Allen Toussaint dies at 77, influence continues beyond death

Alexa Christianson, Associate News Editor

In the 1970s music clubs of the French Quarter, heads turned to Allen Toussaint as he entered, in response to anything from his vibrant outfits to his warm demeanor to the anticipation of his musical performances.

“[Toussaint] represents New Orleans music better than any other individual,” Bruce Raeburn, curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane, said. “He would come up on a big white motorcycle and be wearing an all-white leather fringe outfit … he was a humble and unassuming type of person: he was very polite, he was always a gentleman.”

Toussaint died suddenly on Nov. 10 after suffering a heart attack following a performance in Spain. He was 77 years old. Toussaint, a New Orleans native, made his first record at the age of 17 in 1958 and received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Tulane in 2013 when he performed at the university’s commencement ceremony. Toussaint has also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.

“That was a no-brainer,” Mike Shepherd, Louisiana Music Hall of Fame executive director, said of Toussaint’s induction. “[Toussaint] is one of the best musicians this state has ever produced.”

Toussaint’s legacy is not only of remarkable musical talent during a peak time of R&B and funk genres, but of impactful humanitarian work in New Orleans that relates to Tulane’s efforts to increase a service-minded presence in the city.

Tulane initiated its service-learning component in the undergraduate curriculum following Hurricane Katrina, and the community roles of Toussaint and Tulane go hand-in-hand.

“Tulane’s affiliation or recognition of Allen Toussaint is part of a larger pattern of respect to New Orleans and wanting to give something back to the city,” Raeburn said. “And I think recognizing Allen Toussaint, when we gave him the honorary doctorate in 2013, is part of that trend.”

In the 1980s, Toussaint founded Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness with fellow musician Aaron Neville.

“This was at a time when musicians weren’t really organized in favor of good causes; they were struggling to just make ends meet,” Raeburn said. “But [Toussaint] was having some success, and he didn’t just pack it away, he took his success and tried to use it to help other people.”

Toussaint was also instrumental in spurring aid to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

“He was like an ambassador for New Orleans,” Raeburn said. “The whole time he was evacuated, he was working on trying to spread the word of how New Orleans music culture was and how important it was for New Orleans to come back.”

Spotted frequently around the city by residents, Toussaint was known for his warm personality.

“He was such a gracious, welcome person,” Matt Sakakeeny, associate professor of music, said. “Everyone in New Orleans has a story about seeing him out and about … he would be out at the art market and buy a painting from my friend, or be at a music festival and be in the crowd meeting fans. He was New Orleanian to the core.”

Since Toussaint’s death, a movement has started to change the name and dedication of the Robert E. Lee Circle in New Orleans, named after the former Confederate general, to Toussaint Circle. The topic is trending on social media and more than 5,000 supporters have signed an online petition to change the name. Mayor Mitch Landrieu also supports the petition.

“We’re really going to miss Allen Toussaint,” Raeburn said. “We were so lucky that we got to know him and hope that his influence will continue for the good. It’s a model we can all benefit from.”

“He was a gentle man, and a gentleman,” Shepherd said.