“Bonjour,” he’d say, adding to his greeting a little chuckle and a smile.
Tommy Gallant, my colleague and friend, always brought a smile. “Bonjour,” as I remember it, was the punch line of one of his favorite jokes. More often than not, he would follow his “Bonjour” with: “Have you heard the one about…?”
As good as he was at telling a joke, when Tommy Gallant played the piano, smiles were absolutely guaranteed.
And when Tommy Gallant played the piano, he played Jazz.
Born on this day, July 14, 1935, in Exeter, NH, he was the only son of Thomas and Doris Gallant. (Tommy’s dad and my dad were classmates at Exeter High School.) By the time he was in high school, Tommy played piano with several local Jazz bands. On his own and often with his trombone-playing friend Phil Wilson, Tommy spent many hours learning new tunes and beginning the process of mastering his craft on the piano in his parents’ living room.
After high school and his service with the United States Marine Corp, Tommy studied piano and music theory at the University of New Hampshire and the Berklee School of Music in Boston. Settling down in the New Hampshire seacoast, he proceeded to build a life-long career as a performer, a teacher (at UNH, Berklee and Phillips Exeter Academy), and as a dedicated promoter of Jazz.
In an early draft of this post, I attempted to describe how Tommy Gallant played the piano. I wrote, among several even longer sentences, that Tommy had “the priceless ability to endow each and every joyful note with the exact measure of foot-tapping, spirit-lifting, smile-inducing and simply irresistable swing.”
I have decided that it would be far better to let you hear Tommy Gallant’s piano playing for yourself.
On November 25, 1985, playing the Kawai grand piano in the Bratton Room in the Paul Arts Center at the University of New Hampshire, Tommy Gallant recorded a superb album of solo Jazz piano music.
Released in 1984 by the New Hampshire Library of Traditional Jazz, Tommy Gallant… by himself starts off with the song “Danny Boy.” (The melody of “Danny Boy” is also known as “Londonderry Air,” a traditional Irish Folk tune that first appeared in print in 1855.)
Click on the blue link below to hear that track from my well-worn copy of that LP.
Among the countless gigs throughout New England that Tommy Gallant played over the course of his career, he is probably best remembered for the two decades of Sunday night Jazz sessions that he hosted – most often with trio-mates Jim Howe on bass and Les Harris, Jr. on drums – at The Press Room on Daniel Street in Portsmouth, NH.
When Tommy Gallant played his final Sunday night at The Press Room, the last piece that he played by himself, at the piano, was a song written in 1928 by Larry Shay, Mark Fisher and Joe Goodwin.
The song was “When You’re Smiling.”
Everyone knew the words: “When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you…”
A few weeks before he died, I visited Tommy in the hospital. I brought him a joke. Not having his gift for the telling of a joke, I had the joke written down and I read it to him and his wife Patricia. When I finished, they laughed and then, still laughing, Tommy said “I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone read a joke before!”
Well, I’ve never heard anyone, before or since, play the piano, play Jazz, and make it smile like Tommy Gallant.
Tommy Gallant passed away on September 28, 1998.
Not long after, two annual events were established here in the New Hampshire seacoast that bear his name and help to keep the music he loved alive and well. Every spring, Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter presents the Tommy Gallant Memorial Jazz Concert in Phillips Church. Every summer, Prescott Park in Portsmouth hosts the Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival as part of the Prescott Park Arts Festival.
If you’d like to listen to Tommy Gallant playing with his six-piece Traditional Jazz band, The Tommy Gallant All-Stars, go into the blog archives for September 2012 and find the post for September 16 entitled “While We’re On The Subject… The Tommy Gallant All-Stars.” You’ll find another one of those blue links to click on for a piece called “Shine.”
If, Dear Reader, you knew, heard and/or remember Tommy Gallant, click on “leave a comment” or “comments” below and share your thoughts, memories and/or your story!