Tom Laughlin is a true swinging son of the New Orleans jazz scene and his unique ‘semi-sweet’ playing style has earned him a worldwide reputation as a clarinettist. With a string of hit albums, CDs and movie soundtracks to his name, these days Tim no longer tours as much, preferring to work on a new album as well as host jam sessions at his Royal Street home in the French Quarter – which is where Kreol magazine caught up with him.
Born in New Orleans in 1963, Tim Laughlin’s interest in the clarinet was piqued at an early age when he first heard a childhood friend practicing the instrument. Aged nine, he acquired a LaMarque clarinet, which he still has to this day – now converted into a lamp! At middle and high school, he also played the alto sax and flute, but clarinet remained his first true love. Unlike so many of his contemporaries in the Crescent City, however, Tim didn’t come from a musical family – his father moved pianos for a living – so where did he get the early encouragement that every aspiring musician needs?
School: an inspiration
“My first band director in 4th grade, Jerry St. Amant, asked us to blow in our mouthpiece only. When he got to me, he paused, pointing a pencil at me and told me I was going to be a good player – I’m not sure what he heard!” says Tim.
School would also be where one of his fondest musical memories was formed. In the 4th grade, he performed ‘This Old Man’ in the low register! By this stage, Tim was already wearing out his first jazz record while fighting over the turntable with his hard-rock brothers. The transition from being a fan to becoming a professional musician is seldom easy but after watching Pete Fountain perform in concert, Tim knew what he wanted to do with his life and went about it with a laser-like focus, ignoring those who bashed the idea of making a living in this way.
As a young and upcoming player, Tim was determined to stand apart from all the other clarinet players, not by playing faster, louder or higher, but by playing as he recalls, “Prettier – and writing songs for the 21st Century.” Originality is another quality that distinguishes Laughlin’s music. His award-winning 2003 album ‘The Isles of Orleans’ was the first and only collection to date of originals written and recorded by a New Orleans clarinettist. The album has been described by one critic as, ‘Pungent as a bowl of steaming gumbo and as atmospheric as a dawn stroll through Jackson Square’.
The importance of Ethnicity, Listening and copying!
Kreol wanted to know what his culture and ethnicity meant to him in terms of inspiring or influencing his music. He elaborates, “My culture is New Orleans – to me, ethnicity really doesn’t matter. My relationships and experiences have made me the player I am. You gotta love the music and work your tail off!” Speaking to Tim Laughlin, you get a clear sense that music occupies much of his inner space. He confides, “When I’m not reading or writing words, I have music in my head. I usually have another song in my head, sometimes it’s jazz, sometimes classical. I’ll sing improvised solos in my head or I’ll whistle them.”
Listening to other musicians is also important for his own creativity. He explains, “If you don’t connect by listening it’s a struggle – listening is the most important thing as you’re having a conversation with other musicians”. Not surprisingly, he also advises any would-be clarinettists to listen: “Practice for an hour and then listen for an hour. Play along with the record. Listen to records of guys who you connect with and every time you listen, try and hear new things. A book won’t do it. You need to hear it and copy it.”
Originality through copying may sound like a contradiction but it’s how Tim developed his own unique sound over time. By studying the masters such as Pete Fountain, Jack Maheu, Kenny Davern, and Bob Wilber, he learned that music has “shape, size, colour, texture and moods.” He also learned to become a storyteller through music using, in his words, “Commas, periods, questions and exclamation marks to challenge and lift my audience”.
Culinary interests and Katrina’s devastation
Having toured extensively in the UK, Europe, New Zealand, South America, and throughout the US over many years, Tim is very much at home in New Orleans, writing music and hosting house concerts and jam sessions in the Royal Street parlour (which fits about 50). He can also visit his favourite jazz club, Snug Harbour, and enjoy another interest. Some good creole-style cooking! In fact, had he not become a musician, Tim says that he’d have loved to do something in the culinary world. He describes himself as a good cook: “My favourite dish to make is chicken and andouille gumbo. Cajun cuisine was never a part of New Orleans until the 1984 World’s Fair. Cajun is more SW Louisiana. I like to mix Cajun too.”
When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Tim was on tour in South America, but helped to raise money for evacuees and for replacement equipment for the New Orleans Centre for Creative Arts. Contacted by the US State Department, he did a month-long tour of Peru, Mexico and Canada, performing concerts and giving master classes. He recognises he’s not big on politics, but he will always consider supporting a cause he cares about.
Recognition is OK but what about the future
Awards don’t seem to mean too much to him either and although he’s won a few during his successful career, he’s too modest to mention them by name, apart from the fact that one of them is used as a doorstop at home! Asked to describe himself in one sentence, Tim replies: “An older British gentleman referred to me as the thinking man’s clarinet player. That one always stuck with me and made me smile. I would never say it, so I’ll let him.”
So what’s next for Tim Laughlin? Having played with many of his musical heroes, he’d love to collaborate with Warren Vache, but he’s also keen to write more and is considering recording another album of originals. Fans are also encouraging him to write more. Most of all, he wants to keep on improving: “In ten years I want to be a better musician.” He learned about hard work from his mentor, cornetist Connie Jones. The key ingredients of love and sacrifice he picked up from his mother Judy, who, following the death of his father when Tim was 15, he recalls: “Kept me on a good path, both with school and music.”