“I fell in love with the sound of the clarinet before I owned one,” reports Tim Laughlin, by cell phone, on an Indian summer morning. “A buddy down the street in Gentilly Woods had one. I was about 8, and got my own.”
That was in the early 1970s. After music lessons, he advanced to saxophone in middle school at Holy Cross, continuing through 12th grade. “I played in the concert and marching bands. At night I’d listen to jazz rather than study music.”
The radio yielded a magical sound: Pete Fountain and His Mardi Gras Strutters. At Laughlin’s 17th birthday dinner at the Hilton, where Fountain had a club, they met. “He gave me some [clarinet] reeds, a couple of albums and said, ‘Come by any time.’”
The doorman, Wimpy Courrege (Captain of Fountain’s Half-Fast Marching Club) refused to let him in until he was 18. “For an entire year I sat in the foyer, only seeing Pete after the show.” One night Wimpy said, “Hey kid, you want something to drink?” A beer! Laughlin sat in the hallway, drinking his illegal beer, dreaming of a career playing in clubs.
That began out of high school. “My parents went through the Depression and wondered where I’d get money to stuff in the mattress. I lost my dad at 15. ‘So what are you going to do now?’ my mom asked. ‘Play music!’ She just looked at me.”
Laughlin has been a mainstay on New Orleans-Style clarinet for three decades with a string of recordings, concert tours, gigs at Palm Court, the Bombay Club and other local venues. He had a five-year association with the Dukes of Dixieland, including a 1992 concert at Carnegie Hall that included his mom in the audience.
His latest CD, Tim Laughlin: The Trio Collection, Vol. 1, features ballads, swing waltzes and a tender take on “Old Rugged Cross” with drummer Hal Smith, and David Boeddinghaus on the 1922 Mason & Hamlin piano that Juliet, Tim’s wife, imported from California for their home on Royal Street, where the recording was made.
“I went to the Conservatory of Bourbon Street,” he chuckles of his early years, hustling gigs. “[Trumpeter] Murphy Campo got me to join the union. Paul Crawford of Crawford Ferguson Night Owls helped me arrange my first CD in (19)91. George Buck put out my first five albums. He helped me get my name out there. Later on I started self-producing on my own label.”
Laughlin has a full, graceful tone with the flex to go sweet and mellow on “Must Be Right, Can’t Be Wrong,” a melody suggesting life as an easy amble, composed by Jabbo Smith in the Great Depression.
Laughlin’s mentor was Connie Jones, the cornetist and trumpeter, who lately retired at 82. Fountain, who recently died at 86, had long influence.
“It was Pete’s phrasing and language of jazz that really struck me,” Laughlin says. “He worked well with the ensemble but played the melody on records. You could almost dance to him if he was playing by himself, he could swing that well. I used to tease him that every note had a smile. He told me, ‘Work on your tone. You’ve got the rest of your life to learn technique.’ He was right.”
“For every hour I practiced, I would listen to a record for an hour. Jazz is about note placement. On a great Armstrong solo, there’s space in there, and beauty in between the space,” he says. “I’m concentrating on my phrasing to become a better story teller, to use space, like a good orator would pause in the right place to capture the listener. You state the melody, the comfort zone, and the listener is challenged to stay with the story teller on a journey that’s a pleasure for the musician and listener as well.”