Tom Piazza, October 2015
New Orleans resident Tom Piazza is the recipient of the 2015 Louisiana Writer Award given annually to recognize outstanding contributions to Louisiana's literary and intellectual life exemplified by a writer's body of work. Piazza is the sixteenth recipient of the annual award given by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library of Louisiana.
Past recipients of the Louisiana Writer Award include novelists Ernest J. Gaines, James Lee Burke, Christine Wiltz, John Biguenet, Shirley Ann Grau, Elmore Leonard, Tim Gautreaux, Valerie Martin and James Wilcox; children's author William Joyce; historian Carl Brasseaux; scholar Lewis P. Simpson; and poets William Jay Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa and Darrell Bourque.
Tom Piazza is celebrated both as a novelist and as a writer across all aspects of American music. His twelve books include the novels A Free State and City Of Refuge, the post-Katrina manifesto Why New Orleans Matters, and Devil Sent The Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America, a collection of his essays and journalism. He was a principal writer for the innovative New Orleans-based HBO drama series Treme. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Bookforum, Oxford American and many other periodicals.
Piazza grew up on Long Island and graduated from Williams College in 1976. In New York City he worked as a jazz pianist, wrote about music for periodicals including the Village Voice, Newsday and Down Beat, and began to write fiction. His early stories appeared in The Quarterly, Story, American Short Fiction and other literary magazines. In 1991 he moved to Iowa City to attend the Iowa Writers' Workshop, earning an MFA in Fiction Writing in 1993. In 1994 he moved to New Orleans, where he has lived ever since.
In both his fiction and his nonfiction, Piazza explores themes of cultural and personal identity, often using music as a prism through which to view American life. His 2015 novel A Free State, set in Virginia and Philadelphia just before the Civil War, explores the difficult, many-layered relationship between blackface minstrelsy and slavery, and the deep, painful, and still-contemporary riddles of race and society.
Piazza's 2008 novel City of Refuge follows the stories of two New Orleans families, one black and one white, during and after Hurricane Katrina; it was that year's One Book, One New Orleans selection and it won the Willie Morris Award for Southern Fiction. His 2003 novel My Cold War won the Faulkner Society Award for the Novel, and his debut short-story collection Blues and Trouble, published in 1996, won the James Michener Award. His book-length essay Why New Orleans Matters, published two and a half months after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, won the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities' 2006 Humanities Book of the Year Award.
His writing on American music, including jazz, blues, country and bluegrass, has been similarly recognized. He is a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for Music Writing (for his books The Guide to Classic Recorded Jazz and Understanding Jazz, and for his Oxford American column on Southern Music) and in 2004 Piazza won a Grammy Award for his album notes to the five-CD set Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues: A Musical Journey. His music pieces have been widely anthologized, appearing in Best Music Writing 2000, The Oxford American Book of Great Music Writing, Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader and many other collections.
Piazza has traveled far and wide as a teacher and lecturer. He has held the Eudora Welty Chair for Southern Studies at Millsaps College and he has been the Visiting Writer in Residence at Loyola University, the Trias Visiting Writer at Hobart & William Smith Colleges, a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the University of Iowa and a core faculty member at the Bennington Writing Seminars. He has delivered lectures and readings at Columbia University, Middlebury College, Williams College, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of North Carolina, the Chautauqua Institute, the National Arts Club and the Library of Congress, among many other venues.