It’s Friday night in the city. The streets are slick with rain but the downpour seems to have abated and the skies have begun to clear. Inside the lobby of the New Orleans Sheraton, there is a scattering of tourists, several descending the escalators in running shorts and tops, a few seated among the tables on a sunken cocktail level anchored by a big, polygon bar, which is designed as a gazebo and has a verdigris pelican perched on top. Recently remodeled, it’s a spectacular space, half atrium, half lobby, all plush. And off in the front corner, completely unnoticed, a small jazz band is setting up.
This is Ed Anderson’s steady gig, three nights a week, three sets a night, piano (Dwight Fitch), bass (Peter Harris), drums (James Alsanders), himself on trumpet, and Karen (she says ka-RIN) Williams on vocals. Anderson, 32 and a graduate of the University of New Orleans Jazz Studies Program, is doing what thousands before him have, serving the jazzman’s apprenticeship in New Orleans, playing a downtown gig for tourists. The gig supplements his income from a full-time position as band director at Martin Luther King Jr. School for Science and Technology, an elementary and middle school that’s part of the Orleans Parish school district.
If all that weren’t enough, Anderson recently has opted to become involved with a local record label, and he’s invited me down to meet with the label’s founder, Harold Battiste. I’m tempted to say the legendary Harold Battiste, but the introduction hardly fits the genial figure inconspicuously hidden inside one of the hotel’s giant wing chairs, dressed this evening in a windbreaker and T-shirt, ringlets of shaggy beard like albino sheep’s fur and a smooth, gleaming, brown pate framing round, brown eyes that are at once piercing and openly curious. Perhaps reflecting a stroke several years ago, Battiste walks with a slight limp, rolls, actually, rolls as he walks, and hums, gently, quietly, to himself, flowing along in his own little rhapsody as we look for a quiet, out-of-the-way place to talk.
But maybe legendary is right. To musicians and close followers of the music, especially New Orleans music, Battiste is a central figure, a saxophonist, composer, arranger, and rhythm-and-blues producer of great distinction, but also the founder of AFO Records, begun as a musician-owned label that eventually became the only organization of any kind to record modern jazz in New Orleans in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Battiste’s most noted accomplishments, or one might say, notorious accomplishments, occurred during his 25-plus years in Los Angeles, where he served a long stint as musical director for the duo Sonny & Cher and helped concoct a New Orleans-flavored, jazz-tinged, funk-driven brew that gave rise first to Dr. John the Night Tripper and, later, Dr. John the rhythm-and-blues historian.
These facts, though, represent just the tip of the iceberg. Battiste’s involvement in the musical heritage of New Orleans, and the black musical heritage of New Orleans, to be specific, are of such a magnitude as to cause his close friend, business partner, and noted New Orleans writer and activist, Kalamu ya Salaam, to conclude, “Fifty years from now, Harold Battiste will be looked upon as one of the major forces in the development of New Orleans music in the last half of the 20th century.”
This being Jazz Awareness Month in Louisiana, it seems fitting, then, that Battiste is being honored with an exhibition of memorabilia from his long career by the Black Music Hall of Fame, a New Orleans organization, at Perseverance Hall in Armstrong Park. And Anderson has put together a tribute night at the Red Room supper club on St. Charles Avenue, October 16, to celebrate Battiste’s 67th birthday, that will feature appearances by Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Alvin Batiste, recent Grammy-winner Nicholas Payton, Eddie Bo, Willie Tee, Henry Butler, and a host of others.
What, exactly, has he done? Just this: helped form a modern-jazz band in the 1950s that included Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, and the highly regarded drummer, Ed Blackwell; wrote the arrangements for Sam Cooke’s first hit, “You Send Me”; produced Art Neville’s first hit, “Cha Dooky Do”; produced a big hit for his old friend Joe Jones, “You Talk Too Much”; started AFO and immediately produced a hit with singer Barbara George called “I Know”; produced one of Lee Dorsey’s best-known and most-loved hits, “Ya Ya”; recorded the first album by New Orleans piano master Ellis Marsalis and his quartet, Monkey Puzzle; helped produce one of Sam Cooke’s last and most-loved hits, “(I Know) A Change Is Gonna Come”; produced and arranged the first two (of four, total) Dr. John the Night Tripper recordings as well as the New Orleans R&B retrospective, Gumbo; returned to New Orleans, joined the UNO Jazz Studies Program to teach alongside program director Ellis Marsalis, revived AFO, and served as executive producer for the first album by Wynton Marsalis-sideman Victor Goines, Genesis, which featured the first recorded appearance of Nicholas Payton; and provided the label for the first recording, Fertile Crescent, by another young New Orleans jazzman, Edward Anderson.
