Obituary: Earl Turbinton (1941-2007)

The eclectic New Orleans avant-garde jazz saxophonist Earl Turbinton, a.k.a. “The African Cowboy,” succumbed to lung cancer August 3 in Baton Rouge. He was 65. The brother of funk keyboardist Wilson “Willie Tee” Turbinton, Earl Turbinton was heavily influenced by John Coltrane. He also studied music at Southern University under the guidance of Alvin Batiste. As an alto and soprano saxophone specialist in the early 1960s, Turbinton helped co-found The Workshop, a non-profit venue on Decatur Street that nurtured modern jazz in New Orleans. In 1970, Turbinton shifted stylistic gears, joining B.B. King’s band, performing and recording with the guitarist for several years. (Turbinton appeared along with King on The Ed Sullivan Show, performing “The Thrill Is Gone.”) In the late 1970s, he did a brief stint in Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s band.

Turbinton often lectured about jazz at colleges in addition to playing on several recordings. Those included two Wild Magnolia albums and Brothers for Life, an LP that featured him with his brother, Willie Tee. The National Endowment of the Arts named him a Jazz Fellow in 1983. Turbinton often performed at Snug Harbor on Frenchman Street through the 1990s until a stroke and other health problems forced him to stop playing in 2002. He is survived by a brother, three sons and two daughters.