If you find yourself on the Lower East Side late some night, you might run across a street scene more reminiscent of New Orleans than Manhattan. A gang of musicians playing sousaphone, accordion, washboard, tambourine and other acoustic instruments dance down the block to “Down By The Riverside” or “When the Saints Go Marching In,” collecting other musicians and enthusiastic bystanders to bring back to one of the local clubs, where Fatboy Kanootch will play until midnight. The band is the creation of NYC musicians Clark Gayton and Brian Mitchell, who conceived the idea some 15 years ago after MTV ran a commercial featuring the Hip-O-Meter, an applause gauge that rated the popularity of various band instruments. Next-to-last was accordion, with sousaphone at the bottom.
“What I have learned to do best in New York City,
which is probably something most New Yorkers
can say, is survive.” —Clark Gayton
“That pissed us off,” Gayton laughed, “so we made it a point to start a band with sousaphone and accordion. We went around to a couple of bars, played a few numbers and everybody loved it!”
Put on a long hiatus by the press of other engagements, Fatboy Kanootch (musician code for the two lead instruments) owes its recent revival to the oppressive New York City ordinances, which along with rising rents have caused the demise of so many music venues.
“We were thinking of ways to play at a club and not get noise violations,” Gayton said. “We figured the accordion was basically an acoustic instrument and so was the sousaphone so they’d have a harder time shutting us down.”
Acoustic or no, it’s easy to locate the band, even when the march is over. There is generally also a top drawer drummer — jazzman Tony Mason or Ollabelle’s Tony Leone, sometimes Shawn Pelton from the Saturday Night Live band — to join in a repertoire from Taj Mahal to Little Feat.
Gayton and Mitchell do get to play it loud on Saturday nights, where they can both be found in the band at Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble upstate in Woodstock. While Mitchell will sometimes pull out the accordion to add a little Cajun flavor to an old Band number like “All La Glory” or Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” he more typically plays piano and organ and sings some of Richard Manuel’s songs in his rougher but equally soulful voice. Gayton plays trombone and tuba in Helm’s impressive horn line. They get their own star turn on most nights, beginning with Gayton’s always-stunning trombone solo on “Just A Closer Walk with Thee,” which segues into the rave-up “Mardi Gras Day.”
“You know it’s Saturday night in Woodstock when you hear Clark play that trombone of his,” Helm said. “He’s one of the best we’ve got. And Brian Mitchell — what a music maker! I’m proud to have him on the team.”
On most other nights of the week, Gayton and Mitchell are either fronting their own bands at various NYC clubs or participating in the projects of their colleagues, playing music from jazz to reggae to electronica.
Renowned jazz singer Catherine Russell, who has performed and recorded with them over the years, observed, “Both men are so unique and special. The way you can tell is that the whole chemistry of a band changes when either Clark or Brian are playing. Their absence is equally felt. I’ve been at Rambles when one of them was not present, and it is a different experience. Some people can’t be replaced.”
Both approaching 50, they hail from different ends of the country — Mitchell spent his early years in the Bronx and his adolescence in Miami, while Gayton lived in Seattle until coming east to study at the Berklee School of Music in Boston — and their origins encompass different musical idioms: Mitchell studied classical piano while Gayton’s passion was jazz. But the two musicians also have much in common: impressive lists of musical collaborations over the past 25 years including world tours with big stars and scoring for movies and television. Full-time musicians, they have both played on the street for tips when work was scarce. They favor spontaneity in performance and meticulous attention to detail when they record, and they are self-starters in all things, persuading club owners to offer live music, then drawing on their deep bench of musician friends to fill out the lineups every week. They produce their own CDs, usually recording them in their home studios.
Seattle to NYC
Gayton, whose boyish appearance belies his quarter century as a working musician, has a playful personality masking a serious approach to music and a fierce work ethic. The great-grand nephew of legendary New Orleans musician Manuel “Fess” Manetta, who played with Buddy Bolden among others, Gayton started playing trumpet when he was nine, and bought his first trombone at 14 with his earnings from a paper route. He was fortunate to have first class music teachers in high school and went to Berklee on a scholarship, graduating in 1984 before moving to Oakland, CA for a time. There, he played with jazz greats like the late Johnny Coles and two brothers, Ray (now better known as Raphael Saadiq) and Duane Wiggins, who became the multiplatinum R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone!, and began writing and recording his own material. When he moved to New York City in 1989, he played with a long list of jazz greats including Mercer Ellington, the Basie Band and Frank Foster’s Loud Minority. But he also found a new musical thrill playing with reggae pioneers the Skatalites.