And those are just the highlights.
Doing Some Homework on New Orleans
“When I first got to UNO, I went through this depressed state,” Anderson had told me earlier. He’d been a pre-med student at Xavier University in New Orleans and had completed two years of graduate work at Xavier’s highly regarded School of Pharmacy, on the road to becoming a professional pharmacist like his father, when the siren’s call of jazz seduced him into jumping ship.
A musician since childhood, he nonetheless had some catching up to do in a program that had enrolled Nicholas Payton, trumpeter Jeremy Davenport (currently a Telarc recording artist), bassist Chris Thomas and drummer Brian Blade (the rhythm section, until recently, for young jazz star Joshua Redman), among other, young, jazz heavies.
“I was really stressing, being around all these young guys that could really play their tails off. Initially, I was very intimidated by both Mr. Marsalis and Mr. Battiste. One day, Mr. Bat pulled me aside, and said, ‘Hey, man, I’m kind of worried about you.’ But he did it in a way that let me know that what he really meant was, ‘Hey, you’re doing fine. You just got started. And I can hear you’re going to be all right.’ From then on, whenever I had a problem, he was who I’d go to.”
It wasn’t until he got to New York City, however, that Anderson learned to genuinely appreciate the heritage Harold Battiste embodies and New Orleans nurtures. A masters degree program at the Manhattan School of Music, an internship with noted jazz impresario Dr. George Butler at Columbia Records, and a stint helping out with arrangements for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra gave him a taste of the Big Time.
But it only took several minutes sitting in a darkened movie theater to bring home the emotional power of the New Orleans scene. Watching Denzel Washington as Malcolm X driving down 125th Street toward his destined assassination, with “(I Know) Someday a Change Is Gonna Come” playing on the soundtrack, Anderson found himself fighting back tears.
“I never really understood how deep Harold’s music, and the New Orleans music tradition, is until got to New York. I ran into quite a few composers up there who seemed to be trying to turn the music into, like, a science project. It just lost its essence. Realizing that, I remembered those simple, little phrases Harold uses that always say so much. ‘Yeah,’ he’d say, ‘but does it sound good? Is it something the audience is going to enjoy? Is it something YOU really enjoy, or are you just trying to impress somebody with your musical prowess?’
“He knows all that theoretical stuff, but when you listen to his music, the core is always the melody and the groove. That’s what makes you tap your feet, that’s what makes you hum a melody in the shower. That’s what human nature responds to in the music. It’s true of Mr. Bat’s music and of New Orleans music in general. It’s like I was up in New York doing my homework on New Orleans.”
Back home in New Orleans, Anderson discovered he’d need more than a good education and few choice references to get ahead in his chosen profession. Conferring with his wife and deciding it would be worth the investment, he gathered some of his friends and musicians he admires—multi-reedist Victor Goines, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, pianist Victor “Red” Atkins, bassist David Pulphus and drummer Eric Harlan—and set about recording his own CD, featuring eight of his own compositions.
“When I finished, I began to think about starting a record company myself. I really enjoyed the process of putting the recording together, all the different elements. And one day about that time, I was sitting in Mr. Bat’s office when, right out of the blue, he asked me if I ever thought about doing something with AFO. I didn’t know what to say. I went home to think about it, and two days later told him I’d give him my vow of allegiance to do everything I could to make it happen, to carry it forward, and make it something he could be proud of.”
