John Royen Rules the Ivories, Feeds the Gators

John Royen at the piano
Pianist John Royen (photo by Shannon Brinkman)

John Royen is one of the premier stride pianists active today. His background includes work with some of the best-known Traditional Jazz performers in the U.S. and abroad and he studied with the legendary Jazz pianist Don Ewell. Another Ewell disciple, the great Butch Thompson, described John’s sound thusly: “John Royen plays real traditional jazz piano, the kind that takes two hands and a lot of soul.”

Through we were not able to talk in person, John responded to several questions concerning his career via e-mail in December 2019 and January 2020:

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Hal Smith: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

John Royen: I was born and raised In Washington D.C.

Which recording (or live performance) made you decide to take up piano?

My Father was hooked on jazz and hung out in clubs in New York before the war. (WWII). He also hung out with the musicians. He loved Bechet and Louis and would book piano players and bands for fraternity parties and such at Brown University.

I remember he had a big band six-LP set that he used to play and that’s when I first heard “Fats” Waller on a cut of “All My Life.” I was about 14 at the time and would play it over and over. He knew the piano caught me and started bringing me reissues of Fats. From there I discovered the whole school of Harlem stride.

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Which pianists did you hear in person?

In fact my dad took me to Blues Alley in 1972 to hear Willie “the Lion” Smith, who died the next year. He actually remembered my dad booking him for college parties and such. I was not playing piano at that point, just listening. I had taken basic lessons around 10 but did not follow through with it. (I started trying to play ragtime when I was 18, leaning slowly, measure by measure while playing a recording of “Maple Leaf Rag,” while looking at the sheet music).

Pete Fountain and John Royen
Pete Fountain and John Royen

Over the years I heard several of the greats: Willie, as I said. I heard Cliff Jackson as a boy. Joe Turner, who I met in Switzerland. In New Orleans, I went along with my friend Steve Pistorius, (a great pianist) to hear Earl Hines.

How did you wind up studying with Don Ewell?

I met Don Ewell in D.C. around 1974—through his good friend, drummer Bill Riddle. Bill heard me play and suggested I meet Don and study with him. We never got together to study until after I went to New Orleans.

When did you study with him?

Don Ewell and John Royen 1970s
Don Ewell and John Royen 1970s

Don had come back to play in New Orleans to replace Armand Hug at a hotel gig. I guess Don saw or heard something in me so after he returned home I started taking trips down to Florida to stay with Mary and him. He tutored me in theory and became a close mentor. I studied with him until he died in 1983. I could call him up with a question and he could listen on the phone and correct my chords and give pointers! At his house I would sit at the piano and he would go back in his bedroom to lay down and correct me from there! Amazing ears. He willed me his piano, a 1943 Baldwin baby grand which is in my living room today.

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What made you decide to move to New Orleans?

I moved to New Orleans in 1976 to go to Loyola University but chose Loyola because of the music of the city.

Besides playing solo piano engagements, which bands have you worked with in New Orleans (and elsewhere)?

My first solo gigs in New Orleans were at the Gazebo—an outdoor bar. That grew into a quartet. From there I wound up getting the piano chair with the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble that was just getting formed, playing all the early classic jazz repertoire of New Orleans. This was one of my most formative jobs. I learned how to play ensemble and work in a rhythm section. Around that same time I got to work at Preservation Hall as a sub, working with everyone playing there at the time. After Sweet Emma Barrett and Dave Williams died, Alan Jaffe asked me to take the regular chair with Kid Thomas Valentine who was—I think—84 at the time. This was again a valuable experience learning to play the relaxed dance hall style of jazz from these veteran players.John Royen at Preservation Hall 1970s

I’ve travelled a lot with these and other groups. Europe, South America and Eastern Europe as well. The Kennedy Center in Washington was a highlight with Preservation Hall and many high profile concerts with LRJE including 3 trips to the former Soviet Union.

I also played and recorded extensively with Tim Laughlin, worked with the reorganized Original Dixieland Jazz Band (led by Jimmy LaRocca, son of ODJB founder Nick LaRocca – HS) and played with the great Pete Fountain just before he retired from the music business.

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What is your current musical situation?

Pianist John Royen Feeding the gator
John Royen at his day gig: docent for Pearl River Eco Tours. (photo courtesy John Royen)

Since coming to New Orleans I’ve loved the natural beauty of south Louisiana and the swamps. After Hurricane Katrina with the destruction of the city and the music scene, I started working for Pearl River Eco tours doing swamp tours during the day. This wouldn’t interfere with any music jobs at night. I love this work too, so now I have alligators during the day and lounge lizards at night!

The last few years I have been paying regularly as a soloist at the Windsor Court Hotel on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights and at Fritzel’s Jazz Club on Bourbon Street on Sundays. Since 2002, I have also been the piano instructor at the Adult Jazz Camp, presented by America’s Finest City Dixieland Jazz Society in San Diego. In 2019 I led “Capt. John Royen’s New Orleans Rhythm” at the 40th Annual San Diego Jazz Fest, and this year will be looking for other festival, concert and tour opportunities for my quartet.

Visit John Royen’s website here: www.neworleansjazzpiano.com.

Videos and Discography

Below are some performances from the 40th Annual San Diego Jazz Fest in November, 2019, videotaped by Michael Steinman/Jazz Lives:

Solo Piano

Here Comes The Band

Atlanta Blues

My Inspiration

New Orleans Rhythm

After You’ve Gone

Sweet Substitute

Panama

Below is a list of John Royen’s recordings.  All are CD format unless noted.

Chris Burke “True To New Orleans” GHB BCD 175 (1984)

Louis Ford “Reflections” Louis Ford un-numbered CD (2002)

French Preservation Jazz Band “New Orleans to Lyon” Jazz Crusade JCCD 3107 (2004)

Jacques Gauthe’s Creole Rice Yerba Buena Jazz Band “Someday, Sweetheart” GHB BCD 299 (1992)

Tim Laughlin “Blue Orleans” Good Time Jazz GTJCD 15004 – 2 (1994)

Tim Laughlin “Isle Of Orleans” Gentilly GR 172 (2002)

Tim Laughlin “Live In Germany” Gentilly GR 252 (2002, 2004)

Tim Laughlin/Jack Maheu “Swing That Music” Jazzology JCD 245 (1995)

Tim Laughlin & Tom Morley “Talkin’ Swing” Jazzology JCD 315 (1997)

Tim Laughlin “New Orleans’ Own” Jazzology JCD 205 (1991)

Tim Laughlin “New Orleans’ Swing” Jazzology JCD 265 (1995)

Louisiana Jazz Repertory Ensemble “Alive and Well” Stomp Off SOS 1029 (1982) Vinyl LP

Louisiana Jazz Repertory Ensemble “Uptown Jazz” Stomp Off SOS 1055 (1984) Vinyl LP

Louisiana Jazz Repertory Ensemble “Hot and Sweet Sounds of Lost New Orleans” Stomp Off SOS 1140 (1986)

Jack Maheu “In New Orleans” Jazzology JCD 278 (1996)

Alex Pangman “New” Justin Time JTR 8587 – 2 (2014)

Alex Pangman “They Say” Sensation 769 748018 – 2 (1999)

George Probert’s Second Story Jazz Band Jazzology JCD 304 (1998)

George Probert “The Incredible George Probert” GHB BCD 70 (1998)

John Royen “Solo Tradition” John Royen Music CD JRM 90052 (2001)

Jamie Wight’s New Orleans Joymakers Featuring John Royen GHB BCD 312 (1989)

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