“I can’t say that I was really into reggae before that, but I really fell in love with the music,” Gayton said. “It has a lot of trombone in it so I had a lot of chances to play, and the band members were all basically jazz musicians who really knew how to play their instruments.”
After a few years with the Skatalites, Gayton joined British reggae band Steel Pulse, with whom he did a world tour and played on Rastafari Centennial: Live In Paris.
“Steel Pulse was the pinnacle of modern reggae bands at the time,” he said. “They were using computers and samplers were on the cutting edge of technology.”
The Steel Pulse tour was also the beginning of Gayton’s partnership with saxman Jerry Johnson and trumpet player Kevin Batchelor. When they returned to New York, the trio became the go-to horn section on reggae CDs by artists including Dennis Brown, Cornell Campbell and Queen Latifah. Johnson and Gayton still play together in Explorations in Dub or EID, in which Gayton leads the band from inside a gorgeous sousaphone, painted by graffiti artist Keene Carse.
San Jose to New Orleans
While Gayton was discovering reggae, Brian Mitchell was indulging a different passion. While attending college at San Jose State, he was encouraged by his teachers, including trumpet player Dwight Cannon, to follow his growing interest in New Orleans music.
“It was the perfect school for me,” he said. “There was no real curriculum, and I was encouraged to ‘find myself.’ The teachers thought gigging was as important as going to class. So I formed my first bands there and eventually taught improvisation and electronic music. And I got into blues and especially New Orleans music.”
Mitchell can seem shy until he rips off one of his signature growly vocals, accompanied by keyboard theatrics worthy of Dr. John or Professor Longhair. After moving back east, he started making pilgrimages to New Orleans and acquired a reputation in New York City for playing great New Orleans-style piano. He was awed by the opportunity to work as understudy to one of his musical heroes — Allen Toussaint — in the Broadway show The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club in 1992. After some initial nerves over auditioning, their relationship was rewarding on many levels.
“Allen has always been very encouraging to me”, Mitchell said. “He treated me like the next generation and decided to teach me things. Some lessons he taught me were music stuff, and some were business.”
Around the same time, Mitchell came to the attention of Walter “Wolfman” Washington, a legendary New Orleans guitar player and vocalist whose Roadmasters are a famously tight band. He first joined them for a European tour when they abruptly lost their keyboard player. He had never played with the band and had never spoken to Washington.
“Walter’s a serious guy and I didn’t really know his music before the tour,” Mitchell said. “Jack Cruz, the bass player, said they’d only play 12 songs on the first gig so I had charts all ready. But in the first set, Walter didn’t play one of those songs! I was really pissed, threw out the charts and decided that in the second set, I was just going to play, even if I went down in flames. Wherever he goes, I’m going. And that was the key.”
“You could always tell that Brian was a musician who could take it to another level,” Cruz said.
Washington added, “He reminded me so much of a cat that I used to play with at the Dew Drop Inn called Sammy Burfee. Brian had this qualification to play like that and I really enjoyed listening to him connect. There’s not too many keyboard players that can hold a conversation playing music. Brian really came through so I hired him to play with us regular.”
Mitchell’s playing can be heard on what is widely considered to be Washington’s finest record, Blue Moon Risin’.
After the European tour, Washington periodically tried to lure Mitchell to New Orleans, but had to settle for regular gigs in New York City every couple of weeks. In between, Mitchell played with his own bands at a long list of clubs including Tramps and the Louisiana Bar and Grill, where he first got together with Clark Gayton.
Mitchell did an annual Mardi Gras show at the Louisiana Bar, and decided he wanted a tuba. He was put in contact with Gayton, who accepted the invitation even though he was leaving on a tour with Sting the following day. He was gone a year, returning just in time to play the next year’s Mardi Gras show. They have been collaborators ever since.
“I never particularly wanted a trombone player in my band,” Mitchell said, “but he’s such a bad ass that I wanted HIM in the band. I’ve always been drawn towards musicians that have a voice that’s something beyond their instrument.”
They began playing together in blues master Bill Sims’ American Roots Orchestra — an eclectic group featuring both horns and accordion, versions of which still play at Village clubs like Terra Blues and the 55 Bar [The Brian Mitchell Band at the 55 Bar] under different names, currently The Cold Blooded Blues Band. The band also contained the origins of Fatboy Kanootch, as well as a few other ensembles still periodically active.
