Pete Fountain played for the pope – and the people
Pete Fountain, who played his soulful clarinet for St. John Paul II during his 1987 papal Mass in New Orleans and for thousands of admirers during a lifetime of Fat Tuesdays, Jazz Fests and television appearances, was described at his Funeral Mass at St. Louis Cathedral Aug. 17 as a humble musical genius who let God shine through his work.
“I suspect what so many of us find so refreshing about Pete was his genuine humility,” said Redemptorist Father Byron Miller, who served for many years as the “unofficial” chaplain of Fountain’s troupe of Mardi Gras Day revelers known as the Half-Fast Walking Club.
“He certainly didn’t possess an oversized ego, that’s for sure,” Father Miller said. “People like Pete, with the talent and the gift of a sense of humor, are humble enough not to put themselves on a pedestal and look down on others. He gave thanks for his tremendous musical ability. He gave credit where credit was due – to his Maker.”
A global presence
Fountain died Aug. 6 at the age of 86. While he was known for his clarinet that carried Dixieland jazz into homes across the globe, perhaps his most cherished performance was playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” for Pope John Paul II at the huge outdoor Mass at the University of New Orleans in 1987.
“When Pete played ‘Just a Closer Walk with Thee’ for St. John Paul II, it really meant a lot to him, but we must remember it also meant a lot to Pope John Paul II,” Archbishop Gregory Aymond said. “After Pete played his clarinet, the pope looked over to Archbishop (Philip) Hannan and said, ‘I’ve always heard of the beautiful music of New Orleans. Now, I can witness it.’”
In his homily, Father Miller said Fountain’s easygoing nature rubbed off on everyone he met. Father Miller said his role as the “unofficial” chaplain of Fountain’s walking club on Carnival Day was just that – “because there was very little about that club that’s official. Let me just say that those poor souls needed a chaplain a whole lot more than the Catholic Daughters did.”
The Scriptures are filled with passages of the faithful “making a joyful noise unto the Lord” and singing and dancing and “leaping for joy,” Father Miller said.
“And, just for the record, you walking club members, I believe the Bible says ‘leaping’ for joy, not ‘staggering,’” he said.
“Pete seemed to embody the soul of New Orleans and the spirit of Louisiana,” Father Miller added. “He didn’t take himself too seriously. He had a zest for life and a resilience in his life. He had a closeness to home, to all of you, his family, and he had a profound love for God. It doesn’t get any better than that. That’s a winning combination. Whether he performed before the pope, the president or the populace, what we all saw and heard was simply authentically, magically Pete.”
Archbishop Aymond said Fountain “continually yearned for and desired that closer walk with the Lord Jesus.”
“His music touched the ears and hearts of many, and, I believe, brought them closer to the mystery and beauty of God,” Archbishop Aymond said. “We pray that he will now enter into that final, closer walk with the Lord Jesus that will last forever.”
After the funeral Mass, members of the Half-Fast Walking Club marched in a second-line procession through the French Quarter.