Sunday, July 10, 2011

NOLA Progressives

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.”

The three New Orleans players would record together on Marsalis’ debut, Monkey Puzzle, the next year on AFO (haven’t gotten to it – more later). These recordings were definitely in a modern jazz vein, certainly not avant-garde. Perrilliat would record scantily after and pass away in 1971 due to a cerebral hemorrhage.


There has been much said about the mentoring tradition in New Orleans. Nearly all of these musicians were educators at some point, formally or not. Harold Battiste was instrumental in Marsalis’ progress as a player. He also taught elementary school music before he started AFO. Alvin Batiste was not only a fabulous instrumental talent but also he was a legendary educator. (To avoid confusion, start watching them t’s.)


Batiste (b. 1932) was a wunderkind. A master of the clarinet and who began classical study early on, able to perform with the New Orleans Philharmonic before he was a teenager. He attended Southern University but received his most important lessons on frequent trips home to play alongside Harold Battiste as they attempted to get their heads around bebop in the late ‘40s. He remained affiliated with Battiste through membership in the American Jazz Quintet and AFO, until Battiste shut down operation in 1964. Alvin went on to establish a jazz program at Southern University renowned for its excellence and for producing some of the leading talent that came out of New Orleans, including Branford Marsalis.

Though he recorded on and off from the ‘60s to the ‘80s with Cannonball Adderley, Billy Cobham and Clarinet Summit, Batiste finally recorded a couple records under his own name on the defunct India Navigation label. The first, Musique D’Afrique Nouvelle Orleans (India Navigation, IN-1065) [the record I’ve found], was released in 1984 and showcased Batiste’s mastery of the clarinet, composition and the entire scope of the New Orleans musical tradition. His own words from the album notes, “The music on this album is, in an esoteric sense, about manifestations from my content of consciousness and my attunement with the roots of my cultural direction.”

The best example of what Batiste’s avant-garde approach with deference to the past would be the opening track. “Musique D’Afrique Nouvelle Orleans, Suite No. 3” which was written as a nine-movement suite for the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra then adapted for a small ensemble that included keys, bass guitar, guitar, percussion, voice and clarinet. The 15-minute piece covered a huge range of colors and moods. The music swept through traditional song (“When the Saints”), dancing funk (with marching drums and throbbing bass) and atmospheric soundscapes. Listen below.

Clearly, Batiste was one of the most progressive of the generation raised on bebop. His music covered a wide range but never abandoned the principles of traditional New Orleans jazz. It was a tremendous loss to the music community when he passed away on May 6, 2007 just hours before he was due to perform at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.


At the end of 1962, John Coltrane came to New Orleans for an eleven-day stint at Vernon’s. This would have a tremendous effect on a number of young musicians (James Black took away much from Elvin Jones). Saxophonist Earl Turbinton (b. 1941) had already been studying with Alvin Batiste at Southern University, but Coltrane became his number one inspiration after he spent three days under Trane’s wing.

Turbinton toured with organ combos and large ensembles until the mid ‘60s when his brother, keyboardist/vocalist Willie Tee, organized a group that played R&B. Willie got a break from the ever-helpful Cannonball Adderley which led to his David Axelrod produced I’m Only A Man LP. The Adderley connection worked out for Earl, too. He was introduced to former Adderley sideman Joe Zawinul upon his move to New York in 1970. His highest profile jazz gig was as a sideman on Zawinul’s Zawinul (Atlantic, SD 1579) in 1971. Listen to "Doctor Honoris Causa" below.

Turbinton even maintained that if he hadn’t joined up with B.B. King shortly thereafter, he would have been the saxophonist in Weather Report. Turbinton returned to New Orleans where he performed with many luminaries and on productions of his brother, most notably The Wild Magnolias, The Gaturs and Willie Tee’s Anticipation record.

It took some time but he was finally able to release his own LP in 1988. Brothers for Life (Rounder, 2064) was a collaboration with his brother and showcased their mainstream jazz chops. Earl’s Trane influenced tone was in full force, especially on his dynamic tune “Neferdoris.” Listen below.