“They played on my first record for Warner Brothers and we still play together, Sims said. We all have respect for the same music. Sometimes there’s a lot of us up on the stage, but Brian is such a dynamic keyboard player and Clark is such a dynamic horn player, they really don’t need anybody else. It’s so special, what they do,” he continued. “They’re both very adventurous in their playing and they’re very funny together as people. A lot of guys play together but you never see them together anyplace but the bandstand. That’s the difference with Clark and Brian, they like to hang out together.” By virtue of his own friendship with the two musicians, Sims has played up at the Midnight Ramble in Woodstock more than once.
“You know it’s Saturday night in Woodstock when you hear Clark play that trombone of his. And Brian Mitchell — what a music maker!” —Levon Helm [Watch Brian and Clark with Levon’s Band on Mardi Gras Day, on YouTube]
Gayton and Mitchell became part of Levon Helm’s outfit at different times and through different routes. Mitchell was brought in by Jimmy Vivino, who served as Helm’s band leader before he relocated to the west coast with Conan O’Brien’s band. Gayton was brought in initially to sub for the trumpet player, but went on tour with Bruce Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions Band soon after and was gone a year. He became a regular after Helm insisted on a big horn section, including trombone and tuba, and asked him to return. Both Mitchell and Gayton have high praise for Helm and have felt honored to work with him.
Mitchell said, “I was a huge fan of The Band and it’s been fun for me to mix all the different things I loved about them. I get to do Garth’s organ parts and Richard Manuel’s piano playing and singing, so in a way it’s like being in The Band. And to this day, there are so many magical moments that happen it’s ridiculous. Just to play with Levon — he’s a beacon of light.”
Gayton added, “Watching him do everything he can to get something out of those drums and singing the way he does — it’s inspiring! And it’s fun to be around a musician who has all these different stories and you can see how they actually affect the way he plays and sings. There’s a whole dynamic and a texture…like he’s a three– or four-dimensional person.”
Gayton and Mitchell share a do-it-yourself aesthetic toward recording their own music, something they discovered early in their association.
“When Brian first started trying to record, he was having a hard time getting out of the gate,” Gayton said. “He had a lot of material, but never put it out. I know how hard it is to put out your first release because nobody wants to hear the criticism. I started making my own recordings in Seattle in 1981, but didn’t put out a bona fide LP until I got to New York and it wasn’t easy. I finished it and kept them in a box for months, didn’t want anybody to hear it. I’ve learned you have to play it for the right people and be aware that people have all kinds of reasons to say they like it or they don’t like it.”
Mitchell, who released Songs from the Underground in 2002, and Digging up the Roots in 2006, admits that it took him “forever” to put them out.
“Both of my records are pretty much self-recorded in my home studio with Pro-Tools,” he said. “Honestly, I love doing it in a studio too and I’m probably better off that way, being a bit meticulous — some might say psychotic — about it. I’ve always respected spontaneity so there are tracks where special things happen and they stay.”
The Bands Multiply
As they continued to support each other’s recording projects, Mitchell’s Loisaida Social Club and House of Diablo and Gayton’s Epicenter and Explorations in Dub (EID) became outlets for their creativity.
“Losaida Social Club started out as me playing New Orleans music,” Mitchell said, “but then I started to find my own voice,” he said. “Walter’s (Washington) a good example of that — you can’t really pigeonhole him as New Orleans music in that cliché way. He played his own kind of music and I was inspired by that. You find your own thing within something else.
“House of Diablo was my outlet for stranger electronic stuff,” he laughed. “I’ve always been into all that, but people don’t know that side of me. That band was me and Shawn Pelton and it was all about weird sounds. We would sometime do shows with dancers and other visuals. We used to play every Halloween. It’s been awhile but it’s still on the boards.”
Gayton had some success with his trio Epicenter, playing at the now-defunct Baby Jupiter club, and once appearing on The View. Explorations in Dub began around the same time. “I wanted do a modern version of the Skatalites, using three horns and a full rhythm section,” he said. “But I always had a hard time finding a bass player that knew how to play the music right. So I just played it on the tuba. The band got trimmed down from three horns to one so everyone could make a little money. And we wouldn’t be blowing out the club.”
The band has moved between venues over the last ten years, most recently playing at Nublu in the East Village, where the local college kids and others packed the dance floor on a recent Saturday night.
