New Orleans has been on the minds and tongues of many over the past few years. A very good thing. The town deserves the attention. After the devastation of Katrina, two oil spills and some grade-A political corruption, NOLA can certainly use some shine. The city has been featured recently in two Spike Lee documentaries, the fine HBO television series Treme (get caught up here) and all over the press. Don’t forget a Super Bowl win.
NOLA is certainly on my mind. I’ll be heading down there this week. I hope to see some music and raid some record shops.
Back at BYOV #1, the group listened to tunes featuring Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, both legendary New Orleans bred performers. There was a comment about the similarities between early New Orleans style jazz and that of the free jazz movement most notably during the 1960s and 1970s. Got me thinkin’…
Traditional New Orleans jazz was made for improvisers. Emphasis was placed on collective improvising throughout a song with each member elaborating on the theme. Free jazz, overtly or not, was influenced by this earlier tradition. Given this lineage, it would seem obvious that there would be a history of progressive/free jazz/avant-garde/what-have-you in New Orleans. No?
The conditions that bred the early jazz style in New Orleans weren’t exactly the same as those of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The popularity of the music as it moved outside of New Orleans made stars out of the leading exponents, Armstrong and Bechet among them. While the City’s musical focus grew exponentially in the areas of R&B, the jazz strata remained with a more conservative, tourist-directed traditional style. The music was an important aspect to NOLA’s identity and a very powerful economic tool. Therefore, experimentation was left to the wayside for more important things, like paychecks.
I’ve tried to outline a handful of the progressive NOLA musicians that I’ve come across. Definitely nowhere near a complete list. Just grazed the surface. I believe that those covered here are among the most recognized of the modern/avant-garde scene in NOLA. These are also brief as to give a taste of each. There has been a trend of collective building in progressive movements in jazz and improvised music, a very cool phenomenon continued in New Orleans.
Even though modern jazz wasn’t a paying proposition, there were musicians attracted to the more progressive sounds that evolved in the late 1940s through the early 1960s. These musicians were not able to forgo careers in the more popular R&B and traditional jazz fields but continued their experiments on the side in complete earnest.
The first names of New Orleans’ modern jazz that I came across were in Dr. John/Mac Rebennack’s book, Under a Hoodoo Moon. He mentioned saxophonist Harold Battiste (b. 1931) and his AFO (All For One) cooperative/record label. Battiste was instrumental in the creation of Dr. John’s first release, Gris-Gris (ATCO, 33-234) from 1968, as he provided the studio (originally a time slot intended for Sonny & Cher – for whom he was working) and production (musicians and arranging). Battiste turned into one of the main forces behind mainstream jazz in New Orleans.
I really think that a more focused report on Battiste and the AFO will be necessary. I’m planning further research (looking forward to reading this). From what I’ve read so far, it sounds fascinating. Furthermore, I need to check out all that music!
The modernists sprung up from the largely African-American Central City locale most of musicians called home, specifically the Calliope and Magnolia Projects developed during the 1930s. Players like Battiste, clarinetist Alvin Batiste and percussionist Ed Blackwell came together during the late 1940s as they looked for challenges outside of R&B and blues. Blackwell initially met up with Ornette Coleman during this time in New Orleans, he would later join Coleman’s ensemble in New York. Much has been written about Blackwell as he went on to become a huge figure in improvised music.
Anyway… By the late 1950s, Battiste had developed a cadre of the NOLA’s modern jazz players, creating the American Jazz Quintet. His independent AFO record label came next in 1961. After being a talent scout, Battiste wanted to control his own output and support his compatriots. He made sure to release R&B along with modern jazz sides to help keep the label afloat, the bankrolling release being Barbara George's "I Know (You Don't Love Me No More)". Most musicians in AFO’s collective were fluent in all genres, from jazz, blues, Dixieland to R&B, which made it easy to create a diverse catalog.
Pianist Ellis Marsalis, tenor saxophonist Nat Perrilliat and drummer James Black were among the musicians affiliated with the AFO. These three were essentially the second generation. Marsalis (b. 1934) had met Battiste at Dillard University and joined the American Jazz Quintet soon afterward. Black (b. 1940) grew up in the Treme and absorbed the local scene, including sessions led by Battiste at the local Foster’s bar. Perrilliat (b. 1936) was highly regarded stylist but poorly documented over his career.
These three musicians were the first to make a larger impression outside of the local jazz scene. In early 1962, Nat and Cannonball Adderley visited New Orleans where they were impressed by the talents of the young modernists who had solid chops from playing R&B and underground modern jazz gigs. Nat was able to convince Orrin Keepnews at Riverside into a recording session in New Orleans with a handful of the impressive musicians. A recording session with unknown musicians (especially outside of New York) was unheard of at the time.
During June of 1962, Nat and Cannonball were able to fit a session in between their travel from Los Angeles and New York. Longtime friend and bassist Sam Jones came along. The recording issued was called In the Bag (Riverside, JLP 75). It was a pretty solid showing for the New Orleans players. Black displayed a steady hand in both drumming and composing, as he contributed both “Sister Wilson” and “New Arrival.” Though he didn’t play, Alvin Batiste was represented as both his “Chatterbox” and “Mozart’in” (Mozart was Batiste’s nickname) appear. Perrilliat made the biggest impression on the record, even Keepnews made mention in the notes. Check out his muscular, bluesy solo after Nat on Yusef Salim’s “Low Brown.”