In July 1987, the New Orleans expat bassist Eustis Guillemet put me in touch with the master clarinetist-educator Alvin Batiste (November 7, 1932 – May 6, 2007), who was in town for a week at Sweet Basil with pianist Henry Butler, in his pre-R&B period, who had a hardcore jazz album out on Impulse! titled The Village, with Batiste, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and John Purcell. I’d first heard Batiste in person in 1982 at a Public Theater concert with Ellis, Wynton & Branford Marsalis, Edward Blackwell, and bassist Mark Helias, and was extraordinarily impressed with an extended piece called “Ayala Suite” on which Wynton uncorked a pair of unbelievable solos, beyond anything I’d heard from him at the time. In any event, I jumped at the opportunity; what follows is a transcript of our conversation. (Please feel free to offer correct spellings of proper names.)
Alvin Batiste (WKCR—7-31-87):
[MUSIC: A. Batiste/E-W-B. Marsalis/Blackwell, “Mozartin'”]
AB: I was born in New Orleans and raised in New Orleans and did considerable development in New Orleans, and I moved to Baton Rouge to work for twenty-one years at Southern University with some significant young talents, mostly from the United States, a few from Africa. By the grace of God, I’ve retired, and I’ve had the opportunity to perform with some of my idols. Recently I just completed a tour with Freddie Hubbard and the Satchmo Legacy, which gave me an opportunity to revisit some music that because of my own development, which began formally in music with Charlie Parker, I really had not meticulously gone into that music, even though it was a part of the New Orleans way of looking at the world. And then to have the honor again to play with Ron Carter on such a sustained basis, and to meet Joe, who I have always dug for many years, and Henry Butler, who is a tremendous talent and a tremendous soul… It’s just quite an honor to have an opportunity to play with these gentlemen here in New York.
Q: I believe this is your first extended engagement in a New York venue.
AB: It is. I played in New York with Ray Charles. I did the Bottom Line with Billy Cobham. I did my Carnegie Hall debut, heh-heh, with the illustrious Rufus Reid and Mulgrew Miller, and I did some things at Bennington in Vermont, which included Rufus and Mickey Tucker, and a fantastic drummer named Herman Jackson, who sojourned with Henry Butler in Louisiana. He’s a part of my quartet, and he’s on my latest album with India Navigation.
Q: We’ll get into all of these things as the show goes on. But I’d like to give the people a chance to get to know something about your roots and sources, and what led to your taking the interests that you eventually took. Let’s get to the basics. You were born in New Orleans in what year?
AB: In 1932.
Q: Tell me about how you first entered into music. Was it always a part of your life?
AB: Well, I can remember very vividly one Easter Sunday, I think I was about five years old, and my mother had gotten me one of these little white suits that kids at that time were wearing in Louisiana, whether you were Catholic or Protestant. And a parade passed by my house. I was living in a section of town called Holly Grove. And parades didn’t pass that often, so I followed the parade, and I was with the parade all day — if you can imagine a five-year-old kid. They fed me… And they had canals during that time that took care of the sewage and stuff, and so when the water would go in the canal there would be an algae. And I slipped down and messed up my little pants. But I got back home at about nine o’clock and got a good one! But I think that’s when I was bit.
My Dad had a picture of Edmond Hall, the great clarinetist from Reserve, Louisiana. That’s forty minutes from New Orleans. The Hall family is a famous musical family. Herbert Hall is a great clarinetist; he lived out in San Antonio, Texas, and Edmond Hall played with Louis Armstrong. The rest of the Halls played in the musical life of New Orleans. Like, many of the New Orleans musicians came from areas within a radius of 300 miles of New Orleans, but they went to New Orleans because that was where the industry and the gigs was at that particular time. He also had a picture of Benny Goodman on the wall.
So he used to tell me about Edmond Hall. And we had an old Philco radio, and you could listen to the big bands on the radio. And I used to go down to the Palace Theatre and catch Count Basie and Cab Calloway and Lionel Hampton and stuff like that. So by the time that peer pressure started getting into the act… Cats in the neighborhood were getting instruments who were older than me, and I started getting interested in it. A guy named Bud got a clarinet, who would influence me quite a bit. So I fooled around with it for maybe about six months.
And it was a drag, because my dad got it from a pawn shop, and I’ll never forget… Because he got the tubing from the music store, and the keys, and he put it together; which showed that he knew about the clarinet. But I had never heard him play, and he never really talked too much about his musical activity. But since I had to carry it in a bag, just the whole idea of carrying it in a bag, and the other cats had a case; I mean, it was a drag, so I just let it go.
