On December 14, 2005, barely four months after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans filmmaker Stevenson Palfi finished a day of editing on a performance biography of rhythm-and-blues composer Allen Toussaint. Palfi had won a Guggenheim fellowship several years earlier on the strength of a previous film, Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. But his two-story house in Mid-City had taken five feet of water in the Katrina flood. He was staying at the home of his ex-wife, Polly Waring, and he was depressed.
Palfi, 53, left the Warehouse District studio of his editor, Aaron Walker, went to his battered house, climbed the stairs, and in a room untouched by the floodwaters shot himself to death.
“Stevenson didn’t lose any original tapes,” Waring told The Daily Beast. “He did lose his paper work, contracts, and a lot of what he had done on other projects. He was thin and pasty white. I couldn’t get him to see a therapist. My house is on a ridge and didn’t flood. I had an extra bedroom.”
The despair that Polly Waring saw eluded Aaron Walker, with whom Stevenson spent most working hours. “There was no clue—it came completely out of the blue,” says Walker, who was also working at the time on his own film, Bury the Hatchet, about Mardi Gras Indians regrouping after the flood. “A few days before, I was driving to Baton Rouge to discuss a grant, he was giving me instructions by cell. He was a mentor.”
The suicide made headlines because of Palfi’s 1982 classic documentary Piano Players—a filmed group portrait of Toussaint, R&B keyboard pioneer Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd), and the aging boogie wizard Tuts Washington. In the shattered post-Katrina milieu, Palfi’s death signaled a larger malaise.
Now, 13 years later, Waring has released Fess Up, a boxed set that includes a digitally remastered version of the original documentary Piano Players by film restorationist Blaine Dunlap; a 33-page booklet; and a second DVD that includes a 90-minute interview from edited outtakes with “Fess,” as Byrd was known to his closest friends. Fess Up also features interviews with Palfi and others reflecting on the director's tenacious work ethic and achievements.
Piano Players follows the handing down of a piano-playing tradition from Washington to Fess and Fess to Toussaint. The plot builds to a showcase performance of the men playing side-by-side on three pianos. Their performance was in fact a rehearsal for a concert that never took place, because Fess died in his sleep before the concert could happen. Using the rehearsal scenes to capture the pianists as an ensemble, Palfi shifted the visual narrative to a powerful sequence of Professor Longhair’s wake, funeral, and massive burial parade in January 1980.
Piano Players, which aired on PBS, was a classic before its time—before the internet, websites, and surging interest in nonfiction films that have given vintage documentaries much greater visibility than they ever enjoyed in the world of old media.
“We had our differences,” says Waring, who was an associate producer on the film. “I had been in love with him but couldn’t deal with his ego. Beyond everything else, I thought Stevenson was a brilliant filmmaker. I wanted to preserve his legacy. Piano Players was not well distributed. It aired once on PBS. CBS cable picked it up for a while, and it aired on Channel 4 in England. This all happened before digital distribution." When the film was remastered several years ago, "the only vendor I had for the DVD was Louisiana Music Factory [a record store] on Frenchman Street,” Waring said. Fess Up is now available at /www.louisianamusicfactory.com, and Amazon.
Piano Players did enjoy a word-of-mouth cult following, and periodically resurfaced at special screenings, college programs, and New Orleans events. But by the mid ’80s, Palfi had moved on to other projects, and after the divorce, spent his final years immersed in the film on Toussaint.
“My friend Stevenson Palfi's life's work was immortalizing others, and, in so doing, he has immortalized himself," Toussaint told the Times-Picayune on learning of the filmmaker’s death. "His work will outlast all of us."
Such self-effacement—floating the notion that a filmmaker’s work would supersede his own vast musical legacy—was classic Toussaint. The most gifted New Orleans composer-producer-performer in the last half of the 20th century (he penned such immortal songs as “Lipstick Traces,” “Mother-in-Law,” “Southern Nights,” “Working in a Coal Mine,” “A Certain Girl,” and “Let’s Make a Better World,” and he was a producer of genius to talent as varied as Lee Dorsey, Paul McCartney, and LaBelle), Toussaint was a renaissance man shy of the limelight. When Katrina demolished his studio, he flew to New York, threw himself into public fundraisers for the beleaguered city, and restarted his career with gems like the albums Bright Mississippi, American Tunes, and Songbook—recorded live at Joe’s Pub.
