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Interview: Van Dyke Parks 

Will Coviello talks to the composer who will appear at Fess Fest and Snug Harbor this week

click to enlarge Van Dyke Parks, who grew up in Mississippi and Louisiana, performs Saturday at Snug Harbor.

Van Dyke Parks, who grew up in Mississippi and Louisiana, performs Saturday at Snug Harbor.

Pianist, composer and arranger Van Dyke Parks jokes that he found the anonymity he always sought. But even if he isn't a household name, he's had a very successful career in popular music. Parks is best known for collaborations with Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, and he has also worked with everyone from The Byrds to Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Ringo Starr and Three Dog Night.

  Parks spent many years working behind the scenes for Warner Bros. and he was instrumental in getting the company to release Allen Toussaint's Southern Nights (on the Reprise label) in 1975.

  "I was fortunate enough to be in New Orleans to bear witness to Allen Toussaint coming out with that incredible record," Parks says. "It'll live on through the ages — when Glen Campbell isn't even a memory."

  Parks visits New Orleans to perform with another local pianist whom he's helped with an album: Tom McDermott, who recently released Bamboula. Together with Fess Fest, a fundraiser to restore the home of Professor Longhair, it's a week celebrating New Orleans piano players.

  Parks was born in Hattiesburg, Miss., and spent his early years in Lake Charles, La., before his family moved to Los Angeles, where he's lived for most of his life. While he helped promote popular artists for Warner Bros., he's always kept more eclectic tastes.

  "I have been wallowing in the pop music racket for 40 years," he says. "I don't listen to pop music. I listen to music that is outside the box. Even from my teenage years — Tal Farlow, George Van Eps, Fats Waller ... — everything that was excellent in music came together in my house."

  It was another native New Orleans pianist and composer that linked him with McDermott: Louis Moreau Gottschalk.

  "Gottschalk did something that would infect my preferences for music for the rest of my life," Parks says. "Folk music, music of the street, would be arranged for literature — for piano sheet music. That was true for Percy Grainger, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Beethoven and his Ode to Joy. I have always loved music where you can feel the heat of the street."

  Gottschalk was born in New Orleans in 1829 and was recognized as a piano prodigy at an early age. He studied in Europe, returned to the U.S. and traveled often, spending time in Cuba and Brazil. His tune "Bamboula," the title track on McDermott's album, was composed in the mid-1840s, along with some other songs based on Creole melodies.

  Aware of Parks' enthusiasm for Gottschalk, McDermott reached out to him. They corresponded and Parks agreed to curate the album, which was released on Minky Records. McDermott shared 80 recordings, and Parks selected 16 tracks. The album includes several compositions by Scott Joplin but most songs were composed by McDermott. Many recordings feature his longtime collaborator, clarinetist Evan Christopher.

  "[The album] has got physicality," Parks says. "[McDermott]'s very hip to South America. He's looking out beyond the levees and beyond the continent to be refreshed by other rhythms. It's a sampling of Tom McDermott. There's some stuff that he does that is totally outside the box."

  At Snug Harbor, two shows each feature a double bill. Parks will perform with percussionist Don Heffington, bassist Jim Singleton, cellist Helen Gillet and harpist Rachel Van Voorhees. Then McDermott will be joined by Michael Skinkus and other guests. Parks will play some of Gottschalk's music, and other selections from his eclectic tastes.

  "The songs I sing tend to be topical or tropical and often both," Parks says. "I try to do topical stuff without being a scold. I talk about how we can make this world more fair for 99 percent of the people — where I came from."

On Thursday, the Tipitina's Foundation sponsors Fess Fest, an event to raise funds to rebuild Professor Longhair's family home on Terpsichore Street.

  The lineup includes British actor and pianist Hugh Laurie and keyboardist Joe Cocker. Laurie will be familiar to fans of the TV drama House, but he's a fan of New Orleans music. He was interviewed about James Booker's music in Lily Keber's recently premiered documentary Bayou Maharajah, and his recent album Didn't It Rain includes a cover of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina."

  The concert also features Jon Cleary, Donald Harrison Jr., George Porter Jr., Alfred "Uganda" Roberts, Shannon Powell, Detroit Brooks, Mark Mullins and others. The TIP intern program band also will perform.

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