The unmistakable melody of “Brown Eyed Girl” drifts through Pat O’Brien’s Piano Bar, where fruity rum punches crowd copper-topped tables and memories made by millions of locals and tourists thickly coat the walls. Up on stage, seated behind one of two polished baby grand pianos, Joel Jambon (BS ’89) taps his left foot as his fingers build momentum during the spirited chorus.
Once a burned-out computer programmer looking for a more fulfilling career path, Jambon can hardly believe his luck. Four nights a week, he now clocks into work at perhaps the most legendary bar in New Orleans.
“Playing the piano is what I would do to enjoy myself at home, so to be able to earn a living doing this is just the best thing ever,” says Jambon, a piano player at Pat O’s since 2006. “To do what you love is like not working.”
A Golden Meadow native who masks his Cajun accent remarkably well, Jambon discovered his musical talent at age 11, when he began taking organ lessons. Barely a teenager, he landed his first gig of sorts at Our Lady of Prompt Succor, a Catholic church just a short bike ride from his home. He later picked up the trombone while at South Lafourche High School and continued playing during his freshman year at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
But despite his passion for music, Jambon had been set on pursuing a computer science degree since the ninth grade.
“The Apple II had just come out, and I was intrigued by all the computer stuff floating around,” Jambon recalls. “Computers were poised to keep exploding, and I thought, That’s a growing field I should be a part of.”
Music continued to fill a large chunk of the computer science major’s time, especially after he transferred to Nicholls in 1987. Jambon joined the KNSU radio station staff first as a DJ and then as program director, responsible for training staffers and buying records.
“Sometimes, I’d sneak into the piano practice room in the music building, which they thankfully kept unlocked,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in there playing just to relax myself. I considered changing my major a couple of times, but I stuck with the safer career choice.”
Before graduation, Jambon secured a programming job with Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in the Detroit area, but even after five years there, he never acclimated to the snowy conditions. Slowly, Jambon migrated back south, where he ultimately was hired by Hibernia Bank in New Orleans to do Y2K programming.
“I clearly remember attending a summer program in the early ’80s, and they told us, ‘There’s this Y2K problem that y’all are going to have to fix one day.’ I thought it would be fixed long before, but no, it was waiting for me in 1999, and I spent 18 months doing Y2K coding and testing. It was a slog.”
Just as the worn-down Jambon began considering a career change, his mother unexpectedly passed away.
“I had been dissatisfied with my work for some time, and my mother’s death made me think, When I die one day, don’t I want to say that I played more music and did less programming?” says Jambon, who left Hibernia in 2001. “I wanted to do what made me happy, and I thought, What better place than New Orleans to try to make a living as a musician.”
Jambon applied at Howl at the Moon, a dueling-piano bar chain once located on Bourbon Street, and although he had little experience in singing or entertaining a crowd, he got his first professional gig.
“I didn’t even know ‘Piano Man,’ the No. 1 requested song,” he says. “That’s how green I was.”
The new job pushed the introverted Jambon out of his comfort zone. Not only did he have to memorize the 150 songs in Howl at the Moon’s repertoire, but he also was expected to jump on the pianos, tell jokes and pump up the crowd between songs.
Just as he was finding his groove, Hurricane Katrina swept it away. Howl at the Moon never reopened, and when Jambon returned to New Orleans, jobs — especially for musicians — were scarce. Even the esteemed Pat O’Brien’s, then open only three days a week, wasn’t hiring. Jambon kept afloat by playing one-time gigs, including a month-long “pity job” at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
In the weeks leading up to Mardi Gras 2006, Pat O’s announced that it was reopening seven days a week and needed piano players to entertain the anticipated crowds. Jambon auditioned, and the manager agreed to try him out for a week.
“He never actually told me I had the job; he just kept putting me on the schedule,” Jambon recalls. “After a couple of months, I thought, I guess I got the job.”
For Jambon and most others lucky enough to land a spot on the coveted piano bar staff, the job is one they plan to keep until retirement. There’s no mistaking that the work can be tough. Musicians work in teams of four with each pair playing every other hour from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. on weekends and 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays. And, of course, there are the intoxicated customers who occasionally cause trouble. But the job pays well and is revered. In the 18th century building on St. Peter that houses Pat O’Brien’s, live music has been a staple since 1942, and some of the piano players have been on the staff for more than 30 years — continuing to perform well into their 80s.
“To be a part of that long tradition is amazing for a musician because, as I learned, clubs come and go,” Jambon says. “But this place and its reputation have endured. We can take more chances than other dueling-piano bars because we have a legacy of players who have been here for decades. They remember older songs when they were new hits.”
Using the bar’s WiFi and a laptop set atop the piano, Jambon can look up the lyrics and play by ear any song he’s heard at least five times. Requests range from the overplayed favorites to the obscure stumpers. Although Jambon lights up when he receives requests for old standards by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, he doesn’t shy away from the more modern picks. He even does piano renditions of hip-hop favorites such as “Gin and Juice,” “Baby Got Back” and “Ice Ice Baby.” As requests for new songs he doesn’t know pile up, he adds them to his “to-learn” list, expanding his repertoire to meet the crowd’s demands.
When he isn’t presiding over a piano at Pat O’s, Jambon enjoys quiet time at home reading, surfing the Internet and playing more music. Recently, he purchased an organ, which takes him back to those pre-teen performances at the Golden Meadow church. Of course, his musical venue has changed quite a bit since then, but he says the gigs aren’t entirely different.
“In both cases, we wanted the crowd to sing along.”
— Written by Stephanie Verdin, publications coordinator
This article originally appeared in the spring 2014 issue of The Colonel alumni magazine. Click here to read the entire issue.