Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts is a leading exponent of early jazz piano. He's played everywhere from New York’s Carnegie Hall and the Tonight Show to the major jazz clubs in the French Quarter.


Leon Redbone: A Remembrance and Appreciation

Thursday morning, May 30th, I was alerted to the passing of Leon Redbone via my Facebook feed. (Such an odd name for a platform that resembles the final product of the digestive system)

It stated:

“It is with heavy hearts that we announce that early this morning,  May 30th, 2019, Leon Redbone crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127. He departed our world with his guitar, his trusty companion Rover, and a simple tip of his hat. He’s interested to see what Blind Blake, Emmett and Jelly Roll have been up to in his absence, and has plans for a rousing sing along number with Sari Barabas.

An eternity pouring through texts at the Library of Ashurbanipal will be a welcome repose, perhaps followed by shot or two of whiskey with Lee Morse, and some long overdue discussions with his favorite uncle Suppiluliuma I of the Hittites.

To his fans, friends and loving family who have already been missing him so in this realm he says “Oh behave yourselves, “Thank you…. And good evening everybody “

I had known that this man, whom I had toured with for many years was ill and living in a hospice (it was just his body living) and the end was expected at some point, so I was not surprised to hear the news.

I collected the CD “Anytime” that I recorded with him, from the upstairs library and descended the stairs to give listen.

At the bottom of my staircase is my newly framed Geology of Leon Redbone containing most of his musical ancestors and as I passed it, I began to cry.

I began to cry because I am who I am today because of him.

EVERY significant event in my life was influenced by HIM.

I would be, if I was still alive, a very different and very miserable individual if I hadn’t delivered a tape that I made to his drummer/bass saxophonist/drummer/banjoist at Graffiti.

Let me explain:

It was the late 1980’s and I was entering the world. I had gone to a local university that had told me that every type of music that I loved was bad. I had tried to conform, I tried to like the music that Pittsburgh told me was the good music, I tried to play it. But it literally gave me seizures. I would be hospitalized for extended periods after becoming unconscious while going through these mysterious seizures that I had never experienced before. I remember the world tilting out of kilter and spinning around me and I would try to right myself against it to no avail. I’d go crashing to the ground losing consciousness and convulsing

I tried to do what Pittsburgh told me was the grown up thing to do:    get a job that you hated. I tried to be a public school teacher and again I experienced physical manifestations of the toxicity that surrounded me. This time it manifested as unbearable pain that felt as if molten lead was being poured down my throat going thru my entire esophagus!

 I saw the movie “Field of Dreams”, I had read Shoeless Joe which was the book it was based on, and I decided at that moment that I needed to live MY life and that meant getting the hell out of Dodge as quickly as possible and getting to a place where I could be my authentic self.

I wanted to live in New Orleans and play music but had no contacts there. I recorded a tape, and flew down to try and find my people.

I passed out my tape to the few people I found but I didn’t know where my people were! They were there but I had no information about where to find them. After 2 weeks, I ran out of money and came back but my determination to get the hell away from here was even stronger.

Leon Redbone came to town on tour. I had loved Leon since the moment I saw him on Saturday Night Live when I was in 8th grade.

He seemed as though he had traveled through time and arrived in this world perhaps just for a moment. I loved everything about that especially his music which was the music I loved!

After Leon had left the stage, I approached his drummer/bass sax/ banjoist and dropped names like Adrian Rollini and Jelly Roll Morton to let him know that I was one of the tribe.

His name was Joh Gill and I gave him my tape to give to Leon. I didn’t give it to him because Pittsburgh made me feel that I wasn’t worthy.       I know this sounds crazy but that is how I felt about myself.

I went back to my miserable life and was thinking quite seriously about ending it. I was trapped in a way of life not worth living.

Then, if you build it He will come.

Leon Redbone had misplaced my tape with my card on it and had just found it and contacted my childhood home and spoke unfortunately to my mother who didn’t believe it was HIM.

“Who is this?” She asked. “Is this Rogie? Is this Garvin? This isn’t funny, I don’t believe you.”

“Madam I assure you that I am Leon Redbone and I’d like to speak to your son about performing with me”

She relented and gave him my number at my apartment and he called me that afternoon after I had left work at Schenley High school.

He was coming through Pittsburgh again and wanted me to play a show with him at Graffiti, the very place I had seen before.

The show was the most magical thing I had ever experienced up that point: here were people who loved the music that I loved and I immediately entered into their world the moment Redbone issued me my first fine of $50. I made an inappropriate comment using foul language and was fined. I was confused and the clarinetist Dan Levinson explained that one would be fined $50 for using foul language, making an inappropriate comment about a woman, or discussing team sports. Man to man sports like tennis, golf, etc. were permissible, mentioning football, hockey, and basketball were all finable offenses of $50. The exception was baseball which was $150!