So when I went to high school… The summer before going to high school I met Harold Battiste, and I heard a record by Charlie Parker called “Now’s The Time,” and it literally spoke to me. And I said, “This is what I want to do.” Harold was transcribing the solos off of records. There was a baritone saxophone named Sterling White. You could play a record one time and then take it off, and he could play the whole record back to you. So he said, “Go home and get the clarinet.” It was like five minutes both ways. So he started giving me lessons, and I practiced Klose mechanisms. I guess I was about 14 or 15, going to high school.
And the high school that I was going to, that’s the high school that Edward Blackwell was going to, Wilbur Hogan who was with Lionel Hampton, I think Joe Newman went to that school, Benny Powell went to that school, Idris Muhammad’s father went to that school…
Q: What school was that?
AB: Booker T. Washington High School.
Q: And who was the teacher?
AB: Laurice DeBauffet(?), who was a lady, and she really made us practice. Because we knew that any day that we came in, we could be challenged for our seats. Like, we would have maybe 20 clarinet players. I started out in the instrumental music class, whole notes, whole rests, and stuff like that. Then by the mid-semester you advanced to the junior band, and I got to play the last seat at graduation on the clarinet. Through the challenge system, working on up like that.
I was playing Albert System, because that’s what my Dad knew about. So I had worked my way up to first clarinet, and we were playing On, Wisconsin, and the supervisor came to school, a guy named (?)Raymond DeLuopp(?), and he said, “That kid’s got to have another clarinet. That clarinet is ancient!” And that’s when I got a Boehm System, and then I was able to cut the parts, you know. But basically, that was it.
But all during that time, Jazz was going on at the same time, and the symphony used to practice in the school. So we always had an interfacing between all styles. We never had a division between Black music and any other kind of music. It was all based on musical excellence and what you wanted to do, and when you were doing that, you did it as good as you could, and you had good people doing it. Dooky Chase from New Orleans had a big band that included Emory Thompson, Omar Sharif, Tony Morette… You know, it was just one fantastic environment.
So I joined the Army at 17, the 333rd Army Band, which was a Reserve unit, and I did that for twelve years because all the cats were in that band.
Q: In a Reserve Army band.
Q: That was stationed in New Orleans?
AB: Yes. So we had to once a week get together, and we had to practice. We played all the chestnuts, you know, Poet and Peasants, Zappa(?) and all that kind of stuff. Then we had the big band with Harold Battiste, Alvin Dejean, who runs the Olympic Jazz Band, Roger Dickerson, the composer…
Q: This was during the Fifties.
Q: I’d like to step back just a moment and ask you something about the scene in New Orleans when you were a youngster, what type of music you remember hearing in the community.
AB: Well, at that particular time, Edward Blackwell was an innovator. He was playing with a guy named Wallace Davenport and Frank Campbell. Because that was the first time that I knew, or learned about chord changes. And Clarence Ford… At that particular time (I’m talking about maybe 1947, I guess), Clarence Ford was playing Cherokee through all the keys, I Got Rhythm through all the keys, the Blues through all the keys. That was to serve me later as I developed a pedagogy at Southern University, because we had already understood that that was the way to open your ears up. So that was going on.
Then you had Lee Allen, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Angel Face…
Q: Did you play on those dates?
AB: No. I was a neophyte. I was just beginning, peeping at the door. I threw papers, and the Sunday paper was thrown at 3 o’clock in the morning. I put my clean shirt under the steps, and then I’d come back after I’ve thrown the paper (my parents are still asleep, right), and get my shirt, change shirts, put my sack on the steps, and go on down to the French Quarter and jam with Red Tyler and them, Earl Palmer and Edward Frank. And the groove would be so strong, Ted, and you could hear it from the corner, man! I’d break out and run! [LAUGHS]
I thought about that last night when I heard Joe Chambers jumpin’ it. He was right on it, I’ll tell you. He’s a great drummer, Joe Chambers.
Q: But basically as a teenager, then, you were influenced by the modern music of the time, and not really by whatever…not to categorize it, but small group swing, or more traditional New Orleans music that was happening.
