Harold Battiste, a jazz man of letters

Tami Lynn with Harold Battiste performing at Club Lingerie on Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, circa 1984

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION

In the many years that musicians have enriched my life with interviews, certain phrases purr in my memory coves, including the day Allen Toussaint told me matter-of-factly “the city has a B-flat hum; it’s there, you can hear it.”

What a line! The temptation to use it endlessly is always there. I do so sparingly and alas, dear Allen, not always giving credit where due. But as musicians steal riffs from one another in the interplay of improvisational jazz, so we lowly writers need some stretch room, too.

Gerri Hall, background vocalist for Huey Smith and the Clowns, on the day I saw her in an eatery on Canal Street (with a frayed softcover of St. Thomas Aquinas’s writings), said of then-just-departed Bobby Marchan: “He had real good chops, Bobby did, but when that poor boy got upset, he’d whine like a motor losin’ oil.”

The day Harold Battiste sat on a piano stool and explained for me the nature of improvisation yielded a different verbal pearl. His topic in that easy mellifluous way he speaks was AFO, All For One records, the label and musical collective he and Melvin Lastie had spearheaded in 1961, with recordings by Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, James Black and many others. It was 1981, if memory serves. I was trying to get a handle on how improvised music works. Battiste smiled. “Think of it as spontaneous melodies. That’s what we play when we improvise – spontaneous melodies.”

All those free-flowing exchanges between trumpet and sax, clarinets and ’bones, reduced to a phrase so simple, so telling. I am tempted to say that melodic spontaneity pervades the retired University of New Orleans jazz professor’s new book, but Unfinished Blues: Memoirs of a New Orleans Music Man, with Karen Celestan, is the opposite: an intricate arrangement of memory, language and visuals of a kind one rarely finds in publishing these days. Celestan, a writer who works at Tulane University and has interviewed many authors on WRBH, helped the author in culling and arranging his material. The book also has some priceless photographs, such as Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John) in a back yard holding a garbage can top next to Jessie Hill in a red shirt sporting a bandanna smile.

This work is published by The Historic New Orleans Collection, which has substantial jazz holdings. Art director Alison Cody, editor Sarah Doerries and director of publications Jessica Dorman should be proud.

The jazzman who left New Orleans for Los Angeles when AFO went down hit his stride as a studio producer, and through a friendship with Sonny Bono became a creative force behind Sonny and Cher. Mac Rebennack showed up in L.A., scraping for studio work. Battiste hired him. He writes: “Sonny seemed somewhat skeptical, but Cher liked him.” Battiste had a side venture called Progress Records with the late Bono. “Mac told me he had been reading up on this character Dr. John from the New Orleans voodoo tradition and wanted to work something around that. The concept appealed to me immediately. I envisioned creating a new sound, look and spirit to the popular psychedelic/underground wave.”

“The studio was like a Mardi Gras reunion,” he continues. “But once we got settled the vibe was there and the music just flowed.” Our man sends the master tapes to Atlantic Records in New York where the totemic president, Ahmet Ertegun, then calls back. As Battiste quotes him:

“What am I going to tell my promotion men? What radio station gonna play this crap?” I really hadn’t thought about that.

Those lines end page 97 and when you turn to 98, a full color reproduction of the album Dr. John, the Night Tripper Gris-Gris jumps out like a lost hippie with a beard searching for the set of Easy Rider. I laughed.

In recounting his journey through jazz, rock and assorted cul-de-sacs of the music life, Battiste reveals a bittersweet strain in the many passages about his wife, Alviette, and the slow deterioration of their marriage. Not many musicians would write so honestly. In the personal passages cited from his daily calendar books, one follows the artist’s success interlaced with misgivings about the long hours away from a growing family.

Eventually Battiste returned to his hometown. When Ellis Marsalis launched the jazz studies program at UNO, his first hire was the AFO founder and fellow Dillard alumnus. With the publication of Unfinished Blues, Harold Battiste is every inch the elder statesman and jazzman of letters.

 

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