Had a surprise visit from Harold Battiste, Jr., who is one of my favorite people in the world. Harold is a jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger and entrepreneur who has been featured many times on OffBeat’s pages. He has the distinction of having received the Best of The Beat Award for a Lifetime in Music, Music Education, as well as the “Heartbeat” Award for Keeping the Music Alive.
Harold is still active at 79, and despite many health problems, continues to promote his life’s work of the continuation of jazz in New Orleans. Harold started AFO Records, the first black-owned record label in the US. AFO has produced many recordings over the years, including ones from jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Chuck Badie, Red Tyler, Tami Lynn, Jesse McBride, David Morgan, Geoff Clapp, Brian Blade and so many more, and will celebrate its 50th anniversary later in June of this year. His life story—one of the most affecting autobiographies I’ve ever read—is told in the book Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man, published last spring by the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Mr. Battiste (“Mr. Bat” to many of his students) is adamant in his campaign to keep jazz alive in New Orleans, and he realizes that education in jazz is one of the most important tasks we have. “You learn a lot with a degree,” he says, “but you learn a lot more in the school of actually playing music with people who are skilled and who give you a chance to learn and prove yourself. Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers was that kind of university. ” Blakey’s band at one time included young musicians Donald Byrd, Johnny Griffin, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett, Chuck Mangione, Woody Shaw, JoAnne Brackeen and Wynton Marsalis, among others. “Lionel Hampton had the same kind of thing going.”
“Where are these bands in New Orleans?” asks Mr. Battiste. “The University of New Orleans Jazz Studies Program has graduated some top jazz musicians who are now out in the world, working on their careers.” Battiste was a professor in this program at UNO. “They need to be able to have experiences like this to really learn their art and have the ability to develop their own style while they were in the city.”
Come to think of it, we do have a New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in New Orleans. Is this the group that’s focused on training young musicians to develop and to fly on their own? So far, the only musician who’s seems to have made a name for himself nationally as player in NOJO is Irvin Mayfield—but the organization is admittedly, only a few years old. NOJO has also established a school for aspiring young jazz musicians at its New Orleans Jazz Institute housed at the University of New Orleans. But it has a long way to go before it’s developed the reputation and chops of a band like the Jazz Messengers.
It’s absolutely crucial that we maintain and strengthen our jazz heritage through your musicians in the city. Without that, New Orleans’ reputation and jazz culture will slowly but surely slip away from us.