Tom McDermott’s Piano
That’s Not A Piano In His Living Room, It’s A Time Machine
The day we visited Tom McDermott’s home, the sound of James Booker’s “Classified” greeted us. It was a sweet gesture: walking into a man’s home to the sound of your radio show’s theme music.
McDermott knows how to communicate with a piano.
Blame it on Rio… and ragtime. McDermott has a piano playing style that smacks of sweet melodies, savory harmonies, and spicy Brazilian rhythm. And he serves up all three this hour. Pull up a chair, and enjoy.
Saint Louis & Ragtime
McDermott grew up in Saint Louis and learned to play piano from his mother and his aunt. He says he heard a lot of classical music in those days, but also ragtime.
“Saint Louis was the capital of that kind of nostalgia,” he tells Gwen Thompkins. “Saint Louis was the first (place) ragtime flourished in a major urban center and there were some people around who were keeping it alive. A big festival every summer. If you were going to be exposed to ragtime as a kid, that would be the place for it to happen.”
“I got into the Joplin revival just a little bit before “The Sting” hit. It started two or three years before. I remember being thrilled at the albums by a guy named Joshua Rifkin coming out and solo piano albums of Joplin rags. I immediately went out and bought a book and started learning.”
And he credits his siblings for expanding his tastes.
“I was a big Beatles fan early on. When the first album came out in 1964, I was only six years old or seven. But I had older brothers, who, including a brother Dan who was a fantastic string player who turned me on to Doc Watson bluegrass and the Grateful Dead and Irish fiddle music and even classical music on guitar. I heard a lot. It was like being in New Orleans in a way. I didn’t hear brass bands. I didn’t hear funk. But I heard a lot of music anyway.”
McDermott has stayed plenty busy since we last spoke. In January, 2015, he released City of Timbres with New Orleans jazz chanteuse Aurora Nealand. Later the same year, he teamed up with Dukes of Dixieland trumpeter and long-time collaborator Kevin Clark to release a collection of old standards called Temptation Rag.
Melody & Sousa
The music of John Philip Sousa seems a somewhat unlikely place to jump into a conversation about melody, but McDermott makes the case.
“Well you know, it is the root of brass band music in a way. It is the white contribution to the brass band music and you could say, if nothing else, he was the greatest composer for brass bands.”
TM I like anybody who can write melody like that whether it is him or Strauss waltzes or Chopin or Scott Joplin or Jobim or the Beatles. That is really what I’m attracted to.
McDermott uses the word choro often. Other musicians do, too. But the word is not in the vocabularies of many outside the world of music.
It’s the Portuguese word for “lament” or “a cry.”
“It also refers to this multi-thematic (musical) form that is older than our ragtime,” says McDermott. “It actually goes back to the 1870’s and is continuous up until today.”
“It went out of style for a while, but now there is a lot of it — it is not unhip to play choros whereas it is unhip to play ragtime, or even traditional jazz outside of New Orleans.”
And, like his counterparts in Brazil, McDermott continues to write in the style. Here he is playing a choro he composed titled “Casa Denise” in a video shot by our colleague Jason Rhein.
The Impact of HBO’s Treme
Tom McDermott has come to the attention of many in the country through his appearances on the HBO series “Treme.” He plays Tom McDermott. A role, you might say, he was born to play.
He thinks the series has been a good thing for New Orleans and for the musicians in the city.
“I think it felt really good. I remember when the fist episodes were airing and there was an argument online about, ‘Well why aren’t they featuring dentists and doctors and lawyers?’ Well they did feature a lawyer. Maybe dentists and doctors and plumbers. And I had to write. I rarely engage in the blogosphere, but I wrote, ‘Look of course we need those things in this town but it is the music and the food and the architecture that is what makes this place what it is. People don’t come here for the plumbing. For the dentistry.’
“So, it is about time that someone noticed that. And you know, reality brought it home. Those guys did. I think in a lot of instances they really hit a home run.”
We have put together a playlist of all the music heard in this hour’s broadcast. Feel free to download the .pdf and take it with you on your next trip to your local record store. Quite a bit of the music is also available for you to stream to your computer or your phone. Enjoy Tom McDermott’s music.
The cover photo of Tom McDermott was shot by Gregg Goldman.