling to get gigs, she figured it was once again time to give Pat O’s a call. “They took me when I was pregnant, and I played there for all those years.” For decades after that, keeping Bourbon Street tourists entertained was her full-time job. She’d play any song that was requested—if it wasn’t already in her exhaustive repertoire, she’d learn it on the spot. Locals loved her too—she says proudly that she was able to count Chris Owens and her husband among her fans. A Pat O’Brien’s fixture, Alves couldn’t picture herself doing anything else. “My joke was, one day I’m just going to drop dead right here at this piano, and for the rest of your life you could say, ‘I was there the day that lady just dropped dead,’” she says. “But then COVID came.”

When Sidney’s Saloon offered her their Monday night 6-to-8 time slot, Alves was reeling from the loss of the gig she had held down for decades, as well as the loss of income. Social Security might have been enough to get by on 10 years ago, but now it doesn’t come close to cutting it. Though the Sidney’s gig isn’t the same kind of moneymaker, it is a chance for her to connect with the city in a new way as a performer. “I’m determined to make a thing of it,” she says. “It’s a great dive bar—playing there is like having a party.”

When I went to Sidney’s one Monday to investigate, I saw for myself she wasn’t kidding. As a Bourbon Street veteran, Alves fits squarely into the tradition of New Orleans barrelhouse piano, where the primary job is to keep the joint jumping to keep the people drinking. Henrietta Alves knows how to work a room. Though the crowd at her Monday night show is intimate, it is adoring. Upon entering the room, she eagerly shouts your name into the mic as her fingers express their delight on the piano; and if she doesn’t know your name yet, she’ll ask.

She is disarming and honest, and loves to poke fun at herself. “Back in the day Bonnie Raitt’s manager wanted to manage me, but she wasn’t famous at the time,” Alves tells the audience. “I said, “Well in that case I’ll wait for Linda Ronstadt’s manager.’ Now I play at Sidney’s,” she says ruefully before launching into a rousing version of “I Will Survive.” Seamlessly weaving her banter with the crowd in between—and during—her songs, she goes around the room to find out what everyone wants to hear. She doesn’t know all of the songs requested, but it only takes her a minute to figure out how to play a new one, which she proceeds to do with aplomb.  “I’m not cool,” Alves demurs, “I’m just here to play y’alls favorite songs.” The room loves her for it, and she loves them right back.

Holding the attention of the crowd has always been key to mastering the art of the New Orleans piano night. For the old school barrelhouse players, it took hard work and innovation to even be heard above the noisy barroom crowds, and successful techniques were passed down through the generations. Champion Jack Dupree’s mentor, Drive ‘Em Down Willie Hall, developed a piano style—later adopted by Dupree, Cousin Joe, and Professor Longhair—in which he tucked his thumb and banged his left fist on the keyboard to make the bass jump over the boisterous patrons. “I learned a lot from sitting down in the corner and watching his hands,” said Dupree.

Blue Lu Barker, Danny Barker, and Tuts Washington performing at Tipitina’s, 1978. Photography by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.2.320.

Beyond entertaining the masses, New Orleans piano players also faced the challenge of mastering the instrument itself. “A sax or trumpet can only play one note at a time, but with the 10 fingers of a piano player you have the entire band,” says Lily Keber, whose documentary Bayou Maharajah immortalizes the life of the eccentric New Orleans piano legend James Booker. “On those solo piano nights, the piano player had to be the best bass player, the best horn player, and the best singer—they were the best of the entire musicianship of New Orleans in one place. That’s what made them so special.” Bar flies may not have been terribly picky about a piano player’s skill level, but if you wanted to impress the city’s legends you’d better be prepared to bring it on piano night.

Even stars of the New Orleans golden age of R&B didn’t always pass muster with the old greats. Tuts Washington considered a backup band with a piano player to be a sign that they couldn’t stand on their own. He accused Fats Domino of needing “a band behind him to sound good,” and said that when he tried to teach Professor Longhair some piano tricks, “he couldn’t make it.” According to Washington, James Booker was the only player “good enough to play on Bourbon Street.”

The impossibly high bar for New Orleans piano goes a long way towards explaining why Brian Coogan, who is widely acknowledged as one of the best piano players in the city, is so self-effacing. Infinitely more interested in the piano than his personal brand, he seems allergic to self-promotion. Nevertheless, his Monday piano night has a reputation for being an underground gem, a Saturn Bar go-to that occupies the position that King James and the Special Men left vacant, though the music is very different. King James and the Special Men may have harkened back to the golden age of R&B, but Coogan is of an even older school.