AB: Well, at the time, we didn’t think of music like that. When you were doing that, you did that. My mother used to say, “Oh, they’re playing that ratty music.” But now I understand that to mean a particular groove. That’s what we would call a groove now, you know. But we always… One time Cannonball asked me… We were talking, and some musician said (it may have been some guy in his band), “Batiste, how come musicians in New Orleans play all kinds of music?” I said, “Well, we have to. We just do that.” And for a long time, I would negate that. But that’s one good thing about the music now. You don’t have to negate it, because the rhythm is wide open, and so you can express the continuum of African-American music in a broader sense, and the influences that you encounter interfacing with that.
Q: Speaking of the broader sense, you encountered Ornette Coleman at a rather early time, around 1950.
AB: Right. Well, I started teaching school in 1955, and I got a call (school had just opened) from Edward Blackwell and Harold Batiste that said, “Come on to California, man. We’re going to make it happen, so you got to meet on that.” You know, nothing’s going to happen in New Orleans. Well, we had been knocking our heads around. We had sponsored concerts, and we did pretty well sponsoring concerts, but you can’t do but so much wearing all of the hats.
So I had a ’49 Oldsmobile with leopard-skin seat covers, and my brand-new daughter, and I drove to California! [LAUGHS] I’d never been on a freeway before, man. And I saw this street, Alvarado, and I was so frightened, I took that street and just got off that freeway. And it just happened to be the street that Ellis and Blackwell and Harold were looking at a map trying to figure out where I might be!
Q: I guess it was meant to be, then.
AB: You know? So they took me to Ornette’s pad, after I got settled… He was living across the street from the California Club. Even though he was living across the street, they didn’t want him to play, because his playing was so contrasted to what was going on at that particular time. So we got into that, and so they wouldn’t let us play either. So we played at Ornette’s house, and we developed a rapport that I’m thankful I had an opportunity to develop. Because when you hear the music now, so-called free-form, that was really a very important nucleus of that manifestation.
By the time I got to Ray Charles’ band, I found myself having to defend… You know, you couldn’t defend an aesthetic event on the basis of words, because things that come from the inner self, you know, they don’t lend themselves to be intellectually designated until later. I mean, it has to go through considerable thought. But we all understand now. What do they say in politics, “hindsight is better than foresight”…
But thank God for Ornette, and the music is still beautiful — I heard him in Italy recently. And he’s a beautiful man, and we had beautiful experiences. I look forward to doing some things with him in the future. Because one of the things that I’ve always felt is that African-American music has been denied certain resources meaning the things that musicians at the particular time would like to have that are related to material wants, and have also been denied dissemination, which would enable us to express to a broader public our cosmic contacts.
Q: I’d like to ask you one other thing. Did Charlie Parker ever come through New Orleans?
AB: One time, man. One time.
Q: Was that the time you got to see him?
AB: I got to see him and talk to him.
Q: What was that like?
AB: It was like on the street meeting God! It was three of us, Nat Perillat, Julius “Shake” Snyder and myself. Julius was a baritone player, and he was even more imaginative than I was, so he asked Bird, he said, “Man, what were thinking about when you played that lick?” So Bird asked him, “Which lick” He said, “On Just Friends. He said, ‘You know that lick.'” So I hummed it, [SINGS REFRAIN]; he said, “I was thinking about my keyboard.” And that threw us away, because it brought us back down to the fundamentals. And if you looked at his keyboard, his left hand is perfect. I mean, his right hand is perfect, too. But you can’t get a better hand position than Charlie Parker had. It was something that I was able to always use in helping certain students.
[MUSIC: Bird, Cheryl, Now’s The Time]
Q: Two by Charlie Parker that Alvin Batiste heard as a youngster that turned him around at that crucial time.
AB: Yes. There was a period when there was a lot of peer pressure to play saxophone. I’ve played saxophone at many different periods of my life. In fact, for a great while there, I made many more gigs on saxophone than I did on clarinet. But clarinet was always my love, because naively I started on clarinet, and when I was inspired to pay music, I never realized that you weren’t supposed to play it on clarinet. So I learned a whole record of Charlie Parker solos, and then I discovered that he was using the inner self, and that one has an inner self — and I began to rely on it. And that was a turning point in my consciousness. And that’s a thing that I’ve always tried to share with students, that the key to expression and the perception of others’ expression lies in the inner self.
Q: When I spoke with you prior to the show and you told me that you weren’t influenced by clarinet players, I was very surprised because of the rich clarinet tradition in New Orleans. So you did really come to your style through the music of your time…
AB: Yeah, right.
Q: …through the inner self applied to the fundamentals of the clarinet in terms of what was going on at the time.
