A Brief History of Modern Jazz in New Orleans

Tod Smith By

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We didn —Harold Battiste
The long neglected, forgotten and sometimes misrepresented modern jazz period in New Orleans’ rich and complex heritage has waited for its turn at the altar of musical worship that has already played host to traditional jazz, rhythm and blues and even rock and roll. In many ways, Harold Battiste, saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer and one of the founding fathers of New Orleans’ modern music, defines that era. He, along with contemporaries Alvin Batiste, James Black, Ed Blackwell, Ellis Marsalis, Nat Perilliat and Alvin “Red” Tyler stood on the eve of the second 50 years and started a musical renaissance that continues to this day.

While traditional jazz has always had its place in New Orleans culture, modern jazz has not always been as fortunate. As a wave of free expression in literature, art and music engulfed the creative community of the 40’s and 50’s, a small group of musicians sought to place an indelibly New Orleans stamp on modern music.

These musicians, Battiste among them, often worked by day with traditional jazz groups, rhythm and blues bands, as session men or as educators to make ends meet. After hours, however, they found themselves exploring the more innovative and intricate music of the moderns, frequently with free jazz patriarch, Ornette Coleman. (Coleman, stranded by a rhythm and blues band in New Orleans, spent two years living with the Lastie family and became immersed in the local music scene.) Upon returning home to Fort Worth, Texas and eventually making his way to California, Coleman never forgot the lessons learned and the experiences shared in New Orleans. He eventually sent for drummer Ed Blackwell to join him. Marsalis, fresh out of school and Battiste, who had recently resigned from a teaching position in Orleans Parish, decided to join him. As Battiste later recalled, “...so the three of us went together. We didn’t know what we were going to go do, we were just going to go be jazz musicians.”

After a stint in California that included one steady gig at a slow-paying Mexican restaurant, the New Orleans expatriates made their way back home –Marsalis first, followed by Battiste and Blackwell in 1956. Back together again with clarinetist Alvin Batiste and bassist Richard Payne they formed the American Jazz Quintet (AJQ) and made the first modern jazz record in New Orleans for Specialty Records. Specialty never released the recording, but twenty years later Battiste’s Opus 43 did. In many ways, the founding and recording of the AJQ marked the start of the second fifty years of New Orleans jazz. More importantly, this recorded music presents a representation of what modern jazz was like in New Orleans at this time. With the sounds of so many influential artists of the first fifty years relegated to the memories and recollections of contemporaries, documentation of the dawn of the second fifty years will prove to be an invaluable historical record among generations to come.

To say that appreciation of modern jazz was not widespread in New Orleans at this time would be an understatement. Blackwell went on to New York with Ornette Coleman and by the end of 1963, Battiste’s own label AFO (All for One) had ended its brief stay on the record company scene. (Incidentally, AFO was the first African-American owned record label in the United States). Battiste, along with many of the executives who had founded the label, relocated to Los Angeles, but not before recording some of New Orleans’ most memorable rhythm and blues performers like Willie Tee, Eddie Bo, Mac “Dr. John” Rebennack, Johnny Adams (who appears on this compilation), and even James Booker. In the modern jazz genre, an Ellis Marsalis-led quartet featuring drummer James Black recorded Monkey Puzzle, recently re-released as The Classic Ellis Marsalis.

Back in California, Battiste went on to produce some of the most memorable R&B music of our time with Sam Cooke ("You Send Me" and "A Change is Going to Come") and served as musical director for pop icons Sonny & Cher. (He produced their first hit "I Got You Babe".) However, when music historians look back at the legacy of Battiste and his contemporaries, it will be their contribution to modern jazz that stands out. The list of current moderns who hail from or who have ties to New Orleans – Branford, Wynton, Delfaeyo and Jason Marsalis; Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Herlin Riley, Wes Anderson and Donald Harrison to name a few – can all trace their musical roots to that time at the dawn of the second 50 years when a few bold innovators decided to try and create something different. And while that new sound forced the collective imaginations of the local music community to expand its boundaries, its basis was firmly in the New Orleans tradition. That tradition continues to contribute to the rich American musical tapestry to this day.

And now we stand at the beginning of the third chapter of modern jazz in New Orleans. The influence of the Crescent City on this music is widespread, however the recognition of that influence remains elusive. As for the next fifty years, there are only two absolutes: the music will continue and New Orleans will be at its core.

Until next time, see you 'Round About New Orleans.

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