Many people might presume that after some five decades spent in the field of education a person could become jaded or perhaps even cynical. Yet, when clarinetist Alvin Batiste relates a recent, seemingly inconsequential, encounter with one of his students, any doubts about the nature of his continued enthusiasm—or those of other such dedicated teachers—immediately dissolve.
“The thing about teaching is that you truly enjoy—even beyond yourself, even without planning to—seeing the light come on in somebody’s eyes,” Batiste avows. “I had a student come up to me the day before yesterday who said, ‘Can I see you a minute?’ He said, ‘I got an A-minus and want to know why.’ So, I didn’t have my roll book or anything and I said, ‘Well, you probably got an A-minus because you didn’t do A work.’ And then I didn’t know what was going to happen. So he looked around and he said, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have to work harder.’
“That knocked me out,” Batiste recalls in a tone that rings of his sustained wonder. “I mean that’s incredible. So, I didn’t plan to have that moment of joy but he dropped it on me.”
Batiste’s moments of joy have been many through a career in education that began in 1955 at McDonogh 35 High School. Presently, he oversees the jazz division at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), a position he’s held since August of last year. For Batiste to join the NOCCA faculty, after spending over 30 years teaching and developing a prestigious jazz program at Southern University of Baton Rouge, in many ways represents a complete circle in his educational endeavors. It was Batiste’s inspiration in the 1960s to create a jazz artist-in-residence combined with the belief in the idea of people like Shirley Trusty Corey that sowed the seeds that blossomed into the now-renowned school for the arts that just celebrated its 30th anniversary.
Batiste had retired from his position at Southern, where he created and utilized his revolutionary “root progression” system, though he was again employed at the university when he got a call from then-NOCCA principal John Otis. Otis asked Batiste for his assistance in NOCCA’s search to find someone to head the jazz division. A few weeks later, Batiste again spoke with Otis who off-handedly said, “If you would just take this job, all our problems would be solved.”
“And here I am,” Batiste says with a laugh, “and I’m really enjoying it. I find cognition in high school kids is at least as good or better than college students because they have the extra tool of being curious—they’re just wide open. They don’t have things to unlearn.
“The cookie has turned over,” Batiste says of being back in the city. “I used to come to New Orleans every once in a while, now I go to Baton Rouge every once in a while. I live in both places.”
Batiste’s influence during his many years at Southern has led to the mantra, “You have to study with Mr. Bat,” from an array of noted artists such as saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Henry Butler who have benefited from his musical and philosophical wisdom. When Batiste stands before a classroom of students, he peppers his discussion of scales and time signatures with historical facts and perhaps a related story or a lesson in life.
“Alvin is about a continuum, and the continuum is rooted in the oral tradition,” pianist Ellis Marsalis, a long-time friend and fellow musician and educator, once explained. “His teaching skills are hands-on.”
“I have always been involved with education and I’ve always been involved with the clarinet and always with jazz—I have never had a tug of war about that,” says Batiste, one of the few clarinetists who utilize the instrument in the modern jazz setting. Batiste has been recognized by a host of local, national and international organizations as an educator and musician and gained further accolades as a composer, recording artist, clinician and author.
“If there was one thing that helped harmonize me,” Batiste contemplates, “I would say that it is the effort to be those things and the quest and associations for inner development. I think the time has come—and this is what we hope to give to the students—that all areas of the brain can be used.”
Batiste’s holistic approach continually reveals itself from classrooms to bandstands and in conversation. At a recent gig at Snug Harbor, the clarinetist stepped to the microphone during the band’s final tune. As a farewell and with a warm smile he sang the encouraging lyric, “Let your soul shine.”