AB: See, I was playing with saxophone players and trumpet players, you know, trombone players… The sound of the clarinet, which was a major technical barrier for me for many years, and many different embouchures and many different concepts and perspectives of the clarinet I just couldn’t deal with because of that type of development.
Q: Well, it was supposed to be almost impossible to play Bebop effectively on clarinet, was the canard of the time, because of the tone of it. I think that’s what was supposed to be a barrier, as many people perceived it at the time.
AB: I don’t think it’s a very simple thing. One of the things that happens in the American society which is so mercantile is that whatever is popular, then it tends to have a weight. So the type of thing that people expect from you, if you’re not in touch with yourself, then it exerts undue pressures on you. You know what I’m saying? So people expect from you in New Orleans… The clarinet was very functional. I mean, there are a lot of good clarinet players in New Orleans — I mean, even now! But you know, I never thought like that. Rather than think like that, I just said, “Okay, I’ll learn to play saxophone!”
Q: We’re going to spin some sides by Ornette Coleman, who you met in 1955. That’s another new one on me. I had thought from the A.B. Spellman book that you had met him in 1950, when he came through New Orleans.
AB: Ornette… I’m saying he came to Baton Rouge also. But I wasn’t in Baton Rouge also.
Q: Because your name was mentioned in the book, to my recollection.
Q: Anyway, we’ll hear a piece called “The Disguise” from Somethin’ Else, Ornette and Don Cherry on alto and trumpet, which is an association still happening thirty years later, loud and clear, Walter Norris, piano, Don Payne on bass, and another who is still happening thirty years later loud and clear, Billy Higgins, on the drums.
Q: Were these the tunes Ornette was playing at the time when you went to Los Angeles?
AB: Oh, I’m sure. The thing that I remember most vividly about Ornette’s playing was that he would play cycles, and he would play what you would call musical fragments from Bird’s language, but the syntax would be different, and the whole breathing pattern would be different. The form had changed. And musicians spent a lot of time trying to justify it intellectually, but actually what you do is you just do it! So I think we’ve gotten around to that. That’s why I enjoy playing so much with the Clarinet Summit, with David Murray and John Carter. John Carter is an incredible clarinetist. We just do things. Kidd Jordan in New Orleans plays intuitive like that also, and it just adds a range to the music. Of course, Miles always did that. Recently, when I did the gig with Freddie Hubbard, studying the gig with Louis Armstrong… You know, he did that also, within the situation that he was in, in his language. He was an incredible player. I mean, bad! He was killing it.
Q: Well, you said you discovered in transcribing 21 of the Hot Seven arrangements.
AB: Yes, I had to know exactly what was happening.
Q: On this project… Although it got shelved, basically, there were arrangements set up for you. So you’re sitting on 21 transcriptions of Hot Five and Hot Seven arrangements for some future occasion.
AB: Well, I won’t be sitting on them long. In fact, I’m going to have you play the “Twelfth Street Rag” that I recorded. [ETC.]
[MUSIC: Ornette Coleman, “The Disguise”]
Q: Coming up we’ll hear a few selections from Alvin’s forthcoming release on India Navigation.
AB: It’s called Musique Afrique de Nouvelle Orleans. It’s about recognizing a perspective that the music from the south of Louisiana, as the music in Oriente in Cuba and Bahia in Brazil, are basically African-based musics that have evolved within communities that have interfaced with this great African tradition. So you get other traditions coming out of it. If you look at it that way, then you can appreciate the continuum of music throughout mankind as a whole, because then there is a connection between all cultures when you look at the natural principles, the undergirding principles of music, from sound vibrations and things like that.
Q: New Orleans has always been a melting pot of many cultures, I guess because of its nature as a port, and music was coming through at many times…
AB: But it’s also a mosaic. Cultural identities are maintained. Which is good, because it maintains a vortex for natural expression, and people don’t have to over-adapt or suppress their natural inclinations. That’s what’s so hip about what I see in New York also. I just want to see more of the Afro-American musical expression…
[END OF SIDE A]
Q: …they get a very competitive type of edge. I get the sense in New Orleans it’s more of a communitarian, up from the community type of ethos that informs the music.
AB: No, actually the ethos from New York permeates all the other parts of the country. This is one of the points of leadership here that radiates out. But we’re talking about a consciousness that’s supposed to accompany real development that reflects real intelligence and real humanitarianism that goes along with being one of the greatest and most developed nations in the community of nations extant in the world now.
Q: Tell us about the selections we’re about to hear from the next record.
