A conversation with Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack — a.k.a. Dr. John — sometimes can be hard to follow. Dotted with random references to characters named Google Eyes, Dooky Chase and Professor Longhair, it can sound like an alternate take on “Mack the Knife.”
Toss in his storied history that includes getting a finger shot off in a barroom scuffle some years ago, which prompted his transition from guitar to piano, and you have a bona-fide character. Through it all, at 75, Dr. John continues to personify the celebrated music of New Orleans and mark his reflections with the simple refrain, “It’s a blessing.”
Symphony Center will be blessed by the presence of the six-time Grammy winner for the first time when he fronts his tribute to fellow New Orleans legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong: “Dr. John: The Spirit of Satch” in an SCP Jazz program Nov. 18. He’ll be joined by another Crescent City star, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, along with a backing band of Chicago jazz talent including Eric Schneider, Steve Eisen, and Jerry DiMuzio on sax and Victor Garcia and Mark Olen on trumpet. “I think the world of them,” Dr. John declared in his distinctive growl and drawl (let’s call it a grawl), adding emphatically, “I’m about to play a gig that’s cool.”
The show re-creates Dr. John’s 2014 album “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch” (Concord Records). The music re-creates the amazing reach of Armstrong’s 50-year career. While it may not be typical Dr. John, it’s not straight-ahead Satch, either. How it came about is a serpentine story in itself.
Both grew up in New Orleans’ Third Ward, though in different eras. They met once before Armstrong died in 1971, about the time Rebennack, a successful session guitarist in Los Angeles, realized he didn’t enjoy playing behind the likes of Sonny & Cher. So he decided to take on the professional persona of a legendary 19th century medicine man named Dr. John Creaux, the Night Tripper, who dispenses a unique formulary of mysticism, funk, rhythm & blues and Creole roots.
To this day, he travels with a collection of skulls and amulets that are always carefully placed atop his piano to ward away evil spirits. He possesses an impressive collection of walking sticks carved in the shape of snakes and other fantastic creatures. “I have a gang and a-half of ’em,” he said. His current favorite is graced with feathers, beads and two faces. It’s from Senegal, homeland of the original voodoo doctor Creaux.
“Professor Longhair turned me on to the [Mardi Gras] Indians and all this,” he explained. While his Aunt Audrey first taught him how to play the piano, Longhair, the renowned New Orleans R&B professor, was his musical mentor. “I always thought of him like … the dad I would’ve had if I didn’t have my own dad, you know?”
Nicholas “Nick” Payton’s dad, Walter, played bass with Professor Longhair (as well as the singer Mr. Google Eyes), and Dr. John has “known Nick since he was real young.”
Then, a few years ago, Dr. John had a revelation. “I’ll tell ya, Louis came to me in a dream and told me to take his music and play it my way. That’s a tall order!”
With the musical support of Nick Payton, along with Bonnie Raitt, the Blind Boys of Alabama and others led by trombonist, arranger and co-producer Sarah Morrow, “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch” came to life. (Many of the same artists appear on a new CD/DVD tribute “The Musical Mojo of Dr. John: Celebrating Mac and His Music,” out Oct. 21.)
The “Spirit of Satch” album and concert cover a sunshiny “What a Wonderful World,” the soulful longing of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” a spicy “Sweet Hunk O’ Trash,” a swinging “I’ve Got the World on a String,” the straight-up spiritual “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and other Satchmo classics including, of course, “Mack the Knife.”
How were the songs selected? “At random,” said a deadpan Dr. John . No great risk, because there aren’t any bad ones, right? “Nah, you’re right.”
It’s easy to imagine a young Mac Rebennack listening to the original Armstrong 78s in his dad’s store, along with all the other traditional jazz, bebop and Afro-Cuban music that came together in New Orleans and has traveled around the world in all sorts of guises, to grace all sorts of places, from Third Ward dives to Symphony Center.
The doctor concurs: “Uh, huh. It’s a blessing.”
Joe Pixler is a Chicago-based journalist.