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Summer Songs: New Music Takes On Old Favorites


And now we continue our summer song series. We're talking to Gwen Thompkins, host of the program "Music Inside Out," which is heard on member station WWNO in New Orleans. She's introducing us to a handful of contemporary artists who've offered a new take on some old classics.

Allen Toussaint has been writing songs, and shaping the New Orleans rhythm & blues and rock sound, since he was a teenager. Now he's in his 70s, and he's experimenting with jazz. And Gwen Thompkins is back with us. Hi, Gwen.

GWEN THOMPKINS, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: Great. So tell us about Allen Toussaint.

THOMPKINS: Now, this guy is just a - he's a legend here, and he's a legend in American music. You know, if you like Paul Simon or Bonnie Raitt or, you know, Joan Osborne or Glenn Campbell, you have heard Allen Toussaint - or LaBelle, for instance. I mean, he's the one who arranged the music for "Lady Marmalade," you know. But not until a few years ago, when he was over 70 years old, did Toussaint decide that he was going to sit down and start listening to, you know, the elders, really. I mean, here's a guy who was over 70, Michel, and he had never heard Louis Armstrong's "West End Blues"...

MARTIN: How...

THOMPKINS: ...Which is extraordinary.

MARTIN: How is that possible?

THOMPKINS: I think when you're doing your own thing and when you're working really hard, you are suffused in your own ambitions. And I think he realized that his love of music connected him to Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and, you know, Duke Ellington and all of these greats.

MARTIN: So what are you going to play for us?

THOMPKINS: Oh, well, this was so fabulous. OK. I went to Allen Toussaint's house to talk with him. I'd never done so before. I fell in love with him immediately, of course. And I asked him if he might play a song for us, and then I said, I'll give you three choices, Mr. Toussaint.

I'll give you the choice of either playing "Winin' Boy Blues," which is the great Jelly Roll Morton classic, or "Solitude," which is of course the great Duke Ellington ballad, and "Blue Drag," which is from Django Reinhardt, but which Sidney Bechet made so popular. And then he played them all in one medley. And that's what we're going to hear, at home with Allen Toussaint, at his grand piano.


THOMPKINS: And you know, he's self-taught.

MARTIN: Self-taught?


MARTIN: Now, my self-esteem was already taking a blow. You're telling me he's entirely self-taught?

THOMPKINS: Yes. He is. He says he had about two weeks of lessons in life, but they weren't contiguous. You know, so, you know, Toussaint grew up in a household in which his mother, you know, played the radio a lot and he learned how to play the piano listening to classical music on the radio, and listening to Professor Longhair play, who was also a great pianist from this area. And that man, I mean, when he sits at a piano, it's really something special.


MARTIN: What makes this song quintessentially American?

THOMPKINS: Well, I think that Toussaint's interest in his elders at this stage of his life shows that we're all students and there's always a student within us, at any age, who is trying to connect to the very masters on whose shoulders he stands. And that's sort of a very American concept, you know, this idea that people from very disparate traditions can find commonality.

MARTIN: That's Gwen Thompkins. Gwen, thank you.

THOMPKINS: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: That was New Orleans musician Allen Toussaint, reimagining the jazz masters, and you can hear more of his music and his conversation with Gwen Thompkins, the host of "Music Inside Out," at WWNO.org. And that's our program for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.