AB: This is going to be called The Venus Flow. The Venus Flow has to do with the blood flowing to and from the heart, and it makes a sound. I am into symbolisms, because many of the things that we do as we develop our perspectives are based on the symbolisms that we respond to or that we ignore. [ETC.] The thing you’re going to play for me will include one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite heroes, Thad Jones, who contributed quite a bit to American education by way of Jazz and also in the Big Band idiom. Because the school bands play much better as a result of the music that he offered.
Then after that, you’re going to hear something that you may not have heard before. I’m playing with an acoustical quartet, acoustic clarinet, piano, bass and drums, and then a guy named Charlie. And you tell me what Charlie is saying when you hear it.
[MUSIC: “The Venus Flow,” “Tutu Man”]
Q: Another associate of Alvin Batiste’s in New Orleans was tenor saxophonist Nat Perrillat. [ETC.] Tell us about Nat Perrillat and James Black, two of the heaviest personalities on the New Orleans scene.
AB: Well, Nat Perrillat was a world-class saxophonist. He was very, very significant in my development. We spent a lot of time together. We were tuned as brothers as well as professional compatriots. And I played in his band a number of years. That’s where my nickname came from, Mozart, because I had gig with him one night and played with the symphony during the afternoon. And Melvin Lastie, who was the official namer (his nephew plays with Ahmad Jamal, Herlin Riley, the drummer), came to a concert, and he named me Mozart on the spot. So if Orrin Keepnews or Peter is listening, that’s where the name Mozart comes from. Nat was an incredible player. Totally dedicated to music. And his untimely death just left a big void in New Orleans and in American music.
James Black is a fantastic drummer. Here again, he’s one of these drummers who was really born. You don’t just develop that through the techniques. He has something very special. His time and his metric perception was ahead of the game. And of course, in school he was a trumpet player! So he has keyboard skills. I wish that he would come on out of New Orleans and do some things in New York also.
Q: We’ll hear now a composition by James Black. He’s a fine composer, as is evident from this 1962 quartet session with Nat Perillat, Ellis Marsalis, Marshall Smith on bass and James Black on drums.
AB: Marshall Smith is from Dallas, Texas, and that area has produced some fantastic people. In fact, the Moffett Family comes from around there also.
Q: The Moffetts, John Carter, Ornette, etcetera. Was there a lot of back and forth between New Orleans and eastern Texas when you were coming up?
AB: Buster Smith, who had a great influence on the Kansas City musicians of that time, according to history books… But Louis Armstrong had a great influence on all of this. Like Cannon said, “We’re all his chillun’.” [LAUGHS] That album that you’re talking about, we’re so fortunate that Harold Battiste had the foresight to put that together, because that would have really been lost. And Harold is playing again. He’s going to participate in the Edward Blackwell day that’s going to be done in Atlanta in November, I think November the 4th. Harold was the saxophone player who decided that he was going to devote some of the time to setting up something that would relate to the material forms, and that’s one of the results of it.
In New Orleans you can just get music happening spontaneously. It’s just very natural. Because it’s been going on so long, the musicians expect you to be able to just play music and make an arrangement on the spot without music and without a prior conception or any kind of conference. It’s something that I’m adjusting to as I go around to other places where there are other expectations.
[MUSIC: Magnolia Triangle, Twelve’s It, THEN CONVERSATION, then Satchmo Legacy, Twelfth Street Rag]
Q: One of Alvin Batiste’s long-time associates is pianist, also educator Ellis Marsalis of New Orleans. [ETC.] Tell us about your first contacts with Ellis Marsalis back when.
AB: The first time I met Ellis Marsalis was in a state contest. He was a clarinetist and I was a clarinetist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was going to Gilbert Academy, and I was going to Booker T. Washington. And then by the time that he started going to Dillard University with Harold Battiste and Roger Dickerson, then Harold, who had started me off on clarinet and who was my first teacher… Then that was the connection.
Ellis had the piano, and the parents who would let us make noise from 12 o’clock in the day to 12 o’clock at night, learning all the tunes. He had a sister, Yvette, who played all of the concert literature. And he knew all of the tunes even then on piano, but he was really a clarinet player and a saxophone player. But he has this marvelous ear and this beautiful lyricism that’s always been a joy for all of us. So…
[END OF SIDE 2]
…quite rewarding in our little circle.
