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To the Limits of the Saxophone

Musician, photographer, Renaissance man, and Humanist of the Year Dickie Landry

Published: June 1, 2024
Last Updated: June 7, 2024

To the Limits of the Saxophone

Photo by Brian Pavlich

Dickie Landry, the 2024 Humanist of the Year.

At eighty-five, polymath artist Dickie Landry is getting used to the praise and recognition for his six-plus decades of work. But he makes it clear that, as far as he’s concerned, his career is no lofty pinnacle to gaze down from while collecting laurels. It’s a mountain he’s still happily climbing, while looking up.  

“Robert Plant said to me, ‘You had a great career,’” Landry remembered in a 2017 video interview, when he was all of seventy-nine. “I said, what do you mean, had? I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.” 

Clearly, he’s enjoyed all these years of trying to figure it out. And he’s created a multimedia body of work that keeps his audience on their toes trying to figure him out: as a founding member of the Philip Glass Ensemble, he was at the forefront of the development of minimalist music, working in drone and repetition; he also plays with C. C. Adcock’s Lafayette-based all-star swamp-pop outfit Lil’ Band O’ Gold. In the avant-garde SoHo art scene of the ’70s, he worked with and photographed Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Serra, Chuck Close, Bruce Nauman, and a score of other luminaries, eventually becoming lauded for his own abstract painting. He’s appeared on recordings with Glass and an ivory-billed woodpecker; advised on concerts for Carnegie Hall and the Arnaudville Earth Day festival; and within the same few months of 1972, played saxophone in multi-hour concerts at the Dipsy Doodle lounge in Grand Bois with zydeco king Clifton Chenier and the Leo Castelli Gallery in lower Manhattan with a gang of transplanted Cajuns making improvised art music. The experimental opera Einstein on the Beach, a collaboration between director/librettist Robert Wilson and Glass for which Landry originated flute, clarinet, and saxophone parts, has been revived onstage in some form in every decade since the ’70s. Landry has performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Rothko Chapel in Houston, the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, and other museums, art spaces, and festivals around the world, from Geneva to Brazil to India. In 2010 he collaborated with Ornette Coleman on an opera project in Taipei. In January 2024 he had his first release on Death from Above Records, the boutique label founded by New York electro-rock band LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy—a manic, funky groove called “Hang the Rich” he wrote in 1985, which sounds right at home alongside recordings by Landry’s creative compatriots of that era like Laurie Anderson and Talking Heads. And he still takes care of his eighty-acre pecan orchard in the town where he grew up. 

Richard Landry was born in St. Martin Parish in November 1938, in the village of Cecilia on the Bayou Teche. His mother’s side of the family were native speakers of Louisiana French, but Landry’s own childhood coincided with institutional attempts at the Americanization of Acadiana; between 1920 and 1960, public schools were mandated English-only, with harsh punishments for young students caught speaking French. 

“When my mother’s side of the family was speaking French—she had four brothers and four sisters and they were always using French for jokes—I’d try to figure out what was going on, and they’d say no, you have to speak English and not French,” Landry said. “So to this day I understand French very well, especially the patois in St. Martin Parish. But carrying on a whole conversation is very hard for me.” 

“My mother was a fourth-grade teacher for forty years,” he recalled. “And she said that when the law came out, the kids on the playground who were always laughing, chattering and talking, you know—she said she realized that nobody was talking on the playground anymore. When they came into class, they told her, ‘We’re not supposed to talk French.’ And she said, you can speak all the French you want. I’ll go to jail for you if I have to. They loved my mother. I’m still getting men younger than me coming up to me, saying that my mother was their best schoolteacher ever.” 

The farm where the Landrys lived didn’t get a radio until Dickie was six or seven years old; he remembers the French-language news programs, but not much music. At St. Joseph’s Catholic Church he sang with the choir, starting around third grade: “My mother took me to the church to become an altar boy, and as she was talking to the priests, the choir was singing. It was an all-girls choir, and I liked girls, so I said, can I sing? So I started singing Gregorian chants in Latin, six days a week and the High Mass on Sundays.” 

Eight years older, Dickie’s brother John joined the Air Force at the outset of the Korean War, leaving his saxophone in the care of his ten-year-old sibling. “I played in the Cecilia primary school band, high school marching band,” Landry said, “and then I got money to go to school at the university—that was Southwest Louisiana Institute then, not ULL—in 1956. Before that, my brother was at the university getting his degree on the GI Bill, and there was a band director there doing a summer camp band thing at Lafayette High School, and I attended that two summers in a row. John Gilfry was his name. He said that I was going to be his first chair clarinet for that, so I assumed I was good. He was a great band director; when I said I wanted to learn the flute, he learned the flute, staying one lesson ahead of me.”  

John went on to a master’s degree program at Columbia University, alongside another friend from the Lafayette area. “A friend of my brother’s friend suggested: let’s go visit, let’s go see your brother and my friend in New York,” said Landry. “So he bought a 1956 Corvette, and we drove straight to New York City. I’m right out of high school. And we went straight to Birdland, and I got to hear Miles Davis, Bud Powell, several other great jazz musicians. And I was hooked on New York City.”  

It wasn’t his first exposure to innovative jazz. A middle-school band director had taken him to New Orleans to hear Stan Kenton’s orchestra, with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. And the marching-band kid from Cecilia had already gigged with a big-band ballroom outfit, the Harry Grieg Orchestra; he’d already made his first recordings with a blue-eyed soul band called the Swing Kings, which opened for Chitlin’ Circuit acts like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke when they came through town. But when Landry started visiting New York City as a teen, he was entranced by the possibilities of sound, his mind reshaping from those early tastes of bebop, progressive jazz, and modernist classical music. At the time, he said, “I basically left Louisiana not to play swamp pop—I thought it was out-of-tune saxophones and three chords. And I was into Stravinsky and Beethoven and Bach, and the European avant-garde and Miles Davis and John Coltrane.” 

