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Starting out as a singer, Alton Purnell took up piano in his youth and became a professional musician in his mid-teens. He worked with a number of well-known bands in his home-town of New Orleans, including those led by Alphonse Picou and Big Eye Louis Nelson, before moving to New York in the mid-40s, where he played in various bands, including those led by Bunk Johnson and George Lewis, with whom he was best associated.
In the mid-50s he moved out to the west coast where he played with many leading New Orleans and Dixieland jazzmen such as Kid Ory, Teddy Buckner, Ben Pollack and Barney Bigard.
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