Recognizing the True Value of the Music
“I can tell you what happened, you know, and then people can draw their own conclusions about what it accomplished,” Battiste tells me once we’re seated, and I ask about the significance of the AFO heritage. His manner of speech is impossible to reproduce on the printed page. Speaking softly, he strings out sentences phrase by phrase, often stopping in mid-sentence and starting another sentence that overlaps the first, not unlike a musician taking a solo. His speech becomes part of a gently rolling idiom, melodic, that says more with a nod or a mumble or a tilt of the head than with any amount of words. Direct and economical, he’s also remarkably gentle, and not above making fun of himself. Above all, he is a delightful conversationalist.
“I got the idea of starting AFO,” he tells me, “from my feeling that the black community didn’t own anything. This was in the late 1950s, and there was this cat named Jimmy living at the Dew Drop Inn. It was Jimmy who turned me on to the writings of Elijah Muhammed. After that, I became a Black Muslim and got my “X” and everything, and this was my way of doing what Elijah Muhammed was proposing. Instead of buying land and starting a separate state, I said, ‘We’ll get some music. We create a lot of the music, and we don’t own any of it.’
“Part of the reason I decided to do AFO was that I’d gone out to L.A. with Ellis Marsalis and Ed Blackwell, and we made a recording with Ornette Coleman that they asked me to shop around. I knew Bumps Blackwell, the producer at Specialty Records, from his work with Little Richard here in New Orleans. That’s how the Sam Cooke thing happened. I knocked on Bumps Blackwell’s door one day and he asked me to help out with the charts for what became ‘You Send Me,’ and then Specialty asked me to set up an office in New Orleans.
“After I worked for them for two or three years and I saw what was happening in the record business, and I thought this was territory we, as black musicians, should have a part of. I wasn’t thinking about it in any way that was, like, revolutionary, I was really thinking of establishing recognition for the music, especially the music that we produced, as property, as land. AFO, for me was an attempt to demonstrate what I thought ought to happen. I didn’t have any desire to be some big record mogul or anything like that. I was just trying to bring the idea of the music to people’s minds, even for the people of New Orleans, because I really thought the city did not recognize the true value of the music that naturally is a part of this place and of the people here.
“What I remember mostly being conscious of was that I thought so much of how well cats like Alvin and Ellis and all of them could play. And, I mean, those cats ought to be exposed, you know? We were in a position in New Orleans where everybody looked to New York and maybe Chicago or L.A., for modern jazz. And there was so much R&B coming out of here, which was wonderful, but all the music and various expressions that exist can’t always get the same exposure. And the easiest thing to fall through the cracks at that time would be some cat playing modern jazz in a city that already has jazz, you know? Back then, modern jazz was, ‘Hey, that’s New York stuff.’”
A Closer Walk With the Hit Parade
AFO (an acronym, All For One) began as a co-op, with musicians receiving shares in the company in return for studio time. Many of the New Orleans musicians who participated were playing modern jazz by night and recording R&B by day, including Battiste, trumpeter Melvin Lastie, saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler, guitarist Roy Montrell, bassist Peter “Chuck” Badie, and drummer John Boudreaux. Later members included Marsalis, Batiste, Blackwell, saxophonists Nat Perrilliat and Warren Bell, bassist Richard Payne, drummer James Black, and vocalist Tami Lynn. Pianist/arranger Allen Toussaint was asked to join, but was restricted by contractual obligations.
Both of the label’s first two releases were to have lasting significance. The very first was from Lawrence Nelson’s older brother, Walter “Papoose” Nelson, who had been for many years the ace guitarist in Fats Domino’s band. The AFO crew renamed him Prince La La, dressed him in robes and a cone-shaped hat, and set him between a man and a woman, each dressed in feathers and animal skins, for a publicity photo. Many years later, and a cultural galaxy away, that image and an unreleased number by Prince La La on AFO (called “Need You”) would serve as the roux for a batch of Gris Gris served up by yet another early AFO artist, New Orleans guitarist Mac Rebennack, this time assuming the role of Dr. John Creaux, the Night Tripper.
