Part of the joy of writing about culture is the formulation of theories about how one thing informs another, discovering how unlikely juxtapositions yield new cultures. The other part is watching those theories crumble under the weight of the marvelous, unexpected truth.
I experienced both of these upon meeting Dickie Landry, first on film and then in person. As a saxophonist in Louisiana music super-group Lil’ Band O’ Gold, Landry was profiled in the film The Promised Land. The filmmaker follows Landry around his loft apartment and pauses at a poster advertising “Philip Glass and Dickie Landry—Solos.” I was dumbstruck. Philip Glass’ brand of music—often categorized by the dodgy umbrella of minimalism—is arguably some of the most important music of the twentieth century, stripping melody down to its base components, replacing traditional musical development with trance-inducing repetitions.
I am an unabashed fan of this music, and was blown away when the film revealed that Landry had been a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble. I’ve always thought there was a similarity between the reeling nature of Cajun music and the grind of so-called minimalism, but I never expected there might be a formal link between the two, especially not through a musician that lived about an hour from here with that whole portion of his career going relatively unknown to Louisiana music fans. I needed to know how a guy from Cecelia made it to New York and possibly changed the course of contemporary art.
“I grew up in Cecilia and started singing the Latin Mass, Gregorian chant, at the age of six and my mother brought me up to the church to be the next pope or cardinal or whatever, and fortunately the choir was practicing, and I turned around and said ‘I want to do that,’ and my mother said ‘If that is going to make you happy, do that.’ So I basically sang from the ages six through thirteen, 365 days a year. At ten years old, I was beginning band at school. My brother was eight years older than I was. He played saxophone, and I figured if he could play saxophone, I could play it too. At the age of thirteen, I played my first professional gig with the band he was playing with, the Harry Greig Orchestra. I guess you would call it ballroom music.”
As he’s telling me this story, I glance around his loft. Large Rauschenberg posters intermingle with photographs like they do in the homes of arty people; the difference here is these posters are the real thing. Landry toured the world with the acclaimed painter as a part of his Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Initiative. One of the framed photographs is an iconic image of two dancers in a seated position against a white background from Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s landmark opera Einstein on the Beach, a piece on which Landry played. He was also the photographer.
“When I graduated from high school in 1956, this drummer I knew had gotten some money from some gas property he had and bought a ’56 Corvette. He said, ‘Your brother and my friend are both at Columbia, let’s go to New York.’ I was interested in jazz, so I said ‘Let’s go,’ and we jumped in the car and went straight to Birdland. Basically I went back to New York every year from 1957 to 1963.”
“In 1962, I decided I really wanted to learn to play the flute. I went to LSU, and the head of the music school gave me the name of a flute teacher in New York named Arthur Lora. I wrote him and he wrote back saying that if you are in New York, stop by and we’ll see what we can do. It was eighty dollars an hour, a lot of money in 1962. But I went, and when I started playing, he said, ‘I’ll take you on, but you have to forget everything you know about music. We are going to take one note at a time.’ I’m thinking ‘I’m here for six weeks—six lessons, six notes—this is not going to work.’ I was staying at a friend’s house in Yonkers, practicing fifteen to sixteen hours a day between the lessons. By the third lesson, he said to me, ‘You have no idea who I am, do you?’ It turns out that Lora was the longtime principle flute player for Arturo Toscanini.”
Landry’s musical career is a litany of momentous meetings and roadblocks. He comes back to Louisiana and promptly finds himself on five years’ probation after a drug bust. During this time he joins the soul band the Swing Kings and opens for Otis Redding, B.B. King, and Wilson Pickett. His probation officer recognized that Landry had been touring with the Swing Kings all this time and let him off his probation early. In 1968, Landry headed back to New York.
“I’m hanging out with my friend from Mamou, Keith Sonnier, a famous artist, and he says, ‘I saw this concert by this composer. I really liked the visuals and the music. You should call him, his name is Philip Glass.’ So I do and go over to his apartment, Eighth Avenue and Twenty-Third Street, a five-story walkup where he lived with his wife and two kids and he’d just gotten back from France where he’d studied with Nadia Boulanger. He hadn’t really done his ‘Philip Glass’ stuff yet; he was still a strictly classical composer.
