Lifetime Achievement in Music
When Charlie Gabriel, 87, was a youngster of maybe eight or nine years old, he had a talk with God. “I remember myself saying: I want to be a musician and I don’t want to play just one style. I want to be able to play music so wherever I am at and somebody needs a saxophone player they’ll call me because I’ll be qualified to play all styles of music.”
Through his love and dedication to music and the influence of his very musical family members who guided and inspired him, Gabriel’s prayer was granted. “I never had a day job,” declares Gabriel, who at age 11 began playing clarinet and saxophone professionally with New Orleans’ renowned Eureka Brass Band. The native New Orleanian moved to Detroit as a teenager and following decades in the Motor City, returned to his hometown to become a much-admired member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band since 2008.
“Charlie lights up the stage,” says Ben Jaffe, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s artistic director and sousaphonist. “His energy is a gigantic glowing sun. When you hear him play, you’re hearing the whole history of jazz.”
Even in a city that boasts numerous musical families, the Gabriels stand out. Charlie’s great grandfather, Narcesse Gabriel, who was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic and arrived in New Orleans in 1856, was a bass player. His grandfather, Martin Joseph “Big Manny” Gabriel, blew trumpet in the National Jazz Band in 1902, a group that also included noted saxophonist and bandleader Harold Dejan. Charlie’s father, Martin Gabriel, who was also known as Manny, played drums and alto saxophone. Not to be left out, his mother Emily was also musically inclined and played saxophone. Charlie’s uncles and cousins filled the musical ranks and the Gabriel legacy continues into a next generation as Charlie’s nephew, trumpeter Dameon Gabriel leads the Gabriel Brass Band in Detroit that includes more kinfolk.
Charlie’s first instrument was the clarinet, though he wanted to blow trumpet. “I had five brothers and two were already on trumpet,” he explains. “My father said, ‘You all can’t play the same instrument.’ He said, ‘You and Clarence [Charlie’s cousin Clarence Ford] are gonna play saxophone.’ Well, the key to playing saxophone is to learn the clarinet; the clarinet is the mother instrument to teach you how to play saxophone.”
“There was music in my house every day, all day and all night just about,” Charlie fondly remembers. “There was a piano in front room that my uncle Clarence would play with Uncle Percy on bass. That’s like any day of the week.” It wasn’t important to the family that there was no formalized Gabriel band. Someone, says Charlie, would just call out, “We got a job, fellas,” and they’d put a group together. “I was a little boy so I didn’t know what those grown people were doing,” Charlie remembers with a laugh.
Charlie began studying saxophone with his father at age seven with Clarence [Ford] right there in on the lessons. (Ford would go on to play with the Fats Domino Band and become known as an exceptional modern jazz saxophonist.)
By the time Charlie was 11 he could read music and in 1943 joined his father as a member of the Eureka Brass Band, a highly-respected unit that was formed in 1920. Charlie blew B flat clarinet with the Eureka that was then led by trumpeter Dominique “T-Boy” Remy and included such notables as clarinetist George Lewis, trumpeter Kid Sheik and brothers, clarinetist Willie and trumpeter Percy Humphrey.
During World II, many musicians were serving in the military which meant the older guys needed players to fill out their bands. That gave the young Charlie the opportunity to perform with many of the New Orleans legends like trumpeters and bandleaders Remy, Alvin Alcorn and Kid Howard. Charlie remembers primarily blowing saxophone with Howard at weddings and dances.
Seeking greater opportunities and to leave behind the oppressive segregation in the south, Charlie’s mother and brothers headed to California though car trouble detoured the trip to Detroit. At his father’s insistence, Charlie remained in New Orleans for a time so his dad could further tutor his son in classic New Orleans jazz. At age 14, Charlie headed north and remained in Detroit an amazing 60 years.
“There wasn’t too much work for the clarinet in Detroit,” says Charlie, who soon began playing sax with vibraphonist and pianist Lionel Hampton’s band. “I was with him for only a short time but I did have the opportunity to play with Mingus [bassist Charles Mingus] and [vibraphonist] Red Norvo, which was a great experience.” During those years, modern rather than traditional jazz was popular in Detroit. “It was a different era—music doesn’t stand still,” says Charlie, who was taking another step towards his desired destiny to become a musician who is proficient in many genres.
Gabriel played with a variety of great vocalists including jazz legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Nancy Wilson as well as blues and R&B singer Denise LaSalle. He recorded in the famed Motown Records studio with its first in-house band, the Funk Brothers, directed by pianist Joe Hunter. As was standard in those days, the musicians on any given session weren’t often credited and Gabriel doesn’t recall any of the records on which he might have appeared.
By 1969, Gabriel was in the band backing the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin whose career was really blasting off. “She was such a wonderful lady and she took very good care of the band,” he remembers. “She was a fantastic piano player and what I didn’t know was that she sang opera too. She shared her knowledge with the cats in the band. When we had rehearsals, she stood in the back and offered her expertise. ‘Maybe approach it this way or that way’—because the music is still on the paper. Music stays on the paper until you make it in here [Charlie taps on his heart] for you. If you keep it on the paper you never learn it. You’re going to have to take it off the paper and then you become the music. So you never hear it the same way twice. Once it’s played it’s gone. That’s why live music is so important because it keeps us alive.”
Gabriel vividly remembers a day when he was in France with Franklin and the band was rehearsing the song “My Way.” After they were finished a man who had been listening approached Charlie, who had been blowing baritone and proclaimed, “You’re from New Orleans.” “I said ‘No, I’m from Detroit.’ He got very angry and repeated, ‘You’re from New Orleans because it’s in your music.’” It turns out that the guy, who obviously boasted “big ears”—having recognized the saxophonist’s musical origins—knew Charlie’s grandfather, Martin Gabriel, which Charlie discovered after telling him his name.