Since you mentioned education, it makes me think about the fact that we used to sense there wasn’t a market, so to speak, for so-called Modern Jazz at this particular period, and we used to sponsor our own concerts. And we’d have at least 300 people quite often coming to our concerts. And there were one or two other promoters also. We’d get the halls at maybe the YMCA or something like that. We also started a program at the YMCA on Claiborne Street, and had students to come, and we started kind of a Jazz instruction program with Nat Perillat, Richard Payne, James Black, Ellis Marsalis and myself — I think Chuck Beatty may have been involved with that also. So we go back a long ways.
Ellis is at the University of Virginia in Richmond now. And his wife, Dolores Marsalis, is a singer. She finished at Grambling University in Reston, Louisiana. His youngest son, Jason, is a very fine little drummer. He can bash right now.
Q: Tell me something about how you planned out the curriculum in this education program.
AB: Well, I went to Southern University in 1965 as Assistant Band Director. At that particular time, I had been out of school for about ten years, I think. So they told me that I was going to have to get a Masters. I had planned to go to the University of Michigan, but at that particular time I had to get my bread together. So I went to LSU in the meantime and started taking courses, and sort of attuned to that kind of thing again. They had a Jazz band, and they asked me if I would go with them to Mobile in the Fall to a college festival, because they didn’t have anybody who could improvise. I said, “Well, I’ve never played in one of these before; I guess so.” So I went. And I heard the University of Illinois band with the Bridgewater Brothers and Howie Smith and Ron De War(?) — John Galdi’s(?) kids. And man, I had never heard anything like that before.
So I came back to Southern, and I started raising hell. And Dr. Harrison said, “Okay, be cool. We’ll help you.” So it just happened that a guy showed how to write a proposal, I wrote a proposal, and it was concomitant with a change in the whole band administration. So I went on into the Jazz area. The idea was to have a Jazz Institute, where it would be impermanent, just a short-term thing. So we adopted the name Jazz Institute. So I took the basic curriculum that David Baker had developed, and used that for the paper and added some things to it.
But I dropped the audition requirements from the literary sense, and anybody who had a propensity for musicality, I dealt with that. So we had a lot of non-literate musicians who were giants. Because learning to read music is the simplest thing in music, if you don’t have a mindset that tells you that it’s so complicated. So we took that kind of approach. And that’s always been my philosophy, to teach young people the fundamentals without interfering with their natural expression, and it worked very well…
So we have a lot of people who overcame the remediation. In fact, one of the great things that happens in predominantly Black schools, even with the meager resources that they have and the lack of support, is the remediation that takes place. And I am very proud to have associated with that for the last twenty years.
Q: I’d like to mention some of the people who have come up under you at Southern University.
AB: Well, I think right now Willie Singleton is playing first trumpet in the Count Basie Band. Frank Foster saw me in the Hague, and said, “Hey, man, there’s somebody you want to see!” And look, I was just so proud. Because you know, here we go. We’re talking about literacy at its finest, and intuitive aesthetics at its finest, in the finest American musical tradition. You can’t get a band to play any better than the Count Basie band.
Then we have Raymond Harris, who plays with the Ellington band. Randy Jackson, who plays with Journey and makes Aretha Franklin records. We have Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Herman Jackson, Henry Butler, Yolanda Robertson, Wessel Anderson… I’m not going to name a whole bunch of people. But the last time I wrote one of those pages for administrators, we had about 25 people who were actually functioning in the streets. And we didn’t aim for the hotel type gigs, because it really had a tendency to dry up kids, and that didn’t work too well with the kind of racism that goes down anyway on those gigs, because it’s very difficult for Black musicians to get the gigs in that kind of configuration now anyway. But we’ve made many inroads into musicianship, but without obfuscating the natural tendencies.
The big problem now is from the marketing and distribution standpoint, and of course, from your side — the whole media configuration. From the Seventies there has been such a sophisticated development in the industry, it has had the tendency to do things that have never been done before as well in terms of stopping creative activity in music.
Q: How do you think this works?
AB: It works because people write proposals, and they approach music from a business standpoint rather than from an aesthetic standpoint. So it keeps people off-balance, because the cart is before the horse.
Q: Your colleague, Ellis Marsalis, has been teaching more (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) for younger students, people in their teens, through community centers in New Orleans as well. And we’re going to hear two selections coming up, both from self-produced records. The first selection has Alvin Batiste’s nephew, Kent Jordan…
AB: He’s a fantastic flute player.
Q: He has an LP on Columbia.
AB: He has two. [ETC.]
[MUSIC: Moment’s Notice (w/Kent Jordan), Django]
Q: [ETC.] …Henry Butler.