The second, “I Know,” by Barbara George, became an instant hit and, in November of 1961, reached number three on the national charts. It framed a cornet solo, written by Harold Battiste and played by Battiste’s dear friend, Melvin Lastie, that is still remembered, in part because it substituted a brass instrument for the saxophone, which was far more common at the time, and in part because it is based on chord changes derived from the gospel hymn “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” that are common to many R&B hits of the era, like the New Orleans favorite “Something You Got.” In typical fashion, Harold Battiste is self-deprecating in recalling the solo’s genesis. “Substituting a cornet was just something to make the solo stand out,” he shrugs. “The concept for the solo, really, was just reaching back into some of the old traditional jazz, the way the cats used to play, with a stiff syncopation. And I knew that was the way Melvin liked to play.”
But Mac Rebennack in his memoir, Under a Hoodoo Moon, remembers the solo’s effect on the music industry. “The arrangements on AFO changed the way music was being played in the United States,” Rebennack writes. “The first two songs they released, by Prince La La and Barbara George, along with others, opened up the door wide for Motown and influenced Herb Alpert, who cleaned up the style on Melvin Lastie’s cornet solo on ‘I Know’ and turned it around into his monster instrumental hits of the mid-Sixties. The kind of phrasing the AFO horn section laid down influenced R&B and rock and roll horn charts; twenty years later, you could still hear echoes of the sounds Lastie and the others had put down on ‘I Know.’”
Unfortunately, the label’s deal for national distribution fell apart shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, Battiste continued to produce a string of regional releases featuring top talent in the Crescent City, many of whom continue to make their presence felt on the New Orleans scene: Eddie Bo, Willie Tee, Oliver “Who Shot the La La” Morgan (recording under the moniker “Nookie Boy”), the recently departed Johnny Adams, Tami Lynn, Mac Rebennack and Ronnie Barron (as the duo “Grits and Gravy”), Alvin “Shine” Robinson, current NYNO recording artist Wallace Johnson, and even the infamous James Booker.
He also cut an album, released as Monkey Puzzle, that featured a local pianist and his quartet playing mostly original compositions plus a couple of covers by musicians outside the New Orleans scene with the unlikely monikers of Dizzy and Thelonious. Rereleased on CD as The Classic Ellis Marsalis, the 1963 recording showcased the writing talent of drummer James Black and, more than 30 years later, continues to provide a source of creative inspiration, offering the initial versions of much of Marsalis’ 1994 Columbia release, Whistle Stop, and even the title tune from his most recent recording, Twelve’s It, on which the youngest of the clan, the phenomenally talented drummer, Jason Marsalis, makes his formal recording debut.
By the end of 1963, however, the label’s time had run out, and Battiste and some of the others relocated to Los Angeles.
Getting Funky Under the Ground
Out on the West Coast, Battiste put another innovative idea into play. Observing that “it’s a long way from Watts to Hollywood,” he envisioned a string of storefront creative centers based in black neighborhoods and designed to help local talent develop professional skills. He would call them Soul Stations and convinced Sam Cooke to finance the concept. One of the first projects focused on a group called the Valentinos, which featured singer-songwriter Bobby Womack. Unfortunately, Cooke had recently hooked up with wheeler-dealer agent Allen Klein, who grabbed one of Womack’s best efforts for another of his acts. The song was “The Last Time,” and the band you may have heard of; they’re still known as The Rolling Stones.
Soon after, a deadly lovers’ quarrel cut Cooke’s life short, and ended the life of the Soul Station concept. But not before a struggling songwriter Battiste had known at Specialty walked in with a project he had in mind for him and an unknown singer named Cher. Battiste’s alliance with the Bonos, during which the producer refused even to sign a binding contract, would last almost 15 years. Early on, Battiste made creative use of some scheduled studio time and a production deal with Atlantic Records to help his old friend and protégé Mac Rebennack put together a New Orleans-based idea designed for the emerging “underground” market.
“The Dr. John thing was almost tongue-in-cheek the first time we did it,” Battiste tells me, a hint of slyness in his eyes. “Since we were out in the land of Oh-Blah-Dee with all the hippies and underground radio was really big by then, we said, ‘Let’s give ‘em something that’ll really go under the ground!’ Basically, that was Mac. I just tried to do for him what he couldn’t do for himself, because his personal life was not allowing him to settle down and really focus. I heard the lyrics to the songs Mac had and the different ideas he was talking about and, to me, the way it came out was the only way it could sound!
