I am the oldest of three boys. I never had a big brother. A wise one to consult, an experienced person to give me tips on life, love and negotiating the day to day vagaries of growing up Black in the world. I had a father and a mother, aunts and uncles, but you know there’s nothing like an older sibling, someone temperamentally close to you, someone who shares some of your personality traits, and understands you without having to ask questions. Then I met Harold Battiste.
Actually he had influenced me long before I met him. He was legendary. As I studied the music, Harold’s name would appear out of nowhere and then recede. There would be mentions in passing but nothing lengthy or very detailed. Harold would appear like a cloud over the sun and by the time you looked up, the shade was gone. But I had the 4-LP box set with the booklet. Yeah, that was the way to document the music. That’s what I knew needed to be done for my era. And, guided by Harold’s approach, I produced a series of three recordings for Rounder Records.
Harold was the first to record Ellis Marsalis, James Black, Ed Blackwell, Alvin Batiste, and the list goes on. On my series, you can get the first recordings of Lady BJ, Charmaine Neville, and Herlin Riley. My liner notes emulated the our-story documentation Harold had pioneered on the New Orleans Music Heritage box set.
And then I met Harold. And without many words bantered back and forth I realized we knew each other, we are variations of each other. We have in common a deep and broad love of Black music: we do jazz but we also love funk, we listen to the world but are committed to our people. And quiet. And yes we both favor beards. We both are divorced from long marriages. And we both like movies. Have a deep intellectual curiosity about man kind and philosophy. And, of course, an 360-degree appreciation for Black women.
Then I found out how much Harold writes. I don’t mean random notes, I mean in-depth investigations of life, questions asked, answers pursued. He has notebooks, and notebooks, and tablets, and letters, and manuscripts. There is more to being Harold than just blowing a tune or arranging a song, than teaching a class or starting AFO. Harold is also a spiritual thinker of such proportions that his intellectual floor is a lot of people’s intelligence ceiling. Harold is phat like that.
If you see us together sometimes we look like Buddha and son, sitting not saying much, just smiling and for sure either some music playing or some business being taken care of, and some good food not too far away, and if we are in either of our abodes there is African art. I don’t know if this helps you know my brother Harold Battiste, but believe me he is one of the deepest people I know.
Harold is whale deep. When he suffered a stroke, I stood at his bedside and wanted him to jump up and walk, to roll out and let me take his place laying there.
For over a decade I had stayed on Harold’s case trying to embarrass him into recording his playing – the subtle swinging, lyrical joy of his sound. His way of playing reminds me of the way a mature woman makes love. Economy, glacial strength, quiet intensity, monumental tenderness, and a funkiness so deep it makes your heart cry. Smiles. The elegance of planet orbits and galaxy sway.
Anyway, Harold would constantly put off going into the studio, saying he wasn’t ready, saying he didn’t play well enough, saying his chops weren’t up. I wanted to climb into that hospital bed and stay there until he had the chance to charge into some low-lit studio and record a bunch of his beautiful songs like “Beautiful Old Ladies.”
But the reality was Harold had a stroke. And it was not a given that if he lived he would ever play again, or be able to talk normally again, or be able to get around on his own again – or anything again except vegetate in a wheelchair.
There are moments we stand abjectly helpless before the reality of the awesomeness of the universe – the awful inevitability of change with its non-concern for individuality, person, age or location; in time everything and everyone must go the way of all matter, must be transformed from what it and we are into something else – and when you feel that moment of inevitability embodied in the person of a loved one slipping away you are buffeted by emotional broadsides in a way you can never truly prepare for or stoically withstand.
My face was dry but I was crying. Getup Harold! Let me sleep in your place, was my sentiment, but my reality as I walked outside in the sun back to my car in the parking lot, my reality was that each of us has our own time to be born and our own… I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted more of all those moments when Harold and I talk cosmic talk, talk about humans as animals with functions and urges, talk wisdom talk like how Harold is never judgmental of others but always super critical of himself. His quiet self-assessments become a vast night sky and the nuggets of truth and beauty he mines from his experiences become twinkling stars giving me guidance in my own dash for freedom and escape from the plantation of bad deeds and unhealthy desires.
Harold has a way of talking about his own shortcomings that causes you to micro-examine yourself. Instead of trying to tell you what you ought to do, big brother Harold tells you the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful of what he has done and compares his failures and inadequacies to your successes and skills – “man, you see, you’re good at that. I’ve got to learn how to… like you. “We all should be so blessed as to learn to be as humble and as dedicated to genuine self-improvement as is Harold Battiste.
A few months ago while working on a documentary, Harold revealed during his video session that music was indeed the healing force that helped him survive his stroke. He was playing again. Playing. My brother was playing. And – rejoice – alive.
Now we are meeting weekly working on his autobiography (we have yet to decide which way to write it), but it will drop for Jazz Fest ’99. My task is to share my brother with the world. Right now I know you don’t know, but in a minute, all will know. All will know the beauty of my brother Harold Battiste. Stay tuned, the song continues on…