I’ve been getting together with some old friends and colleagues lately; catching up, reminiscing. Got me thinking about…
“Bonjour,” he’d say, with a little chuckle and a smile.
Tommy Gallant 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.
Thomas L. Gallant was born on July 14, 1935, in Exeter, NH. He was the only son of Thomas and Doris (Lary) 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. He spent many, many hours in those days – often with his trombone-playing friend Phil Wilson – learning new tunes and further mastering his craft on the piano in his parents’ living room.
Tommy served in the United States Marine Corp after high school. He then 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 note with the exact measure of joyfull, 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, 1983, Tommy Gallant recorded a superb album of solo Jazz piano music. The session took place in the Bratton Room in the Paul Arts Center at the University of New Hampshire. Gaylord Russell was the recording engineer.
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.)
Here it is!
In 1988, The Tommy Gallant Trio – Tommy with longtime collaborators Jim Howe on bass and Les Harris, Jr. on drums – released an album called Jazz at the Pilot House.
Jazz at the Pilot House was recorded on January 25, 1988 at the Pilot House Restaurant in Rye, New Hampshire. Gaylord Russell again served as recording engineer.
The second track was a Tommy Gallant original: “The Pilot House Blues.”
Check it out!
Tommy Gallant passed away on September 28, 1998, after a long battle with cancer.
He had played literally countless gigs throughout the Northeast over the course of his career. He performed solo, with The Tommy Gallant Trio and with his legendary New Orleans-style, Traditional Jazz ensemble known as The Tommy Gallant All-Stars.
But in this corner of New England, Tommy is best remembered for the two decades of Sunday night Jazz sessions that he hosted at The Press Room on Daniel Street in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
When Tommy Gallant played his final Sunday night at The Press Room, the last piece that he played 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.
JTLYK: In 1999, the annual Portsmouth Summer Jazz Festival – of which Tommy was a founding father – was renamed The Tommy Gallant Jazz Festival. This year the festival will be held on Sunday, August 11, 2019, in downtown Portsmouth’s lovely Prescott Park.
Happy Birthday, Tommy. Miss you.
P.S.: The black and white portrait of Tommy above was taken by Jim Howe; as talented of a photographer as he was as a Jazz bassist.