Jason Berry, photos Syndey ByrdFuneral Procession of Willie Tee
The weeks leading up to the cool breath of fall carried messages of continuity about the music laced with appreciations for artists who had died. As New Orleans moved beyond the second-year mark of damages furnished by Katrina, the dearth of political leadership was a muzzled chorus to life among the muses.
Earl Turbinton, the self-styled “African Cowboy” and saxophone modernist, died in late summer. Tributes in the press and community radio followed. How many years since I saw Turbinton? A crusty chap with his stylistic baseline grounded in John Coltrane, in the 1980s he had been traveling with Gatemouth Brown and Professor Longhair before him, laying out his hot and husky blues solos. Years passed. Turbinton faded from the scene, to where I’m not sure. One day during the Clinton administration I was driving on Carrollton Avenue and heard him declaiming on WWOZ – he never lacked an opinion – and he was in one serious blue funk, calling down some woman who allegedly owed him something and I remember “phone booth” uttered twice in that menacing soliloquy. I laughed, I did laugh. Now he’s gone and I wish I’d seen him again. The memory reel rewinds back to nights at Lu and Charlie’s on North Rampart Street where I discovered jazz, Turbinton on his sax with good chops, smoking out riffs that left everyone nodding.Then, a little more than a month later, his younger brother, Wilson Turbinton, 63, was gone. He checked into the hospital complaining of back pain and learned he had advanced colon cancer. Wilson Turbinton, aka Willie Tee, always memorable for those taunting lines in “She’s Just Teasing You” – You’re nothing but a popcorn, sucker John … You think she’s pleasing you, Now she’s leavvvving you! Willie, vocalist and composer on keyboard shaped the first Wild Magnolias LP. His impressions of the Mardi Gras Indians were rooted in communal rites he saw as a kid in the Calliope housing project in the 1950s. “They were using tambourines,” he told me in 1982. “They had some instruments made out of bottle caps and [would] nail ‘em on sticks and the sticks would be so long they could actually beat rhythms on the ground but also get a thud from the earth.” For a man who harnessed the galvanizing sound that roams through so many mental sound tracks today – think of “Handa Wanda” and “Smoke My Peace Pipe” – Willie Tee was a tad self-effacing. He was confident, a composer and studio presence in command of his art; he was also short in stature. When we met I was struck by how small his fingers were and the tiny, delicate quality of his hands – the hands that ignited that fiery Indian sound.
As the Turbintons exited so went John Scott, who was older – a life in full. Scott’s peerless sculptures featured geometric designs, – wires and balls marked by a lyricism that he drew from the music; he often spoke of how jazz rhythms influenced him. Scott was eloquent about what shaped his work, particularly the epic memory of Africans in America. Ten years ago or so I spent an afternoon talking with him in his large workspace, a hanger out in New Orleans East. I wish I had taken notes – better yet, used a tape recorder. Who thinks about the timelessness of words when you’re getting to know someone as a friend? He was a remarkably precise speaker; the shape of his sentences was grounded in a purity about truth. Since then I have learned that you don’t get the real ticket, sheer truth, from many people. I have never known an artist who articulated music so fluently through another medium, with the possible exception of the writer Albert Murray.
The last two years he was in Houston, struggling to rebound from lung transplants. All the fumes he inhaled through those years of metal sculpture, holding the torch … Ah, John.His memorial service at Xavier University, where he taught for many years, was much in keeping with his character – neither sentimental nor religious but beautiful in the precise way people who gave tributes remembered him. His words to colleagues came as a refrain in the remarks: “Pass it on.”
I guess that’s what life finally summons us to do – pass it on; transmit some meaningful code for living, a faith in why we are here that stands out like a bas-relief by Scott, from field notes on the human experiment we get each night on TV news.
Pass it on – if you can, pass it on.