“When I would embark on project, see, I didn’t think so much about what else was out there or what anybody else was doing. The thought was to focus on that thing, and what does it need, what does it sound like it needs, and how could we do it? That project was natural for the New Orleans heritage, you know, because all I had to do was call up all the cats I knew out there who were from New Orleans.
“Man, L.A.’s got a lot of early roots of New Orleans transplants, it always has. That was already there. I just saw it! There’s an area on Jefferson Avenue, just like the 7th Ward. You go in the Circle food store, there’s all that stuff from home, people braggin’ on the imported seafood, all that.
“If you listen what you hear is African New Orleans. I was thinking a lot further back than what New Orleans was, at the time. I just called up Jessie Hill and Tami Lynn and Shirley Goodman and all them, and got all the cats together, and I played bass, you know, I liked playing bass. I mean what else could happen?!!?”
As usual, Battiste is telling a version of the story that downplays his own role. Not only was a he a prime architect of the 1960s Dr. John phenomenon, both on the debut Gris Gris and the subsequent Babylon, but when Rebennack was asked in 1972 by Atlantic Records president Jerry Wexler to cut an album of old New Orleans R&B, Battiste once again rose to the occasion, making Gumbo one of the Dr.’s best-selling releases and a major ambassador of the New Orleans sound. On it, Battiste and Rebennack even reprised a song Mac had cut originally on AFO, “Somebody Changed the Lock,” with Battiste contributing a clarinet solo, with touches of the traditional New Orleans jazz style.
Battiste also served, for the quarter century he was based in L.A., as homebase and main contact for any New Orleans musician who hit town, formalizing his role with a nonprofit organization, the National Association of New Orleans Musicians.
“Harold is the sun, and many of us are just planets,” says his old friend and current AFO partner ya Salaam. “He’s not the first person you think of when you think of many of the projects he’s been involved in . That’s because his whole energy is to shed light upon others. He’s never drawn attention to himself, as an instrumentalist, as an arranger, as a composer. He’s never had desire to promote himself as an individual. Instead, he’s always done what he could to help things along; his concern has always been for the larger community.”
Leaving the Legacy in Good Hands
The backward-looking Gumbo was followed by a difficult period in Battiste’s life. In 1973, Battiste lost both his mother and father as well as friend and spiritual companion Melvin Lastie, who died from cancer at the age of 43.
“Melvin was my real partner, man,” Battiste recalls, speaking softly as his eyes glaze slightly with just the hint of tears. “His family had a legacy of their own, they were a very spiritual family. When I had the idea for AFO, he was the first cat I went to. When I told him, he said, ‘Let’s go. Right now.’
“It was one of those things where what he was weak in I was good at, and what I was weak in, he was good at. I mean, he really understood what I was trying to do. What he actually was was a catalyst. Wherever he was in the mix, he brought a spirit of life, a vitality to it. He got hired for a lot of sessions because if he’s there, all the cats are going to be up, they’re going to be feeling good, laughin’ and carryin’ on ….”
Although he tried to continue as before, these were clearly hard times for Battiste. Another pair of deaths a couple of years later made it impossible for Battiste to shut out reflections on the past. First, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, a former Miles Davis collaborator and frequent New Orleans visitor since his college days, passed away only weeks after falling by Battiste’s house to jam on flute. Then, Oliver Nelson, the progressive jazz composer and arranger, passed away shortly after Battiste had worked with him on a soundtrack project.
Typically, Battiste expressed his feelings through the music. Gathering together the Marsalis album and another one cut by the AFO studio group, along with some unreleased live recordings of the American Jazz Quintet (a 1950s group Battiste helped found that also included Marsalis,
Alvin Batiste, and drummer Ed Blackwell), along with unreleased AFO singles, Battiste put out a 4-LP boxed set that contained a booklet he’d written describing the importance of the music and profiling the lives of some of the set’s major contributors. The set’s release marked a turning point in the appreciation of the modern New Orleans heritage. It became highly prized by fans and record collectors and, a decade later, inspired ya Salaam to embark on a similar project, updated to the 1970s and 1980s, for Rounder Records.