Coogan’s family is from New Orleans, though he grew up in Baton Rouge. His father’s high school brought Irma Thomas to one of their school dances, and throughout his childhood the New Orleans greats were always coming through the speakers. He got his start as a gigging musician during high school, when he started playing at the M’s Fine & Mellow Cafe, a storied Baton Rouge listening room whose proprietress made it a point to encourage young talent. After high school he lived out his dreams of making experimental music in New York, but New Orleans kept pulling him back. “Every time I came back, I’d be like, oh, no, this is it. This feels like home to me,” he says. “It’s not just my ancestral home for the last six generations, or whatever it is. This is my place.”

Coogan isn’t a traditionalist in the sense that he’s a stickler for the old New Orleans standards; his setlists are creative and wide ranging. “I think it would be boring to just play the New Orleans stompers all the way through the set,” he says. Instead, Coogan’s deft hands bring all the songs on his heavily curated list under the New Orleans umbrella. Stevie Wonder is a setlist regular, as is Bonnie Raitt, and a few weeks ago he did the classic doo-wop song, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” But he gives each song a new home by infusing it with the city’s unmistakable piano sound. “You can take a pop song or an R&B song and cast it in the light of New Orleans,” he says.

In keeping with the tradition of the old New Orleans “professors,” Coogan is constantly working to improve his playing. Lately he has been practicing playing the Cuban clave rhythm with his left hand and melodies with his right, a process that requires seemingly endless and mechanical repetition. “You can split your brain to a certain point, but after that it has to be automatic,” he says. Beyond learning new techniques, Coogan also tailors each Monday night performance to ensure there is no repetition. By the time he shows up to Saturn Bar, he’s spent hours selecting songs and practicing them, and the thought he puts into the setlist is a treat for those who are paying attention. His rendition of “Taxman,” for instance, a song I’ve always thought sounded a little petulant coming from millionaire George Harrison at the height of the Beatles’ popularity, adds new layers of meaning by giving it a New Orleans sound. In New Orleans, where the ruling class has felt entitled to graft for generations, complaining about taxes is a more subversive activity.

Brian Coogan

Not everybody is paying attention, of course. The crowd on this particular Monday night is diffuse. In the front room, people make themselves plates at the red beans and rice station by the door and linger next to the bar. Outside, the cigarette smokers chat as piano notes spill richly out the door, beckoning to passersby. The sounds of the bustling dive bar carry over to the balcony above Coogan’s piano, where people nod appreciatively as he plays. He sings “Street People” by Bobby Charles, followed by some James Booker and Smiley Lewis. The dance floor in front of him has been emptied of people, but there are plenty of cockroaches scurrying across it, looking for all the world like they’re doing the boogie-woogie. Coogan is too deep in the music to notice when one of the cockroaches flies onto the side of the piano, but in between songs they catch his eye, and he plays a spirited rendition of “La Cucaracha” in their honor. “It’s their favorite song, or so I’ve heard,” he says to the audience, and the way they seem to pick up their feet to the tune leaves me convinced that they were moved by the gesture.

Building your reputation as a New Orleans piano player is a humbling process, and there are no shortcuts. Earning your stripes takes years of dedication and countless nights in front of tough crowds. For Tuts Washington, a hit record was often just a flash in the pan, whereas a reputation for being the best in New Orleans meant you had put in the work and proved yourself time and again. “I never did have to make no records,” he said. “I always been havin’ a name around New Orleans for my playin’ ability. Now a lot of these boys get a record out, they need one to get a name,” he said. Even while watching the younger generation make money hand over fist from recording, he maintained his position that record sales are no marker of a quality musician. In the decades since Washington spoke those words, the music industry has only become more focused on churning out hits and increasing sales, such that most reputations nowadays are built by the numbers.

But the piano night tradition is one of the few remaining expressions of the old New Orleans way. Henrietta Alves, who came to New Orleans so many years ago to prove she was good enough to play on Bourbon Street and is now one of the city’s musical elder stateswomen, says that holding on to this older model isn’t easy. During our interview, she is delighted to take a call from Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, another piano legend, who she thanks for coming out to her show at Sidney’s the previous Monday. Later, Alves includes him in a list of older piano greats that are struggling to find their audiences amidst the acceleration of technology and the short memories of the young. This isn’t true across the board—judging by her set at Sidney’s, her fanbase includes plenty of younger people who appreciate her charm. But traditions can only continue if they are carried forward, and as it gets harder and harder to make a living as a musician by keeping your ego on the back burner, this particular tradition appears to be in a precarious position.

From the perspective of the younger generation, Brian Coogan sees the precarity of piano night, but doesn’t believe in it any less for that. “I do sort of romanticize the idea of the person walking down to the corner bar where there’s a piano player that shows up and really plays the thing,” he says. “It’s not really for commercial purposes. It’s like—it’s Monday night. We can just come together in a community kind of way, and have some drinks, listen to music, and hang out.” The magic may lie in its simplicity, but as Coogan says, “there’s something really, deeply, exciting about that.”

photos by Avery Leigh White

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