All For One: Harold Battiste
Dillard University has embarked upon an ambitious initiative to develop the Institute of Jazz Culture on one of New Orleans’ three HBCU campuses. Under the direction of trumpeter-educator Edward Anderson one of the first projects of the Institute of Jazz Culture (IJC) is to conduct oral histories of some of New Orleans’ most important contemporary jazz musicians, including several who are Dillard alums. Recently I had the privilege of conducting an oral history interview with the sage saxophonist-composer-arranger-educator Harold Battiste at his home adjacent to Bayou St. John in the Mid-City area.
Though physically slowed by some of the inevitable infirmities of age, at 77 Harold Battiste is blessed with exceptional recall of his rich and varied career in music. A white-bearded, gentle spirit, the coffee-complected gentleman is one of the scions of New Orleans’ modern jazz — or if you’d prefer as he might — late 20th century NOLA jazz development.
Born and raised in New Orleans and a product of Booker T. Washington High School, Harold Battiste earned his Bachelor’s in music at Dillard in 1953. In ’57 after connecting with producer Bumps Blackwell, Battiste experienced his first pop success as the arranger of Sam Cooke’s classic hit "You Send Me." What followed was a raft of other work as producer and arranger for recordings and television. These included Barbara George’s gold record "I Know", Lee Dorsey’s "Ya Ya" and a long stint as music director for Sonny and Cher, notably their hit records like "I Got You Babe" and their television show.
Harold Battiste is also responsible for unleashing on the music world a quirky New Orleans music character born Mac Rebennack who under Battiste’s production morphed into Dr. John. Rebennack is someone who literally learned much of the business under Battiste’s tutelage. During our interview Harold chuckled as he recounted how Rebennack adopted the Dr. John moniker somewhat by default; a personna based on NOLA’s voodoo folklore, and how Mac’s intial records like "Gris Gris" and "Babylon" (both under the direction of Harold Battiste on the Atlantic label) were more spoof than anything thoroughly serious; a murky mix of folkloric expression leavened with bayou funk and edgy jazz inflections that recall Sun Ra. But somehow that spoof caught on and Dr. John was born and transformed into one of the quintessential New Orleans-identified music personalities.
Despite all his successful pop hits, major tours, and television activity — all achieved during an extended stint in Los Angeles — Harold Battiste has always been at heart a jazz modernist, a saxophone playing disciple of Charlie Parker to the core. Perhaps most significantly from his jazz perspective he was a contemporary of a coterie of fellow New Orleans modernists that included the clarinetist Alvin Batiste, drummers James Black and Edward Blackwell, pianist Ellis Marsalis, and saxophonists Nat Perilliat and Alvin "Red" Tyler. These artists and others were all featured on Harold’s All For One, or AFO, Records label. Formed in 1961 AFO was significantly the first African American musician-owned label.
After so much success in Los Angeles in the studios, Harold Battiste succumbed to the siren song of his hometown New Orleans and returned home in 1989, assuming a teaching position on the Jazz Studies faculty at the University of New Orleans under the direction of Ellis Marsalis. In 1991, with the assistance of poet and fellow sage Kalamu ya Salaam (www.kalamu.com, where you can check out his dialogues and downloads on black music at Breath of Life) Harold re-birthed AFO.
If you can locate it, perhaps the quintessential key to experiencing the early efforts of the very vital but quite overlooked work of Harold Battiste and his intrepid crew of New Orleans jazz modernists is the four-Lp boxed set New Orleans Heritage: Jazz 1956-1966. These records detail a vibrant kind of New Orleans jazz underground. Traditional New Orleans jazz has become one of the city’s trademarks, but little is known of these modernistic developments. Its almost as if the modern approach to jazz expression was born with the NOCCA generation, including the Marsalis sons, Blanchard, Connick, Harrison, et. al. The musicians represented by the earliest days of AFO were indeed the mentors of that very prominent generation. One only hopes Harold is able to reissue this superb package on compact disc or perhaps make it available in some downloadable form. It can certainly unlock what to many is the unknown story of modern jazz development in the Crescent City.
Harold Battiste has established AFO as a foundation, in the main under the credo he lays down on his web site (www.afofoundation.org) "One of the focal points of my life’s work has been the documentation and preservation of New Orleans Music of the Post WWll era." In that light he has produced and released a series of recordings, some of which are issues of previously unreleased sessions from the late 50s and early 60s that chronicle the vitality of these New Orleans modernists. You can access these recordings at www.afofoundation.org, which is also where you can catch up on Harold Battiste’s efforts on behalf of what he refers to jointly as "The Second 50 Years" of New Orleans jazz, gazing into the future or what he dubs "The Next Generation"; a generation typified by such promising young artists as pianist and AFO recording artist Jesse McBride, who holds forth weekly at NOLA’s bastion of modern jazz Snug Harbor under the Next Generation banner.
We’ll try to make that Harold Battiste oral history available to Independent Ear Blog readers as a transcript becomes available. Next up for Dillard’s Institute of Jazz Culture are anticipated oral history sessions with clarinetist Dr. Michael White and Ellis Marsalis.