AB: I met Henry Butler in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he had begun studying at Southern University School of Music. Immediately there was a rapport. And he was one of the founding members of the Jazz program, he, Herman Jackson, Terrell Jackson and Julius Forma(?), a fantastic bass player who studied with Ron Carter, who lives in Milano. And Ron always asks about him because he has this special touch. Henry is somebody real special. He can do the vocal repertoire in the Western tradition, and he can improvise accompaniments to the traditional Western lieder and arias, the kind of thing that he does on the gigs. So he’s just liable to do anything. His memory is impeccable. And he’s a very intelligent man. He’s a philosopher and a mystic. A lot of people are not aware of that.
So one of the tapes that we have cued up is something that he and I did together at Rosicrucian Park in San Jose, California. Rosicrucian Park is on the facilities of the Rosicrucian Order Armorc, which is a cultural fraternity devoted to the evolution of man.
[MUSIC: Batiste/Butler duo; H. Butler, My Coloring Book]
This is the first clarinet concerto that I’ve ever written. It’s based off of my gig music. I’ve been dealing with some forms that I can’t actually define because they actually come from the gig music. I’m just using the orchestral resources. And I like to deal with that. I think that if American musicians who play in the African-American idiom had more orchestral resources available to them, it would be a very exciting time. Most of the time when they get their hands on these resources, they have to adapt to the traditional Western way of thinking, or to more commercial ways. So Musique D’Afrique Nouvelle Orleans represents an idea on my own terms to deal with that. Also it combines with some ontological ideas that I have dealt with in my effort to be as I try to manifest my perception of my spiritual inclination. So you will hear things that I understand to be the duality of Man’s spiritual and physical expression interfacing. So at times you can get glimpses of the two in the various realms.
This is conducted by Coleridge Perkins. It’s at the Black Music Symposium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
[MUSIC: AB’s Clarinet Concerto]
That version is a little fast. But you deal with concert configurations, and you’re dealing with hall or union workers and all of that. So we picked up the tempo just a little bit!
[END OF SIDE 3]
Q: We’ll hear Alvin Batiste’s “Chatterbox,” recorded with the Adderley Brothers in 1962. Before we get to it, I’d like to have Alvin tell us a little bit about his relationship with the Adderleys, and particularly with Cannonball Adderley.
AB: Well, if I could single out anyone who has been the greatest living inspiration in my life, it has to have been Julian Adderley. I mean, he’s tapped me on the shoulder and said point blank, “Hey!” One time Nat Perillat and I were working on relaxation together — I mean, when we played. And it sort of made our playing lose some of the gusto that Cannon was accustomed to from us. So he told both of us, “What the hell’s going on?” So the next morning at rehearsal I told Nat, I said, “Man, my feelings were hurt so bad, I cried.” He said, “You too, man?!” Because that’s how much we loved and respected Cannon. I’d come to New York, and he’d take me around and show me the ropes and stuff.
I met Cannon when I was a freshman in college (he had already finished; he was teaching), at a jam session. We went to a jam session… You know how kids go to a jam session, they want to play Cherokee, you know…
Q: Where was this?
AB: In Tallahassee, Florida. And Clair Rockamore was playing, a trumpet player from Detroit. I mean, a monster. I wish he’d come out here. Dynamite. Ask Donald Byrd about him. In fact, anybody from Detroit. Detroit is another place like Philadelphia. Great musicians. I mean, just incredible. Nat was there; I met Nat that night also. But Cannon also was a fantastic cook. And it was very profound for him to taste Edith’s gumbo, because he couldn’t figure out what was in it! She’s a master, but not only gumbo. She can take a vegetarian deal and do that. She’s very gifted. She’s on top of that. It’s like a cosmic thing with her. She’s in a family of 16 kids, and her Daddy says, “Let Edie fix it.” You know what I’m saying? And they have some heavy cooks among eleven girls. She’s also a poet. She has a new book out. I’m sorry we don’t have time to hear some of her stuff, but next time I come, you will.
Q: What were some of Cannonball’s specialties, by the way?