“The New Orleans sound was there all the time,” says Gabriel allowing that it’s possible, depending on the material, that his years in Detroit can also be heard in his music.
As Jaffe noted, Gabriel’s horn speaks of the history of jazz itself from the early purveyors of the traditional music to the modern sounds of big bands, bebop and beyond. He’s been intricately involved in its evolution. Beyond his family’s great influence, Charlie embraced the music that swirled around him. “I was taking things from everybody who played well,” he remembers. “The person who really impressed me [on clarinet] was Louis Cottrell. I saw him many times with Sidney Desvigne’s band. I heard him play “Star Dust” and that stayed with me all my life. It just let me see the fullness of the instrument and how he handled it in a beautiful way. What made him musically came out in his horns. Then there’s [clarinetist] George Lewis—what can I say?”
“On saxophone you have to talk about Charlie Parker, Yusef Lateef, John Coltrane…There were so many of them. The guy I used to like was Lester Young and I studied his style. I tried to get something from them all one way or the other.”
Gabriel didn’t really play much modern jazz in New Orleans except when he came down with drummer J.C. Heard’s band to celebrate the opening of the Hilton Hotel. He had a blast when he got to meet up with old friends at a gathering at drummer Freddie Kohlman’s house where attendees included trumpeters Sweets Edison and Clark Terry. Other than that, he only blew modern jazz in the Crescent City at informal jam sessions.
“The modern market all over the country is very small,” he laments. “Music is a business like anything and there are a lot of people for same job. If you want to be among those unemployed, you’re welcome to that.”
Since he was 16, Charlie has been traveling the world performing in countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain. “I’ve been very, very blessed playing music,” he says humbly. His journeys have continued with the very active and in demand Preservation Hall Jazz Band that he joined soon after Hurricane Katrina. A highlight destination for him was going to Cuba for the making of the documentary “A Tuba to Cuba” and its subsequent album of the same name.
“I felt at home in Cuba—it’s almost like being here in New Orleans,” Gabriel says. “They energize you with their music and we energize them with our music so it’s like a natural marriage.”
“When Katrina hit New Orleans I was watching it on TV and I was crying like a baby,” Gabriel remembers. “It just blew me off my feet. I always knew I was going to come back home and spend my last years playing music in New Orleans.”
Sometime in 2008, Gabriel got a call from Ben Jaffe asking him if he would be interested in doing some work with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band that was on the road with the Blind Boys of Alabama for its “Down by the Riverside” tour. “I was very, very happy because it fit right into what I wanted to do—it was very timely.”
“After Katrina, word got back to me through Shannon Powell [via trumpeter Marcus Belgrave with whom Gabriel played and recorded] that Charlie wanted to come back to New Orleans,” Jaffe remembers. “That’s all I really had to hear. We weren’t looking for a clarinet player but if somebody like Charlie wants to come back to New Orleans, that’s what Preservation Hall does.
“I never left New Orleans really; my body left New Orleans” Gabriel says. “I just fit right into it. It was wonderful for me. Ben was very inspiring.”
“It’s been an opportunity for me to be connected to part of my past,” Jaffe says of having Gabriel in PHJB. “Charlie is directly connected to all of the musicians I grew up with. Willie Humphrey was best friends with Charlie’s father so Charlie can play exactly like Willie Humphrey or George Lewis. To him it’s conversational. It’s something he grew up with. That’s important because you can’t create that. It’s astonishingly beautiful that connection to the origins of New Orleans jazz is with us today.”
Gabriel’s contributions to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band go beyond his talents as a clarinetist and saxophonist to those of a singer and composer; though it’s true when he steps forward to take a horn solo, energy rises. His breathy saxophone beautifully fills a more modern number, his original ballad “Corazon,” on the group’s fine 2019 release, A Tuba to Cuba. Corazon means heart and Charlie’s horn speaks exactly to that.
Through the years, Gabriel says he has composed many songs for different vocalists and his pen continues to be busy writing for the PHJB. He and Jaffe share melodic and lyrical duties. “It’s a full collaboration,” Gabriel says.
“Because Charlie is a horn player, he naturally hears melodies,” Jaffe explains. “I’m a bass player so naturally I hear bass lines, chord changes and rhythmic patterns. Sometimes he’ll bring a melody to me and I’ll help him put a rhythm to it. Sometimes he’ll have a thought and I can just help him refine the words or think of saying it different ways. It’s good to have someone to bounce an idea off of. We actually complement each other incredibly well.”
When Charlie stands up to sing a tune like “Tailgate Ramble,” whether he’s performing at “the Hall” or on the road, he absolutely delivers the whole package—he smiles, dances, laughs and makes it personal. “I never had to sing, but people always asked me to sing,” says Gabriel who often took the role as a vocalist in bands when, early on, he traveled in Europe.
It’s easy to tell how much Gabriel enjoys working with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. His eyes sparkle and a big grin lights up his face when he talks about the “fine” musicians in the ensemble and how they combine their tones and spirits to become one. “Each instrument is a voice,” he explains. “Each one of their voices creates a chord and it also creates the melody.” He then demonstrates by scatting some notes and then says, with a laugh, “That’s how that works.”
With his childhood prayer having been answered, Charlie Gabriel is a contented man. His warmth, lifetime experiences and love of music radiates through his horn to embrace all of those lucky enough to be around him.