Turbinton’s reputation as an educator has been lasting. By the time he had passed away on Aug. 3, 2007, he had instituted a workshop for avant-garde jazz, taught at Loyola University, lectured all over the globe and presented numerous prison outreach concerts.


So free jazz hadn’t made a tremendous impact in New Orleans. There were a handful of players that dabbled, most notably Turbinton and Batiste. The ensemble that really went for it represented the most progressive of all New Orleans’ collectives, the Improvisational Arts Quintet. The group was well schooled in the history of traditional New Orleans jazz and definitely saw their contribution as part of that lineage.

The IAQ was founded in 1974 by drummer Alvin Fielder. By this time, Fielder (b. 1935) had studied with Ed Blackwell, earned a degree in and practiced pharmacology, co-founded the AACM and promoted “the new thing” in his home state of Mississippi. The group was co-led by saxophonist Kidd Jordan (b. 1935), who had a stint as an R&B sideman before beginning a long, successful teaching career at Southern University. In the New Orleans tradition, Jordan also led his family into music, including two sons, Kent and Marlon. Kent (b. 1958) was a member of the IAQ and went on to have a fairly successful solo career as a jazz flautist. Amazing trumpeter, Clyde Kerr, Jr. (b. 1942) was the son of the legendary trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Sr. and built a legacy as an educator at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.

The IAQ made one recording, NO COMPROMISE! (Prescription), that was released on Fielder’s own label in 1983. The record was comprised of tracks recorded in April 1978 and February 1982. All the tunes were written by Jordan except “Three Pastels”, written by acoustic bassist London Branch who was the original bassist and splits the tracks with Fender bassist Elton Heron.

The tunes recorded were direct and energetic vehicles created for improvisation. “A New Cycle” showcased all the members, including an upfront Heron and a dynamic solo from the younger Jordan. Kidd Jordan’s tenor playing was tremendously open, especially on “Last Trip To Jackson.” Kerr fabulous technique was also well documented on “Last Trip…” Fielder maintained a forceful pulse that swings even in freer moments. Listen below.

NO COMPROMISE! was dedicated to a recently fallen member of the ensemble, saxophonist Alvin Thomas. He had been a huge influence on the musicians in the IAQ and had barely missed the first record date, passing away in 1977. Another under documented progressive. Video of him with the IAQ here.

Fielder and Kidd Jordan have gone on to become legendary amongst free jazz aficionados. Fielder’s contributions have been well documented over the last couple years (Destination:Out ran a nice retrospective). Jordan has toured throughout the world and has made great recordings for Silkheart, AUM Fidelity and his own Danjor label. He also was awarded Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Vision Festival and the French Ministry of Culture’s Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.


It should be noted that the progressive movement in NOLA was almost entirely led by reed players and percussionists. Very interesting especially when the leading voices of New Orleans wind players historically had been brass (trumpets and cornets). It should also be noted that the most successful contemporary musicians from New Orleans are trumpeters. The tradition has continued.


It was interesting to see this post (Does ‘Treme’ Hate Modern Jazz?) by Will Layman at as I was tying a bow on this rambling mess. His post posited that there was some aversion on the part of the Treme production team to the use of modern jazz or even the portrayal of New Orleans modern jazz practitioners as outsiders. There are definitely some interesting points.

I would have to say that the team on Treme was simply using the law of averages. As I’ve noticed in my small amount of research, the modern jazz scene in New Orleans was never a huge one. The performers that decided to pursue the progressive side of the music were small in number but dedicated to the task. There simply was no career focusing on modern jazz in New Orleans. The musicians that did make their name in modern jazz had to go elsewhere to make their mark.


Whew… Enough for now. Look for more soon.


  1. Great post, Bret -- definitely a lot here that's new to me. Two items to note: (1) "From Bad to Badder," an American Jazz Quintet reunion album from 1987 (I'm checking it out now on Spotify, and it sounds great), and (2) this vintage vid of the IAQ:

    -Hank S.

  2. meanwhile this is also happening in NOLA:

    it is tough indeed...