AB: The thing that really knocked me out was some smoked chops and stuff. They were really kind of stewed, with a hip gravy. It was different from New Orleans, because it had a black pepper catalyst. He could really do a number, you know. He was telling me about the time when he had to go through 13 weeks without a release! He was complaining. I said, “Man, what you talking about? Some poor cats never have any release!” But during that time he was cooking, you know. So I used to always tell the guys on the program, and the girls…
In fact, my last year (and I’d like to mention that also), I was very proud of the fact that I had some dynamic ladies in my program at Southern University. One young lady, her name is Yolanda Robinson, is an arranger and a singer. You’re going to hear her on the second cut. Her mother’s name is Topsy Chapman with One Mo’ Time. She’s a Jazz singer, so she doesn’t sing melody in the regular way. I just can start out playing. And that’s the way we did with Henry Butler and Edward Perkins and Ernest Jackson. We didn’t let singers, heh-heh, get chord eyes! We’d let ’em get on in there, you know. So you’ll hear Yolanda really doing some Jazz things.
Q: But first we’ll hear your piece, “Chatterbox,” played by the Adderley Brothers.
AB: Well, it’s a special story with the “Chatterbox,” because that was a club on Claiborne Avenue where Marsalis, Richard Payne, Harold Battiste and Harry Nance and I had this gig. We played for a whole week, and the first day the cat said, “Well, I’m going to pay you the next night,” and the next night he said, “Look, I didn’t quite make it” — and ultimately, we didn’t get paid. So I said, “I’d better get something from this,” so I wrote this tune. And I guess the reward was to have Cannon to record it.
Cannon was a fantastic player. And on that particular album… Cannonball had come to New Orleans on some other business. He hadn’t planned to make a record. So he went to a music store, and picked up a student horn and a student mouthpiece, put a reed on there and went to the recording session. I mean, that’s how bad he was. He was awesome.
Q: And you had it laid out, and he just hit.
AB: Yeah. He was a fantastic player. [ETC.] Sam Jones! The thing that I used to tell the kids about being proud of their utterances… Cannon told me about Sam when he was with his band in Moscow, and they went to the Conservatory, and this professor was playing all of cello things on the bass, and Sam was saying, “Wow!” So the professor got the interpreter to ask Sam to play. And Sam said, “Man, I don’t want to play nothin’ for this cat.” So they kept on begging him, and so finally the professor makes the sound, and he says, “DUM-DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM-DUM.” So finally Cannon says, “Oh man, he wants you to walk some.” So Sam put that walk on it with that fantastic sound, and the professor grabbed his solar plexus and said, “Oh!!!” He just went all the way out.
[MUSIC: Adderleys, Chatterbox]
Next is a tune I’ve been playing this year, by Billy Eckstine, “I Want To Talk About You.”
Q: Which Coltrane did.
AB: Yes. I love it. It goes all the way back to the time when I was courting my wife. Edie and I just love those tunes, all those tunes that sound like that, the Buddy Johnson sound, Luis Russell and so on.
Q: Did the Eckstine band come down to New Orleans, by the way?
AB: Not when they had all the…I wasn’t going…
Q: You were young.
AB: Mmm-hmm. But in addition to doing this, David Murray and I did a duet also that’s going to come out on the next Summit album for Soul Note. And the second selection that you’re going to hear is called Recife, and Yolanda Robinson will be singing that one. On both of these sides you’ll find Emile Vignet, a piano player from New Orleans, who I finally got a chance to do something with. We called him Pianski. He’s just a groove. That’s what he does. And Chris Severin, who was one of my first jazz-artist-in-residence students. He was a student of another great tenor player who had an untimely death in New Orleans, Alvin Thomas. He was in the program that ultimately became the forerunner of the school that Wynton Marsalis and Branford and Kent Jordan and Moses Hogan and them got a chance to go to.
Q: Which was?
AB: NOCCA, the New Orleans Center For The Creative Arts. That’s where Ellis turned out all those fine students. Then if you get a chance, I’d like you to play “Kheri Herbs.” That’s very special. They were the keepers of the nosus in ancient Egypt. By the time they came to Greece, they were called the Therapeuti and the Alchemists in Europe.
[MUSIC: Recife, Kheri Herbs]
Q: We’ll conclude with Morocco performed by the original American Jazz Quintet, a very unique aggregation in NNew Orleans that was set up by Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis, Ed Blackwell, Harold Battiste, and the bassists were either William Swanson or Richard Payne.
AB: I think it’s probably Harold Battiste and probably Swanson. Because I think he was the first guy with a bass guitar to come to New Orleans. But I’ve got to hear it. That particular tune is interesting, because what I am hearing now, I am hearing then.
Q: By the way Ed Blackwell is recorded just beautifully on these sides from 1956.
AB: Yeah, the mallets! Ooh!
Q: And you really get a sense that Blackwell had a mature style in the Fifties, and you get some sense of where he came from.