Initially Landry traveled back and forth between New York and Louisiana; he spent the summer of 1963 studying flute with Arthur Lora, the principal flutist for the Metropolitan Opera under maestro Arturo Toscanini. He would have made a permanent move up to New York sooner than he did but for the limitations of his probation for a drug charge—he’d been growing marijuana on the family farm (“I was hanging out with jazz musicians,” he explained). In 1969 he and then girlfriend (future wife) Tina Girouard—another Louisianan who would herself become a significant artist on the New York scene—arrived there to stay. 

The New York years were, at first, a hustle to both make art and make rent. Landry joined Philip Glass’s new ensemble right away, enlisting several other Louisiana musicians as well, but quickly learned the composer only had one paying concert scheduled. Glass thought they could make money moving furniture. Landry, who had learned plumbing in his family farm’s dairy, thought the latter trade would be more lucrative. “Our last plumbing job was for [installation artist] Christo’s wife, Jeanne-Claude,” he recalled. “She wanted a bidet.” He stumbled into another day job when he borrowed a friend’s camera to photograph performance artist Joan Jonas’s first show; she called later to ask if he would sell the pictures, and Landry began shooting the artists working around him instead of fixing their pipes.  

“I think we were all in the same frame of mind. They were making art, and I was taking photographs of their art so they could promote the art. So it was a community of people helping everybody. And Philip [Glass] and I are being plumbers—he’s writing his new music and I’m taking photographs and meanwhile, we have to plumb to survive. My whole first two years in New York were about survival. I didn’t dive into New York—I landed feet first, thinking you know, this has got to work or it’s going to be a disaster.”  

“You know, in hindsight, the people I was photographing wanted to give me works of their art,” he said, “but I needed money for rent and food. Otherwise, I’d be a multimillionaire today because some of that work is now selling for millions.” 

While working with the Philip Glass Ensemble, Landry also developed his signature quadraphonic tape delay, a technique made simpler today by digital tools but which, in the early ’70s, required multiple tape recorders. “And what that taught me is that I didn’t have to have a group,” he said. “The speakers were my group. I could play with myself.” The soundscape Fifteen Saxophones, a psychedelic 1974 recording considered a cult classic, showcases that technique, which he still uses in improvised performance today.  

“Everybody thinks I’m a jazz musician,” Landry said. “I don’t play standard jazz songs. I’m a free improviser.” Landry is an improviser in a class by himself, said the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ Louis Michot, who featured his Acadiana neighbor on the Ramblers’ Grammy-winning 2018 album Kalenda and on Michot’s 2023 solo release Rêve de Troubadour (where Landry is paired with a 1955 recording of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker). “I could say, ‘make it sound like the wind going through the cypress trees,’” said Michot. “‘Make it sound like a silent swamp.’” 

 “It’s all about the saxophone,” Landry said. “The saxophone is the only instrument ever made that you can do a harmonic series where you can go from the lowest note to at least six, seven octaves above that, that’s continuous. So for me my concerts are all about the limits of the saxophone. I try to take it to the limits.”  

Landry continues to enjoy the possibilities of technology in his work. Writing a Mass for the opening of the Menil Collection in Houston in 1985, he used an early Macintosh computer program to transcribe the music as he was composing it. And although he’s stopped shooting on film, he takes more pictures than ever. “I take photographs every day with my iPhone, and it’s great,” he said. “And now with video stabilization, I can make great movies. I’ve got thirty or forty thousand images in iCloud. When I see something on the street, I have the phone and I take it: shadows, concerts I’m in, flowers. Bees, trees. The farm has 150-year-old trees, and if I don’t document them—they’re not going to be there in a couple of years or so. I’ve got trees that have died and the trunk is still standing, they’re like giants. I take photos of birds following me around on the tractor.” 

Working across his various disciplines requires compartmentalization. “I don’t think about music when I’m painting, I don’t think about painting when I’m playing music,” Landry explained. “It’s a whole different process. In a darkroom, which I used to do, you’re totally alone in a dark black room. In a painting you’re involved in canvas and paint and thinking about color and stuff. Music is a whole different ballgame.” And then there’s farming: “You know, I’m on the tractor. I’m not thinking about music, I’m not thinking about painting, I’m thinking about keeping myself alive, not falling off the tractor and killing myself. They’re all in a separate place in my brain.”  

After a fire at their SoHo loft in the late ’70s, Landry and Girouard began splitting their time between New York and Lafayette. As the ’80s dawned, so did a nationwide fascination with Cajun food and music, bringing artists like Paul Simon and Bob Dylan to Breaux Bridge dance halls to see the real thing. This led to Landry, famously, helping Simon connect with artists like Rockin’ Dopsie, who appeared on 1986’s Graceland, and Terrance Simien. “When I was growing up, you know, the music almost died,” he said. “We were ignored for years. Then tour buses started showing up in numbers at Mulate’s in Breaux Bridge, and the word got out: there’s great music and great food in South Louisiana.” In 1978 Landry co-produced a blues revue in New York that got Clifton Chenier onto the Carnegie Hall stage.  

As it turns out, he said, “there’s no switch between playing swamp pop and Philip Glass. I’m playing the saxophone, I’m playing the same notes. So I don’t think of them as separate. It’s music.”  

A columnist since 2016, Alison Fensterstock has written for 64 Parishes about music, dogs, witches, hippies, and other things.