It’s contradictory, but pianist and bandleader Jesse McBride has a laid-back, intense air. He gives off a simultaneous vibe of “Whatever happens, happens” and “I’m going to make sure what I need to make happen, happens.” He challenges himself, his fellow musicians, and his students. It’s good that he’s comfortable with a challenge as he pursues his mission of recording, playing and promoting New Orleans modern jazz. He does this throughout the year but especially at the Jazz Tent, Sunday May 6, where he is playing a tribute to the great griot/musician/sage of modern New Orleans music, Harold Battiste, with Ellis Marsalis and Germaine Bazzle. This is not “Bourbon Street Parade” and “High Society” and “Basin Street Blues,” Paul Barbarin, Sidney Bechet, and George Lewis. This is “Magnolia Triangle” and “Nigeria” and “Song for Yette,” All For One Records, James Black, the Alvins—Batiste and Tyler—and criminally under-recorded and under-appreciated Nathaniel Perilliat.
McBride first came under the spell of this music when he was in his first semester at UNO. Harold Battiste invited him in to his office and started playing and teaching him about this music. As Jesse recalls, “He never kicked me out. And the longer I stayed, the more information I got. Learning his tunes turned into learning Ellis’ tunes or Alvin’s tunes.” The music appealed to McBride on many different levels.
“It was melodic music, and it was cohesive,” he says. “It was a band playing as a cohesive unit. It made sense and felt harmonious, the way the musicians were playing.” And there was something else to the music. “Mr. Bat [Alvin Batiste] wanted me to be exposed to some of the New Orleans culture and not just the history of jazz which includes New Orleans culture. After a certain point, the ‘40s and ‘50s, more of the emphasis moves to New York as far as what is the new thing, the hip thing, the in-style thing. He said, ‘There was a whole lot of music that went on in New Orleans after 1950.’ It’s important culturally because a lot of music of Armstrong and Bechet and all the first generation of cats, Kid Thomas and Jimmy Noone, that music of that time period has been preserved a lot more than the music of Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste and Clyde Kerr and all of their cats and their contributions to, as Bat would say, the second 50 years of jazz. So there is a musical appeal and there is a cultural appeal, a historical appeal. It’s all in the same gumbo stew for me.”
McBride has constantly put this music out to the public and other musicians. His Next Generation band had a steady Tuesday night gig at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street from 2006 until 2009. He’s done several tributes to the music of Harold Battiste across the city and in New York. He’s put out two Next Generation records that feature New Orleans modern jazz, and in time for Jazz Fest he’s releasing the third, which features the music of both drummer/composer James Black and teacher/trumpeter Clyde Kerr, Jr. The Black compositions have been recorded before, but this is the first time that Kerr’s tunes have made it on record.
McBride organized the band that performed some of these at One Eyed Jacks for the party celebrating the release of Harold Battiste’s autobiography, Unfinished Blues. For those who only knew Kerr as an instructor or an avant-garde player, these tunes were a revelation. They were as groovy and hip and of this moment as their late composer. McBride says of Kerr’s music and other New Orleans modern jazz, “This music was comparable to any other of the labels that were recording jazz: Blue Note, Atlantic, Riverside. But it’s different as well. It’s like Africa. You have a country that is broken down into various tribes. There is a language that is spoken by everybody, and then each tribe has its own language. That’s kind of like New Orleans. It’s a part of the U.S., but it’s like a tribe that has its own language, food and music.”
McBride has given a lot to this music. He’s accomplished enough to be able to go to the more populated, “established” centers of jazz such as New York and Chicago and try to make it there. He grew up in Houston and went to the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts with a number of musicians, including McBride’s friend Robert Glasper, who is currently blowing up the jazz world with his mix of hip-hop, jazz and soul. When asked if he would go to New York like so many jazz musicians do, he simply says, “It would be a different scene. I’d be a different person.”
When asked later if he regrets not going to New York and casting his lot with the under-appreciated post-1950 New Orleans-style jazz that he plays and proclaims nearly every day, he offers a curt smile and says, “No. Life’s too short. Can’t regret. Got to move forward.” The challenge of playing and promoting this music is, as Harold Battiste has proved, a challenge worth embarking on.
Jesse McBride plays Jazz Fest at “A Living Tribute to Harold Battiste” with Ellis Marsalis and Germaine Bazzle on Sunday, May 6 at 2:05 p.m. in the Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent.