Blind Luck Turns Potts Into Irene’s Jazz Fest Piano Man

         When he was just 15-years-old, Mac Potts was tickling the ivories in a piano duel with Harry Connick, Jr., in the back room at Irene’s Cuisine.

         “The first thing he said to me was, ‘Hey, Man,’” Potts said. “We talked about whatever, I challenged him to a thumb wrestle, which I won, and we played Boogie Woogie in D Flat. He was a nice, good guy.”

         Now 23, Potts is a professional vocalist, piano, saxophone, harmonica and drum performer and piano tuner living in Vancouver, WA, who hasn’t missed an opportunity to play at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in a decade, or the chance to perform at Irene’s in the evenings. Year round, Potts said he dreams about the music, culture and nightlife of the Crescent City.

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         He’s just never seen any of it.

         Potts has been blind since birth. His optic nerves never developed.

         “I started playing piano before I was 4-years-old,” Potts said. “I’m too outgoing to be stuck sitting behind a desk. There are too many desk jobs for blind people. I’d like to meet people and get my name out there. Any other career wouldn’t work for me.”

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         While Potts feels in harmony with his direction in life, he and his Mom Sandy weren’t too sure where they were going when they found themselves wandering around Chartres Street 10 years ago after a long day at their first Jazz Fest.

         “My friend Reggie Houston, a sax player who lives in Portland, OR, but is from New Orleans, told me I needed to go to Jazz Fest,” Potts said. “I was 14, it was the year after Katrina, on the Friday of the second weekend, and we didn’t eat anything at the Fest because we were too busy listening to all the music. Afterwards, my Mom and I were walking around the French Quarter, sweaty, tired and starving, and all of a sudden we smelled something amazing.”

         It was then they first stumbled upon Irene’s Cuisine, thanks to what Potts described as the heavenly aroma of garlic. Potts and his Mom followed their noses to the corner of Chartres and St. Philip Streets to the classic Italian eatery where Potts remembers ordering the ravioli and marinara sauce.

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         “When my Mom went to use the bathroom in the back, she saw there was a piano there,” Potts said. “That night was the first time I ever played in New Orleans.”

         This little bit of blind luck turned into a yearly engagement for Potts, who now plays piano at Irene’s Cuisine up to 6 nights a year when he flies into New Orleans to attend both weekends of Jazz Fest. He literally sings for his supper, sometimes making up to $300 in tips a night.

         “Mac is something special,” Irene DiPietro, chef and owner of Irene’s Cuisine said. “He lights up the whole restaurant when he comes in, and our customers love hearing him play.”

         “He’s awesome,” local Randolph Jay said while waiting for a table, sipping red wine in the piano bar. “He has diverse taste in music and can sing different songs in different pitches. His eyes looked different, but I didn’t realize he was blind. He’s really gifted.”

         “It’s kind of magical,” Brian Richard, who listened to Potts play for a little over an hour, said. “I didn’t expect there would be live music at Irene’s. I just thought there would be a bar in the back. It’s great music that works well with the wine.”

         Since 2006, Potts has performed with The Storyville Stompers Brass Band on the Jazz & Heritage Stage at Jazz Fest. Instead of pounding a keyboard, he blows a sax when he’s invited annually to jam with the band. Potts has even marched in one of the Fair Grounds’ Jazz Fest parades.

         But his first real gig was playing for a women’s club when he was 11. Potts said he made $25 and performed a concert featuring classical compositions, church hymns and old folksy songs. He said he learned to play piano by the Suzuki Method developed by Japanese violinist Shin'ichi Suzuki (1898–1998) who applied the same principles teaching music as parents do when teaching their kids how to speak their native tongue. Suzuki believed musical ability was not an inborn talent but an ability that can be developed with a parent’s help and being immersed into the right environment. According to Suzukimusic.org there are more than 8,000 Suzuki teachers worldwide and more than 250,000 children learning by the Suzuki Method today.

         While Potts became well-versed in the language of music, a career path became pretty black and white. At 15 he started to tune pianos. Certified since 2012, Potts said he has tuned hundreds of pianos in his short career.

         “I like tuning pianos,” Potts said, “but I don’t enjoy bringing them all the way up if they’re really, really flat or honky-tonk. That can be stressful. If I work on a piano that’s of decent quality, that act of tuning it to make it sound super beautiful again is very rewarding.”

