Pete Fountain, who died Aug. 6 at 86, wasn't just a New Orleans musician. He was one of the city's greatest cultural ambassadors of the 20th century, in a league with Louis Armstrong and Paul Prudhomme. There will never be another quite like him.
Fountain began playing clarinet as a child after a doctor told his parents the exercise might build up their son's weak lungs. He attended McDonogh 28 and Warren Easton High School and was playing in Bourbon Street nightclubs by the time he was a teenager. His personality and good-time approach to jazz earned him a spot on The Lawrence Welk Show, where he first was introduced to national audien- ces in the 1950s.
After he left the show (his playfulness didn't always mesh with Welk's muted style), Fountain went on to open several Bourbon Street music clubs that bore his name. He became a semi-regular on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where he frequently sat in with the Doc Severinsen Orchestra, clocking dozens of appearances in the 1960s and '70s. Each time, he brought his joyful version of Dixieland to America and showed how popular — and accessible — the art form of jazz could be.
As times and tastes changed, Fountain moved into his own eponymous lounge at the Hilton New Orleans Riverside, where he entertained and brought in guest stars until 2003. His semi-retirement on the Mississippi Gulf Coast was ended in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home there. He spent his last years in New Orleans. His final public appearance was at the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. A look back at newspaper archives shows Fountain playing at dozens of benefits, many of which raised money for local groups and schools.
Even more than music, Pete Fountain's gift to the world was New Orleans' sense of fun, celebration and joie de vivre. At no time was this more evident than Fat Tuesday, when he and friends would gather in the Garden District for an early breakfast, then walk to the French Quarter while playing instruments, having a few drinks and greeting the public. As marching krewes became more numerous and elaborate in the 1990s, Fountain's "Half-Fast Walking Club" kept doing what it always did: costuming modestly and plunging into the spirit of the day with Pete in the lead.
This Wednesday, Aug. 17, New Orleans will say goodbye to Fountain in the style befitting a true ambassador. A visitation at St. Louis Cathedral (where Fountain played for Pope John Paul II during the pope's 1987 visit to New Orleans) will run from 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., followed by words of remembrance. A Mass will be celebrated from noon to 1 p.m. After that — what else? — a jazz funeral and second line through the French Quarter. All of New Orleans will be there in spirit.
— WYES-TV will air its 1980 Fountain documentary, Pete!, three times this week, at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 15, 6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 21.