The words “The Future of Our Past” printed on the upper right cover of Harold Battiste’s sheet music/workbook, The Silverbook, speak volumes about the musician and the man. Generally, when a Lifetime Achievement Award honor is bestowed, it is a time to reflect.
Certainly Battiste has earned great accolades for his accomplishments through his 50-plus years as a musician, producer, composer and educator. But as far as jazz is concerned, Battiste has always also been about today and tomorrow. He continues his quest to keep New Orleans music alive and make sure its purveyors are recognized.
Two books, The Silverbook and his recently completed, yet unpublished Unfinished Blues—Life Memories of a New Orleans Musician, conceived and written to that aim, sit on his dining room table in his neatly appointed apartment in The Park Esplanade at City Park. Along with pianist Jesse McBride, his former student at University of New Orleans and supporter in Battiste’s many endeavors, we talk not of his landmarks like founding the still vital A.F.O. label over 40 years ago, becoming the musical director of The Sonny & Cher Show or producing the three albums—Gris-Gris, Babylon and Gumbo—that transformed Mac Rebennack into Dr. John. Instead, it’s the young cats on the local jazz scene and the documentation of jazz’s modern era, what he refers to as the “next 50 years of New Orleans jazz,” that stirs his soul.
“Per capita, New Orleans still has more musicians of national reputation that were born and raised here than any other city in this country or probably the world,” declares Battiste, who was born here on October 28, 1931.
“High quality product,” adds McBride, who leads the band, the Next Generation that was founded by Battiste three decades ago to perform the works from New Orleans’ first generation of modern jazz players such as himself, pianist Ellis Marsalis, drummer James Black and others. This month, the Next Generation will record material found in The Silverbook that, thus far, only existed on paper or was heard live. The repertoire includes Battiste gems like his 1974 composition “Beautiful Old Ladies” and 1964’s “J.B. Jazz.”
“To be still alive and hear what these young cats do with these old tunes is marvelous,” Battiste says with a touch of wistfulness. “This is old stuff and they bring it to life. That’s the miracle of it for me. There’s always enough left for whatever a next generation is that they can (musically) say what they want to say about it.”
“When I hear these tunes, they sound like him. They sound like his personality,” says McBride who is dedicated to keeping the material before audiences.
In May 2006, Battiste retired from his position as a professor in the University of New Orleans’ Jazz Studies Program that he held since the program’s conception in 1989.
“I was told I should use the word re-focus rather than retire,” Battiste offers with a laugh. “I’m working more now, but it’s just on what I want to work on. I’m trying to cut down but things keep jumping at me. I wake up and think, ‘What am I supposed to do today? What needs to be done? How do I get rid of stuff and not throw it away?’”
That final question has been resolved. His material will be archived at the Amistad Research Center. While it’s doubtful the bag of hotel keys that he gathered from his many travels that sits under the table will be stored for prosperity, he continues to sort out material from a lifetime of music, which includes papers, manuscripts, scores, photos and historical information on the A.F.O. (All for One) label and foundation.
“The main thing is to make it available for people who want to research it,” says Battiste, whose documentation of modern jazz declares that the musical revolution that began with the likes of trumpeter Buddy Bolden and was brought to the world by Louis Armstrong continued and continues in New Orleans.
While his work shouts for attention, Battiste remains a serene man whose warm personality made him a favorite among his students.
“He was one of the only professors that you could go and just talk to and it didn’t have to be about music or the university,” says McBride, who is now a member of Dillard University’s adjunct faculty. “I started hanging out in the office and he never kicked me out,” he adds, calling Battiste his guru. McBride encourages Battiste to blow his saxophone with the Next Generation, but physical limitations due to a stroke have limited Battiste’s dexterity.
“I’m perplexed about my horn,” Battiste confides, saying that his hand remains “a couple of ticks behind. I’m thinking if I had a decent horn, I might play some more.”
McBride and I turn to each other and agree that hearing Battiste’s soulful saxophone remains a great pleasure. Hearing more from this wonderful keeper of the flame would even be better.