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Why Tom Piazza Matters

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It was one of those Jazzfest moments of perfect grace. The Carolina Chocolate Drops launched into the Blind Willie Johnson song “City of Refuge," and there, on an aisle seat, clapping along and rocking out, was music writer Tom Piazza.

It was as if the Chocolate Drops were singing just for him, right to him, not knowing his book of the same title was coming four months in the future. It was a moment of blessing, the kind New Orleans often confers upon its writers. It wasn't lost on Piazza, for his path to that moment had been a long, winding one.

A Long Island, N.Y., native, Piazza has an old-school writer's resume of ambition mixed with odd jobs, false starts, hard knocks. After graduation from Williams College, he moved to New York, already with substantial street cred as a writer. Drawn to jazz from an early (early!) age, he was the youngest writer to appear in Downbeat, at 16. While at Williams he ran a jazz festival, which featured appearances by Milt Hinton, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Charles Mingus, and did a weekly radio show called “Home for the Bewildered." In New York, he hoped to become a composer and jazz pianist.

He took piano lessons, wrote music for a West Side theater workshop called New Dramatists, worked at the Barnes & Noble sales annex, worked as a busboy at the Figaro Cafe, delivered furniture, did phone sales. All along, he was writing for music publications as well as the Village Voice. He discovered the writing of Norman Mailer, starting with “An American Dream," and then he began to see another way to write, one that would eventually subsume his musical aspirations.

In 1979, he became a messenger at the New Yorker. “Like being in Chartres Cathedral," Piazza said. The legendary editor William Shawn once paid him $4,250 for a story about jazz that the magazine never published. Piazza took the check to the bank and got it all in singles, just to see what that much money looked like.

His first thought was, “I'm gonna take this money and move to New Orleans and write my novel," he said. “It was right about that time that I first heard the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas had an effect on me that was similar to reading Mailer for the first time. I was big jazz lover, a big blues lover, but I'd never heard anything like that." He does a bit of Indian chant. “All I needed to do was see the picture, hear the chants. I was riveted."

But New Orleans would have to wait. In 1981, Piazza met his hero, Mailer, and stayed in New York to start his first novel, which took four and a half years to finish.

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