When it is suggested to Battiste that he has played a major role in both the creation and the appreciation of New Orleans music in the modern era, he makes light of it with a joke about the sign he saw as a boy when his father would bring him to the barbershop at the Dew Drop: “If you’re so smart, how come you’re not rich?” it read. But others know better.
“If you subtract the AFO legacy from the history of New Orleans music,” says ya Salaam, “you’re left with a great void. We would never know how modern jazz in the 1950s and 1960s sounded in New Orleans. Why is that important? Because so much of the origins of New Orleans music have gone undocumented. Tony Jackson, the piano player Jelly Roll Morton talked so much about, even though the technology was available, was never recorded. The only recordings we have of the early trumpeter Freddie Keppard are latter-day recordings. The list goes on.
“In far too many cases, artists had to leave New Orleans before they were recorded to any extent. In modern times, because R&B became so popular, we get to hear early Aaron Neville, early Allen Toussaint. But with early jazz artists, we didn’t get to hear anything, except what Harold recorded. With this man, it’s clear to me we’re dealing with someone who’s at once very humble but also very aware of what he’s doing. His sense of the continuum of history and of adding to it is both profound and unique.”
Naturally, Battiste is having none of this grand talk. “I just wanted to get things out,” he says. “I never worried about marketing it and I couldn’t always do what needed to be done to do it right. I just wanted to get it established. What I wanted to get accomplished, I pretty much accomplished. Now, I just want to know, like they used to say in the Allstate ads, that it’s in good hands. Bringing in a new generation, man, it’s a new step, but it’s a step that has to be taken. And my feeling is that Ed can do things with a lot more savvy than I ever could.”
New Sounds for an Old Label
It’s almost nine o’clock by now, and Battiste has another appointment. As he wanders off toward the hotel’s exit, I can hear his gentle humming fade out and I watch him disappear into the night.
Downstairs, the band is just finishing a set. Sitting down to talk, I ask Anderson how he feels about shouldering this great cultural responsibility.
“Man, it’s like how a lot of black Americans feel about the civil rights legacy,” he says, speaking quietly but deliberately. “There’s this real sense of cultural pride. My grandparents were from Georgia. They were active with Martin Luther King. I don’t want to let them down. They did all this monumental stuff so their children could have a better life. They allowed us to stand on their shoulders, and take it to the next level. We want to live up to that, make our own contribution.
“I definitely want AFO to continue to reflect New Orleans culture. Our music is special. You can imitate what the Neville Brothers sound like, but you can never duplicate it. The same with the brass bands. People talk about what a creative scene New York was in the 1940s and 1950s. I really feel New Orleans has a lot more of that character now. We have a real community of musicians, and a lot of young musicians, and there’s still a grassroots feel to the scene.
“I want to build on that and bring AFO into a more contemporary light, make it a vehicle of expression for the younger generation, identifiable as a product of the times we live in today. The AFO legacy, that’s the real gem, a definitive New Orleans legacy as both a jazz and R&B labels. With that in mind, there are no boundaries.”
No boundaries except the ones New Orleans musicians have always struggled with in the commercial marketplace. As I leave so Anderson can begin another set, I’m struck as I walk through the lobby how the tourists who’ve now gathered for after-dinner drinks are largely oblivious to the fine sounds coming from the bandstand set off in the corner.
It seems me a real shame to me that more of those gathered in the lobby aren’t paying closer attention to the young talents working out on the bandstand. The struggle for the younger generation may not be so much to be heard as it is to be recognized as something more than just pleasant background music. No easy task.
But as I make my own exit into the darkened streets, the last sound I hear is the round, warm, clear tone of Anderson taking an unusually elegant solo, the carefully shaped notes floating effortlessly across the expansive lobby, and it stays with me, providing me with the sense of company and leaving me with just enough feeling of hope.