“Philip excused himself, saying he had to go make tea for his blind friend that lived upstairs. You might have heard of him, Moondog.” Moondog was a cult figure in the jazz music in the fifties, famous for the Viking garb he wore while performing his idiosyncratic music on the street. “I figured if this guy has Moondog upstairs, I need to stick close to this guy. He said, ‘Look I don’t have any music for you to play but I’m having dinner with Steve Reich next week, why don’t you come along and we’ll play some music and see what happens.’ When next week comes around, we all meet and play some music and Philip says ‘I’ll play a short piece’ and that was forty-five minutes long. It went through every emotion in the book. I had always been interested in new music. At UL I would get music from Boulez and Nono and have a new music concert every two months. Philip was the newest music there was.
“He said, ‘Look I’m starting an ensemble here in January, will you be around to play in it?’ I said sure, and that’s how that happened.
“The first rehearsal, he gives us numbers: 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4-5-6, and I ask him what notes he wants us to play, and he says, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well we are all playing in different keys, we need the notes.’ ‘You mean I have to write all this out?’ I told him yes.”
“Not many people know this but by late 1971, out of six musicians [in Philip’s ensemble] four of us were from Lafayette. Richard Peck, who just retired after thirty years with Philip; Robert Prado who died in about 1974; Rusty Gilder, who played with Mose Allison, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie; piano player by the name of Steve Chambers that was briefly in there; Jon Smith that was in the group White Trash… so there were six of us that went through that group. They were there because I brought them up.”
Landry pulls out a picture of one of the early Philip Glass Ensemble rehearsals noting the talented composers in the group but comments, “Philip and them were great composers but not the best technicians. They could play, but they really couldn’t play. We were rehearsing Music for Changing Parts and it was like dee-dee-dee-mistake, dee-dee-dee-mistake. Oh God, I thought, this is like torture. I finally convinced him to get rid of these guys and told him I got some friends coming up to New York City; let’s rehearse with them and see what happens. We can read and play it faster and we can do this.” Landry went back to Lafayette to enlist fellow saxophonist Richard Peck for this new group. “We headed up to New York and then to Nova Scotia for a rehearsal and Philip hired him on the spot. So, that’s how I got to meet Philip.”
Landry’s musical career stretches on and on from there, with stints with Laurie Anderson, touring with Rauschenberg, being the liaison between Paul Simon and the Lafayette musicians that played on Graceland. A personal highlight for Landry was playing a 2 ½ hour concert with Bob Dylan who placed the saxophonist center stage. His art career is just as illustrious, with connections to Donald Judd, Gordon Matta-Clark, Richard Serra, the list there goes on as well. Dickey Landry has worked with more important contemporary artists than I could name. At the time of this writing, Landry is in Taipei working on an opera with jazz titan Ornette Coleman and stage director Robert Wilson.
But here I thought I was at the edge of proving my theory, an evolutionary link between Cajun music and minimalism through one guy from Cecilia and some of his buddies. Landry dismisses my hypothesis with ease. “You can say the same thing about James Brown. More so about James Brown than you can Cajun music.” When I push the issue, he adds, “I never did play Cajun music, I still don’t. I play swamp pop with Lil’ Band O’ Gold but I left Louisiana thirty years ago because I was into Charlie Parker and Boulez and Stravinsky—and out of tune saxophones and three chords didn’t interest me whatsoever. What I brought to the table was my experience as a musician. I was always telling Philip, you should do operas and symphonies. He said, ‘You think I can do that?’ and I told him, yes, of course. And the rest is history.”
Alex V. Cook is an author, music critic and cultural explorer from Baton Rouge. He is currently writing a book about Louisiana juke joints, honky tonks and dancehalls. If you know of a place that deserves to be more widely celebrated, drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.