         Potts, who charges $100 and up to tune spinets, basic uprights and grands, said it can take up to 4 hours to tune a piano.

         “The really big grand pianos have a roar at the bass end,” Potts said. “Not the 7 footers, but the concert grand pianos that are 9 feet. They have a grand roar to them.”

         Potts said old Steinways sound better the older they get, he enjoys working with the German Schimmels and the Bosendorfers, that feature additional keys, and he rates the American Baldwins as “pretty decent.”

         While Potts successfully makes a living tuning scores of pianos, he said his first love is performing.

         “When I was a kid, playing to an audience felt less like practicing,” he said. “It’s always a surprise playing a new piano at different venues. It only takes a few seconds for me to decide whether or not I like it or if the piano is loose or tight. I just need a few minutes to warm up and get my groove on.”

         Potts said this year’s theme at Jazz Fest was all about the “piano guys,” and a chorus of pleasant surprises.

         “That second Saturday, we didn’t move from the track,” Potts said. “I couldn’t wait to hear Jerry Lee Lewis and Elton John.”

         At this year’s Fest, Potts also listened to Jimmy Buffett, Lenny Kravitz, and Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, and was amazed at Pitbull’s energy and Angelique Kidjo’s soulful African melodies.

         At home, Potts likes listening to Canadian Boogie Woogie pianist Michael KaesHammer, Paul McCartney and Ray Charles, whose music his Dad often played for him to show what a blind musician was capable of.

         In the Big Easy, Potts has performed on local stages from Bourbon to Frenchman Streets including sitting in with Dr. John at the House of Blues, Charmaine Neville at Snug Harbor and Marcia Ball at YLC’s Wednesdays in the Square. “Random people ask me to come up on stage and jam with them all the time here,” he said. “They may have never met me, but they ask me anyway. It’s such a different vibe being a musician in New Orleans. It’s not like any other city I’ve ever been to.”

         He’s also been interviewed on WRBH 88.3 FM, New Orleans’ local reading radio for the blind and print impaired.

         Potts, a self-proclaimed picky eater, used to refrain from the local fare, but he said returning to New Orleans every year has helped him expand his culinary repertoire. He’s come to appreciate red beans and rice, Crawfish Monica and Crawfish bisque. He said he still finds peeling crawfish too challenging. In good measure, he came to like alligator, too. “It’s hard to find all this good stuff in other places.”

 

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         At 9 o’clock on Jazz Fest’s 2nd Saturday, when the regular crowd shuffled into Irene’s, Potts was on the bench, pounding the pedals to Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” and Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

         “Say Hello to Phillip,” Potts shouted to the crowd gesturing to the giant glass atop the Yamaha upright piano. “As in fill up the tip jar.”

         Potts, a modern day Pied Piper, entrances his audience to laugh and cheer for his piano playing and singing. He inspires standing ovations when he shows off and plays the harmonica or saxophone simultaneously with the piano, or when he stands up and turns around to play the piano backwards.

         Julia Devane, who was in town from Marietta, GA, said she couldn’t resist singing along with Potts when he crooned Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.”

         Local Evelyn Wilson, who dines at Irene’s twice a week, said she always looks forward to seeing Potts return in April and May. “It’s just amazing what this young man has accomplished,” she said. “So many people respond to his music and buy his CDs.”

         “Crescent City Dreams,” is Potts’ current CD release and features the timeless ode to his adopted City, “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.” There are 2 originals, “Bells and Whistles,” and “10th St. Piano Rag,” and several contemporary tunes including Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass,” 1931 country classic “When I’m Gone,” or the “Cups” song popularized by actress Anna Kendrick in the movie “Pitch Perfect,” and “I Saw Her Standing There,” by The Beatles.

         Now that Potts has completed his 10th “Jazz Fest” tour, he’s looking forward to playing at the Waterfront Blues Fest in Portland, OR, in July.

         With Allen Toussaint, Buddy Guy, Charmaine Neville and Chubby Carrier & The Bayou Swamp Band on the bill, Potts said he’ll feel right at home performing alongside a New Orleans faction.

         “I named my CD ‘Crescent City Dreams’ because all of the songs on it have a New Orleans feel,” Potts said. “The album kind of named itself. I’m not always there, but it’s like I’m always dreaming of New Orleans.”

 

Mac Potts

www.blackandwhitepianotuning.com

www.macpotts.com

macpotts@comcast.net

 

 

 

 

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