Jerry Johnson, EID’s saxophone player, has now been playing with Gayton for around 20 years and has high praise for him as a musician and a person.
“He’s well trained and he’s bad — can play anything and everything — and he doesn’t ego trip,” Johnson said recently. “You’ll see him playing with Stevie Wonder and then you’ll see him in some little underground spot. As a bandleader, he gives you your space to do your thing. He has faith in you to do the right thing.
“When we first hooked up with Steel Pulse in England, he used to practice all day, every day. He’d play on the plane — very dedicated musician,” he said. “And as a friend, he’s crazy. He’s always got you laughing, there’s always a good vibe with Clark.”
Brazilian percussionist Gilmar Gomes recalls being impressed with Gayton the very first time he heard him play.
“Clark to me is a free spirit musician,” he said, “a musician who doesn’t think to much when he throws him self into the music.”
“Clark is a part of my musical family. He’s a fantastic musician!” —Sting
Gayton has appeared in the onscreen band in a number of films, including Robert Altman’s Kansas City and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, and in 2010 scored a reggae-themed movie, Rocksteady, that won awards, notably at the 2011 Jamaica Reggae film festival. He has released a handful of self-produced CDs since 1995, most recently The Best of Clark Gayton in 2008. He is close to dropping his latest— “A Quantum Journey through Vintage New York in My Reggae Time Machine Van” —a survey of many New York clubs that have existed over the last 50 years, including Viramundo, Baby Jupiter, Tramps, Slugs and Visiones. Gayton is also a gifted photographer and photos that he and others have taken of these scenes will be part of the package.
Meanwhile, his many projects have him turning down tours with major stars to exercise more control over his own career. He turns up on late night television from time to time, like on a recent Saturday Night Live appearance with Foster The People, and played at Sting’s 60th birthday show at NYC’s Beacon Theatre.
In addition to the regular Thursday and Saturday gigs, Gayton plays jazz on Wednesday nights at the Smoke supper club on the upper west side with Eve Cornelius and Mosaic.
“I have music in my head constantly,” he said.
Mitchell also has more projects than most people can keep track of, fronting The Brian Mitchell Band, which often plays at the 55 Bar, and also playing with Shawn Pelton and John Leventhal in Mojo Mancini. He scored Robert Altman’s movie Tanner on Tanner, and had one of his biggest musical thrills when he was asked to be on the recording session for Bob Dylan’s take on “Return to Me” on the third season of The Sopranos.
“I was a huge Dylan fan, but I also come from the Bronx and listened to Dean Martin music as a child,” he said. “This was a perfect coming together of everything: playing Italian accordion music with Bob Dylan — I’m the guy for that gig!”
The session was memorable in a number of ways.
“The third verse is in Italian,” Mitchell remembered, “and Italian is not Dylan’s forte. He keeps fucking it up and his manager says ‘Bob needs help with his Italian, get me an Italian!’ and 10 minutes later, in walks an Italian supermodel! And I thought, ‘that’s rock and roll right there.’”
“Italian is not Dylan’s forte. He keeps fucking it up and his manager says ‘Bob needs help with his Italian, get me an Italian!’ and 10 minutes later, in walks an Italian supermodel! And I thought, ‘that’s rock and roll right there. ” —Brian Mitchell
Leading the Band
Another bond between Gayton and Mitchell revolves around their role as bandleaders, dealing with common issues like booking gigs and finding subs.
“The mentality of musicians is sometimes a little complacent,” Gayton said. “So we make a conscious push to do things other than what we’re hired to do.”
Likewise, Mitchell has been creating his own opportunities since his years in San Jose.
“I went into this rough bar and said ‘You need music in this place, I’ll make it happen,’” he said. “I’ve always done that and Clark has always done that too. You can sit and cry about no place to play, or you can do something. That’s how the Kelly’s gig happened.”
Mitchell’s latest CD, The Woodstock Sessions, is close to complete. This time, the basics of the 12 tracks were recorded in two days at Levon Helm’s studio.
Gayton has also gained a reputation for championing musicians’ rights, often counseling less experienced artists to keep their eyes on the details, especially when it comes to getting paid. He posts to an occasional blog on topics like Writing Charts and Conducting Effective Rehearsals, and Getting Paid – Or Beer Does Not Equal Rent.
In one piece, written a few years back, he observed:
“What I have learned to do best in New York City, which is probably something most New Yorkers can say, is survive.”
Featured photo of Clark and Brian on Manhattan Street by Ahron Foster