Or, the far-flung adventures of a Lafayette renaissance man

Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Written by David Egan

dickie landry posterizedDickie Landry will have to write an autobiography. If he could project his life clearly, factually and chronologically onto a giant screen — big enough to show all of the highs and lows, adventures, ironies and insights — we would only see it through a cloud of utter mystique.

Seeking horizons beyond his family farm in Cecilia, the young musician/artist was drawn to New York. He first visited there in 1959, returning several times to feast on the frenetic jazz and art scene and finally moving there in 1969. At this point, he had honed his saxophone chops with the legendary Swamp Pop group the Swing Kings, backing legendary R&B artists such as Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave and the great Joe Tex.

But his visions and yearnings would not be confined to any one region or idiom. When he heard and saw what New York avant gardists were playing and hanging on the wall, something clicked and he knew he would never be pigeon holed as an artist, player or person.  
He would create art and music by his own set of rules, which would be no rules at all.

Dickie would become ensconced in the New York art/jazz/avant garde scene. He would help form the Philip Glass Ensemble, collaborate with Laurie Anderson and Paul Simon, hang out with Bob Marley, composers Steve Reich and John Cage, artists Robert Rauschenberg and John Chamberlain, theatrical director Robert Wilson, Moondog (a blind poet who dressed like a Viking) and an endless cast of characters and hipsters.

Dickie Meets the Legendary Ornette Coleman:
COLEMAN: Where you from, man?
LANDRY: Lafayette, La.
COLEMAN: I got my ass whipped in Lafayette, La.
LANDRY: I got my ass whipped in New York. They took my saxophones.
COLEMAN: Yeah? Look, here’s my number, gimme a call. I got a few saxophones. I’ll loan you some.

Instant rapport, they call it. Dickie and Ornette have remained dear friends to this day. Within one minute of meeting Bob Dylan, Dickie was invited to dinner and then to play the gig with him that night.  

Just wing it. Folks take a shine to him.

For years, Dickie would maintain a dual residency between New York and Lafayette. In 1985 he was commissioned by the late philanthropist and Schlumberger drilling equipment heiress Dominique de Menil to compose an ensemble piece to be performed at Houston’s beautiful Rothko Chapel. He would compose the Mass for Pentecost Sunday, commemorating his beloved son who was killed in a convenience store robbery. Mass, for small ensemble and soprano, was a great success. He would later perform Mass at Yale University, at such exotic settings as Mexico City; San Paulo, Brazil; and a 13th century abbey in the south of France.

The highly influential artist Robert Rauschenberg once hired a 747 jet, filled it with his works and took his art show on a world tour.  
He wanted appropriate music to open up the shows and set the right mood, so who did he call but his pal Dickie for solo saxophone. Dickie had to miss part of the tour due to his schedule with the Philip Glass Ensemble but was able to make it for showings in Chile, Cuba, Moscow and Mexico City.

In the aftermath of 9-11, Dickie gave up the New York apartment and consolidated to his Jefferson Street loft. On a typical day, the 73-year-old dynamo rises at about 7 a.m., takes care of miscellaneous business on the computer, and then heads out to his 80-acre farm in Cecilia at about 10:30 a.m. From then on, it’s chores and more chores. “It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge,” he says. “Once you get to the end, you have to start all over again, and I love it.” There are near 1,000 native pecan trees that need looking after. There’s a garden to tend, weeds to pluck, vines to cut and wood to chop. There’s always a tractor humming, greens growing and branches burning.

And there’s Lil’ Band O’ Gold, by which I’ve traveled extensively with Dickie. There’s also True Man Posse, session work, occasional blues tours, art projects, photography and no end to what drives him to stay up late and rise so early.

But New York wouldn’t let Dickie go away for good, nor would an art-thirsty world. In 2009, director Robert Wilson, “a towering figure in experimental theater,” according to The New York Times, enlisted Dickie to play saxophone for 1433­-The Grand Voyage, a music theater work inspired by the story of Admiral Zheng He, the 15th century navigator.

After the initial meetings on Long Island, the rehearsals would proceed for three weeks in Taipei City, Taiwan. The show ran for two weeks in the beautiful 3,700-seat National Theater of Taipei and sold out for the entire run. Dickie performed on sax and bamboo flute, in traditional Chinese white face make-up, alongside Mei Yun Tang, the reigning Diva of Chinese Opera, considered royalty by all Taiwanese.

I asked Dickie about the vibe of the city of Taipei. “Affluent” was the first word that came out. “Clean, cosmopolitan, civilized. Eight million scooters. Magnificent infrastructure. I got real healthy eating the street food, so fresh and delicious. But the people didn’t seem very affectionate or demonstrative. No one was hugging or kissing. Nobody touched anybody. Kind of shrill.”

Dickie has just returned, once again, from New York City, where he performed SOLO, his acclaimed improvisational piece on tenor saxophone at the Guggenheim Museum in the center of the rotunda. The usual quad speakers were unnecessary in Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnificent, echo-rich structure.

The performance was a tribute to his late friend, artist John Chamberlain, whose sculpture SPHINXGRIN TWO was on display at close proximity to where Dickie stood for much of the hour-long performance. At the halfway point, he strolled slowly up the ramp, spiraling all the way to the fourth floor and into an elevator, never ceasing to play. He could faintly be heard as the elevator descended.  

The volume swelled as the elevator doors opened on the ground floor and the musician reappeared, to everyone’s laughter and delight. (That primal jack-in-the box principle never fails, even for the most prestigious of gatherings.) He finished the performance and gave a loving nod to SPHINXGRIN TWO.

I’ve heard SOLO performed locally, with quad speakers, at the Acadiana Center for the Arts, at the UL Lafayette Art Museum and at the Pussycat Lounge. But it’s been too long. What’s up with that?

Dickie Landry is a treasure, a rare and special bird, residing right here in our midst. Aside from all that he is — artist, visionary, tractor jockey — folks seek his advice on many things, and he’ll give it to you gruff and straight. He’s a killer cook who never lets a friend go hungry. He walks with kings and cotton pickers, divas and dirt farmers, but wherever and with whomever, it’s going to be the same damn Dickie Landry.

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