Drummer Shannon Powell’s Beat, The Sounds of Old New Orleans
A master drummer and charismatic vocalist, Shannon Powell is a natural for the French Quarter Festival music schedule.
Powell lives in the same house in Tremé that his grandmother bought in 1942. The house and the historic neighborhood that surrounds it have been the 52-year-old musician’s home since his birth.
“It all started as a kid around the neighborhood,” Powell said of his 46 years as a performing musician.
Powell’s grandmother bought a set of toy drums for him when he was 6. In no time, he was playing at First Garden Christ Church.
“But I had played drums before I had drums,” he remembered. “When I was a little kid, I used to go around all the old musicians’ drums in the neighborhood. They’d always tell me, ‘Go sit down. Go sit down. Leave them drums alone!’ That’s how everybody knew I was going to be a drummer.”
Powell feels blessed to have come up in Tremé and New Orleans in the 1960s and ’70s.
“I’m writing a song right now called ‘Say Goodbye to Old New Orleans,’ ” he said. “In my song, I’m speaking about all of the beautiful things that I grew up with, restaurants, musicians, the great people who were here in New Orleans back then. People think they’re enjoying New Orleans now, but they could never enjoy New Orleans the way I enjoyed New Orleans.”
Powell was already an experienced musician when he found a mentor in Danny Barker. A singer, guitarist and banjo player, Barker returned to New Orleans in 1965 following decades in New York and years of gigs with such greats as Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway.
Barker, impressed by Powell’s precocious talent, picked him to be a member of the Fairview Baptist Brass Band. Barker also brought Powell into his professional group, Danny Barker & His Original Jazz Hounds, when the drummer was about 12.
Barker’s Jazz Hounds also included one of the city’s finest pianists, the amazingly versatile Isidore “Tuts” Washington.
“That was my buddy,” Powell fondly recalled. “He told me a lot of stories. Mr. Washington told me so many stories that Mr. Barker used to tell him, ‘Stop telling that child all that stuff!’
“And Mr. Barker taught me so much about the music. Not just the music, but the business, how to be professional and how to handle myself at all times, on and off the stage. If it wasn’t for Danny Barker I wouldn’t have a career.”
Through Powell’s four-plus decades of performing in New Orleans and throughout the world, he’s played in brass bands, traditional jazz bands and with many rhythm-and-blues artists and gospel groups.
The vast touring and/or recording credits Powell assembled include Harry Connick Jr., the Marsalises, Diana Krall, Marcus Roberts, Dr. John, Johnny Adams, Chuck Carbo, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Earl King, John Scofield, David Lastie’s A Taste of New Orleans, John Boutte and Kermit Ruffins.
“I’ve never been to a conservatory or school to learn how to read or write music,” Powell said. “God’s just given me the gift to play this music. But I did have great teachers who gave me information and opportunities to play with great musicians. I learned so much through people like Harry Connick Jr., Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis, Mr. (Ellis) Marsalis himself. These people taught me out of the kindness of their hearts.”
After touring with Krall and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Powell formed his own band so he could sing. “Now I’m able to sing what I want and as much as I want,” he said.
Powell recently recorded a follow-up to his album debut, 2005’s “Powell’s Place.” Although it won’t be ready in time for the French Quarter Festival or the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the album’s song list reveals the singing drummer’s varied taste in music from New Orleans and elsewhere. The songs include standards, his new arrangements of traditional New Orleans jazz music and a few selections by Powell’s one-time neighbor, Professor Longhair.
“And I’m doing some more Ray Charles stuff,” he said. “Because everybody likes the way I do Ray Charles.”