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After Katrina, Pete Fountain ‘can still toot’

Legendary jazz clarinetist hatches Mardi Gras comeback plans
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pete Fountain’s home in nearby Bay St. Louis, Miss., told his life story — gold albums, pictures posing with four presidents, thank-you notes from Frank Sinatra, and beloved clarinets and other vintage instruments.

But Hurricane Katrina wiped virtually all the treasures away, destroying his plantation-style home and about 10 instruments — even a grand piano. Fountain and wife Beverly survived after multiple evacuations that took them from Cajun Country to Cotton Country when Katrina and Hurricane Rita struck.

Still, at 75, Fountain’s intent on performing again.

“Those two ladies, especially Katrina, really got me,” Fountain said recently in his newly rented home in Hammond, about 50 miles northwest of New Orleans. “But I have two of my best clarinets so I’m OK. I can still toot.”

The hurricanes took a heavy toll on the many legendary musicians of New Orleans. Fats Domino, who was rescued from rising floodwaters in a boat, found his piano overturned among mud and debris and his house in ruins. Aaron Neville lost four Grammys when his home was flooded.

Despite the losses, the musicians who brought fame to New Orleans are not giving up on the city where jazz was born.

“I’m not running from New Orleans,” said Lucien Barbarin, who plays trombone with Harry Connick Jr. and suffered severe damage to his home. “I’m going to stay because I was born and raised there and I’m going to pass away there. We name drinks after hurricanes. We should be used to this.”

A Mardi Gras legendFountain, renowned for leading his Half-Fast Walking Club on Fat Tuesday down St. Charles Avenue to the French Quarter, said that tradition will continue. A prominent member in recent years has been actor John Goodman.

“We might walk in our drawers, but we’re going to walk,” Fountain said.

Among Fountain’s losses were photos of Louis Armstrong, with whom he performed, his collection of vintage guns, a Porsche and his part-time gig at Casino Magic in Bay St. Louis because of severe hurricane damage.

He found one of his gold records, covered with mud, and one of the two clarinets was recovered by a neighbor a few blocks from his house.

But Fountain, who planned to give his memorabilia to his grandchildren, said he and his wife consider themselves fortunate to have survived. They still have a home in New Orleans and recently celebrated their 54th wedding anniversary.

“My world was going one way, now it’s going the other,” he said. “I just hope we can come back. I know the French Quarter is going to make it. Besides the Quarter, everybody has got to get it together and get it going.”