Toussaint died in November 2015, at 77, suffering a heart attack in a Madrid hotel room after a concert. By then, Aaron Walker—who had been finishing an MFA in filmmaking at University of New Orleans when he met Palfi—had his own relationship with Toussaint.
Soon after Palfi’s death, Polly Waring called Aaron to say that Stevenson in a carefully-worded will had bequeathed to him all of the Toussaint tapes and ownership of the rights to the film. Walker thought back to one of their last conversations, when Palfi suggested that Aaron and his wife, Yuki Yamaguchi, let Stevenson move into their place for a transitional period and pay rent. “I was thinking, I love you, pal, but I don’t know. I didn’t answer either way. It’s always befuddled me that he was thinking that, and two days later he took his life.”
When the mother lode of Toussaint tapes came back into Aaron Walker's life, he was raising money to finish post-production on Bury the Hatchet. His film entered festival screenings in 2010, gained a spotlight at the 2011 Hot Docs, and landed a contract with Seven Arts. It aired on the Documentary Channel.
The impact of PalfI's death hit Walker in waves. He couldn't shake a residual anger. The guy had committed suicide and unloaded the unfinished work on him. “I was still very close to the film, thinking, OK, I can do this. But it’s not like someone leaving you a bunch of wedding videos. Stevenson would give me a bonus every year, his way of saying, I’m happy with your work. It was nice, but what the hell—we could have done this. I am still confused about why he did it.”
The tapes sat in boxes under the dining room table in Walker’s house for several years, as he and his wife, Yuki, a chef, established a Japanese pub, Yuki Izakaya, in the Frenchmen Street music corridor. Life was good; they were renovating their house, and while restaurant work meant long hours, Walker knew he would have at least some of the funding to get the Toussaint project back on track. It took several years, by which time Palfi’s old beta and three-quarter inch cassette tapes had to be digitized, a time-consuming process he did with Tim Watson, the editor on Bury the Hatchet.
When Walker finally sat down in Toussaint’s home on Robert E. Lee Boulevard, most of the footage had been shot well before Katrina. Toussaint’s career had become meteoric, an entirely new chapter since the years of work Palfi had followed, along with fundraising grants, to sustain the post-production work cut short by his death in 2005.
“What’s your plan?” asked Toussaint.
As Walker laid it out, Allen Toussaint: The Songwriter Tapes, would cover the years Palfi had filmed, and not much beyond.
“Allen was so prolific and continuing to produce other artists after Katrina, that he had become the elder statesman of New Orleans music. With Stevenson’s footage, he’s young and more off the cuff, as opposed to the seasoned, reflective artist. I did one interview with Elvis Costello, but the footage when Allen was young is something no one else has. I decided to keep it in the box of that time period. Allen agreed. Stevenson’s in the film, his conversations with Allen, sitting on the couch. At one point, Allen says, You’ve always been here with a camera. I left Stevenson’s voice in the film so that he floats through, like a ghost. With Tim’s editing you get a sense of their relationship. It becomes more personal.”
With both Palfi and Toussaint now gone, Allen Toussaint: The Songwriter Tapes is sure to draw comparisons with Piano Players Rarely Ever Play Together. As the earlier film became a eulogy to Professor Longhair, Walker and Watson are editing a film that will function in the same way for Toussaint—and for Palfi, the chronicler who never finished his magnum opus.
Walker’s life has taken a complicated, cheer-inducing turn by virtue of the French restaurant N7 that Yuki and he opened last year on Montegut Street off St. Claude Avenue in the bustling Bywater enclave of the Upper Ninth Ward. Bon Appétit named N7 one of America’s best new restaurants in 2016.
And the Toussaint film?
“The cut is done,” Walker says. “We’re out of money, generating proposals for grants, donations and support for finishing funds to license footage, music and cover the sound mix. Werner Herzog’s sound mixer, Michael Klinger, did the mix on Bury the Hatchet and has agreed to do this one. We’re pushing hard to get into post-production this fall.”
Aaron Walker has become a high-wire artist toggling between restaurant work with his wife and working on the Toussaint tapes, which have become his own epic. “Yuki jokes that if I do one horror movie, it could fund more documentaries,” he says. “She’s probably right.”