The next day his wife and manager called and asked if I could go on tour with them next month and the first performance was The Tonight Show!

I got permission to leave my job before the end of the school year but to be honest with you, if they hadn’t let me go I would have quit right then.  This was what I had been praying for.

I flew to Los Angeles and if memory serves me correctly, we went directly to NBC studios.

I got my makeup done with Allen King and Bill Murray and the magic was so thick I had to swat away from my face.

I was chest deep in the field of dreams waiting in the green room with Redbone and the rest of the band to go onstage.

As you’ll notice from the recently recovered video, I didn’t look at the camera. Now I would have looked directly into your hearts from that piano but couldn’t bring myself to do it then.

It wasn’t that I was nervous……

I didn’t feel worthy…..

Pittsburgh had made me feel unworthy of such an honor as walking through the cornfield onto the baseball diamond ($150 fine for Tom Roberts!) and playing with my heroes and having my dreams come true.

But that was all to change…

The cornet player, Scott Black was living and performing in New Orleans where everyone was watching to see him on The Tonight Show.

Luckily they also noticed this little Mill Hunky and the next morning at our hotel in Hollywood I received offers from several bandleaders in The Land of Dreams with steady jobs.

I moved to New Orleans that August and my life truly began.

So you see, if this event hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t have:

  • Played 7 days a week in New Orleans

  • Performed at The Jazz and Heritage Festival more times than I can remember

  • Performed at The French Quarter Festival more times than I can remember including winning the battle of the bands with Jimmy LaRocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band 

  • Played at “The Professor Longhair Society Piano Night at Tipitina’s” with a CD released

  • Toured Europe

  • Recorded for Fantasy Records (the same company that everyone that you’ve heard of recorded for.)

  • Performing at The Smithsonian Folk-life Festival

  • Performing at more major jazz festivals throughout Europe than I can remember

  • Headlining The International Stride Piano Summit in Zurich, twice!

When I foolishly left New Orleans chasing a woman, I moved up North again.

Luckily Leon rescued me.

We toured 150 days a year throughout the world, driving the entire time we were in the US.

Once in Colorado, to pass the time, we started joking about twisted albums in which the most inappropriate performer would perform the music of one of our favorites.

“Sting Sings Bing!” Chimed in Dan Levinson

“Wynton Plays Wilton”! (Marsalis plays the music of the eccentric clarinetist and contortionist Wilton Crawley) says I.

“Roberts plays Roberts” blurts out his Eminence Leon

“What? Marcus Roberts plays Luckey Roberts?” I ask

“No! You!!!!” Redbone intones

“That’s not funny, that’s kinda mean”

“It’s not meant to be funny! It’s your next project”

Luckey Roberts was a towering (and menacing) figure from the history of Harlem Stride Piano.

He did what seemed impossible: too fast, too difficult with impossibly huge hand reaches.

What was even more daunting was there was NO MUSIC

You see, publishers of the day, before the recording industry blossomed would publish arrangements that home grown pianists could easily play for these home grown piano plunkers were the sole source of entertainment.  They’d say “Sure it’s great! It’s wonderful! But who else besides you and Eubie Blake could ever play it?”

So at Leon’s instigation, I began transcribing the unplayable, non-notatable music of Charles Luckeyth Roberts using only a tape recorder, manuscript paper and many thousands of pencils.

When you look at what I did, you will comment that it looks like a doctoral thesis. Hand written manuscripts along with uncovering details of Luckey’s life that had disappeared from sight. Plus a CD.

A few years later, Luckey’s great granddaughter contacted me to help her write a book. She was also young and attractive and a romance soon bloomed. I moved to Harlem into holy territory where not only Luckey lived but Willie “The Lion” Smith, Teddy Wilson and even more than space allows. This is when Vince Giordano heard I was in town and offered me the piano chair in the Nighthawks. I also had the choice to play with Woody Allen’s band but chose not to.

This led to me playing and arranging for the film “The Aviator” arranging for Wynton Marsalis, and performing multiple times at The 92nd St Y.

And on one final note, the only reason I came back to Pittsburgh was Leon. When things fell apart in Annapolis I was going to move back to New Orleans. Leon’s wife and manager told me that they couldn’t use me anymore if I moved back to New Orleans because flights were too expensive. “Why don’t you move back to Pittsburgh?” she said.

Leon changed and directed the course of my life. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

©2019 Tom Roberts