Grief is not an emotion that invites comparisons. It is an overwhelming, supernatural sense of loss that is an essential part of human consciousness, the realization that a part of all of us has passed along with the loved one who is now gone from our immediate lives.
The litany of losses that shocked New Orleans in the early summer of 2019 may not have culminated with the death of Art Neville—because who knows what might happen next—but it certainly feels like the last lines of a book that is such a great story you don’t want it to end. That story, of course, is the story of how New Orleans musicians took their legacy of jazz, blues and gospel music and transformed it into the ecstatic music of R&B, rock ’n’ roll and funk, elements that are all still with us, but are increasingly being subsumed into the culture of the 21st century Global Village.
Unlike the other giants of this era, Art was not a retired elder or ghostly presence but a constant neighbor. He was part of the fabric of New Orleans life. He didn’t move from the city after Katrina, but returned to Valence Street, the Nevilles’ old neighborhood. His music was and is very much alive, kept active by his younger brothers Aaron and Cyril and a host of younger relatives. He was the patriarch of the Neville family, a New Orleans institution that shows no signs of running out of steam. In that sense Art’s passing does not seem as much like the end of an era that Dr. John’s and Dave Bartholomew’s did. His spirit is still thriving in the work of his relatives, a legacy that he sacrificed so many things in his life to ensure.
From the very start Art always made music with his brothers whenever he could. He brought Aaron into the Hawkettes, then included Aaron and Cyril in the Neville Sound, which morphed into the Meters at the Ivanhoe on the Bourbon Street strip. He brought Cyril in to sing and play percussion with the Meters on Fire On the Bayou, then front the band on a tour with the Rolling Stones. The Meters eventually broke up. But Art kept a promise he made to his mother and formed a band with his brothers. The first thing they recorded was the Mardi Gras Indian classic, Wild Tchoupitoulas, backing up Uncle George Landry, otherwise known as Big Chief Jolly. Then came the Neville Brothers.
Art kept playing as long as he could, even after suffering a debilitating back injury.
“I feel pretty good,” he told me in a 2011 interview. “I’m up and I’m around. I feel better when I play music. I’m the only one who’s not going anywhere. My wife takes care of me I’ve got a daughter, 14, that’s who takes care of me. I told ’em I’ll play any gig if you gotta push me to the gig on a gurney.”
Art had deep connections with both Bartholomew, who was producing many sessions at Cosimo Matassa’s studio when Art began his career, and Dr. John, who as the young Mac Rebennack was producing, playing and writing songs at Cosimo’s for several different labels.
“I’ve been knowing Dr. John for a long time, long before the Meters,” Art told me. “He and I are about the same age—he’s a little older than I am I think. I played a lot of his songs when we was recording for Specialty. I did sessions for stuff that I did with Cosimo on his songs. He played on some of the tracks. I played on most of ’em. He played guitar and piano back then.”
Art played on two of Mac’s albums with the Meters, In the Right Place and Desitively Bonnaroo.
“Later on I got a chance to play with him with the Meters ’cause we went on the road together. We played some songs from that album but we played other stuff too.”
Desitively Bonnaroo inspired the name for the Bonnaroo Festival. In 2011 festival organizers decided to reprise the album in a live performance with the Meters and producer Allen Toussaint.
“He had never played it and we had no reason to play it but it came out good,” Art said. “Yeah. I talk to Mac all the time. He called me and said ‘They want to do Desitively Bonnaroo and I said ‘Yeah?’ and he says ‘ahma gonna get the original Meters to do it,’ so I think he had something to do with us being on that gig. Like I say I’ve been knowing Mac. I talk to him all the time. Him and Herman Ernest, that was Mac’s drummer, we was good friends.”
Art Neville was a humble man. He always saved his praise for his brothers rather than himself. He lived to play, and he lived that life to the fullest.
“I saw my mother just before she died,” he said, “and she told me ‘It’s going to be all right if you keep those boys together.’ I tried my best. Things happen…”
Click here for OffBeat’s obituary for Art Neville.