Apr 20 2011

The Continuum of Jazz

By: Craig Cortello


 Irvin Mayfield, Artistic Director of the Grammy award-winning New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and of the New Orleans Jazz Institute at the University of New Orleans, spearheaded a series of events in March and April that were designed to pay tribute to and document the accomplishments of New Orleans modern jazz pioneers Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and the late James Black. That series included tribute concerts, student workshops, Master classes, and recordings that would be archived for future generations, serving as an educational tool as well as important documentation of a critical aspect of New Orleans music history in the mid to late 1950’s and early 60’s that to this day is still often overlooked by the masses.
I sat down with Battiste, Marsalis, and Mayfield recently in the courtyard of the Royal Sonesta Hotel, as they reflected on that historic era, the challenges of artistic endeavors, and the state of music and jazz education. To expect only lighthearted conversation sprinkled with cheerful anecdotes would fail to acknowledge the hardships that modern jazz musicians in New Orleans faced during those formative years. Lack of mainstream acceptance and commercial success provided a less than nurturing environment. Though it’s difficult to fathom more than fifty years later, considering the fact that jazz is sometimes considered the only purely American art form, early modern jazz pioneers even endured a condescending demeanor from many of their classically-trained colleagues in educational institutions who shunned jazz as a credible art form worthy of academic acceptance.

All of which make their considerable accomplishments in jazz that much more extraordinary.   

Ellis Marsalis is best known as the patriarch of the first family of American Jazz, with four of his talented children, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason following in his footsteps as jazz virtuosos. The trails they followed were established through the determination demonstrated by their father and his colleagues as musicians first, amidst challenges that make their decision to pursue their passion in such an era illogical in retrospect.  

Marsalis discussed how he and his colleagues would pursue their version of modern jazz. The likes of Ornette Coleman, Oscar Peterson, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and others were defining a new direction in jazz that they were determined to explore as well, adding their own unique perspective. Yet in an era when the public wasn’t terribly familiar with or accepting of that music, finding venues to showcase their musical passion wasn’t easy.

“I had been bitten by the jazz bug, but there wasn’t really anyplace to play modern jazz as we called it, so we’d play at each other’s houses,” said Marsalis. “Every now and then at the Dew Drop Inn on Sunday they would have a jam session, but the success of that depended upon who showed up.”

Ellis Marsalis was an instrumental music teacher during the formative years of the institution known as the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts or NOCCA. That artistically-centered environment provided a more focused opportunity for talented young musicians.

“I was proud to be a part of a school that offered opportunities to some young people in the city of New Orleans, the likes of which they had never had,” he said. “The study of music was at a much higher level.”
The Ellis Marsalis music education resume includes stints at Carver High School, Xavier University, Virginia Commonwealth, and at the University of New Orleans as the Director of the Coca-Cola endowed Chair of Jazz Studies Department.

Among the colleagues who joined Marsalis and Battiste in their pursuit of modern jazz included clarinetist Alvin Battiste, drummers Ed Blackwell and James Black, trumpet player Melvin Lastie, bassists Otis DuVernay, Richard Payne, and William Swanson, and saxophonists Nathaniel Perrilliat and Alvin “Red” Tyler.

Harold Battiste’s resume in music is as expansive as it is impressive. Battiste is a critically acclaimed publisher, producer, conductor and musical director for studio, stage, motion pictures and television with credits in jazz, classical, blues and pop. He co-produced and arranged the career-launching recordings “You Send Me” by Sam Cooke, “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher, “You Talk Too Much” by Joe Jones, “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)” by Barbara George, and “YaYa” by Lee Dorsey. From 1976 to 1977, Battiste served as Musical Director to the Sonny & Cher Show and as Touring Musical Director for Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis in 1977.

But perhaps most impressive and relevant in the context of recognizing the early modern jazz era in New Orleans is that Battiste founded the first African-American musician-owned record label, All For One (AFO), and publishing company At Last Publishing Co. Through his efforts, recordings of that historic period in New Orleans music have been preserved and shared for future generations. Again, this feat seems mundane in the modern popular music era where African-American music moguls are far more common. Yet in the context of the exploitative music industry that existed 50 years ago, his efforts were courageous, if not heroic.

“When I went to City Hall to find out what legal things I needed to do to start a record company, they could not conceive of what I wanted,” recalled Battiste. “They thought I wanted to start a record store.

“What motivated me was that I was in New Orleans, and I saw so much talent around. But there were no black people who owned the music,” said Battiste. “We made a lot of music, but we didn’t own it. And that’s what urged me on. That’s what started AFO Records.

“I was coming up in the Magnolia Projects, and they had a lot of cats living at the Dew Drop Hotel. And that’s where I heard all of that stuff. I became aware of that (the lack of musical ownership and control by the musicians), and it troubled me. Why don’t we own any of our music?”

I posed the question to Mr. Battiste, “Were there ever any doubts in those days that the music you were playing would take hold in a city that was embracing a more traditional version of jazz at that time?” His answer was concise and offered insight into the mindset of the musical artist in the purest sense.
“I didn’t even think about that,” he replied. “I just knew that it needed to be done.”

Battiste later joined his colleague Ellis Marsalis on the Jazz Studies faculty at the University of New Orleans in 1989 after a 30 year stay in Los Angeles. Once a record label, AFO has expanded into a foundation with an ambitious mission that includes preservation of musical history, educational outreach, networking, and musician assistance programs.

Of course, the accomplishments of these New Orleans jazz icons could have been lost in the crowded world of New Orleans music without a present day practitioner and appreciator of the music that these men love. That’s where Irvin Mayfield’s current programs and unique perspective come in. Mayfield, currently a Professional Practice Professor at the University of New Orleans, is one of the most accomplished and recorded jazz musicians of his generation. In addition to his duties with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra and with the New Orleans Jazz Institute, Mayfield is the owner/founder of Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, one of the most successful jazz venues in the city since its inception in 2009.

Though Mayfield has an appreciation for the considerable educational accomplishments of these predecessors and the young musicians that they have mentored over the years, he is quick to point out that ability is essential.

“Nobody starts to play basketball because they had a great coach,” explained Mayfield. “They play basketball because they saw Michael Jordan. As much as I have respect for all of the time that these gentlemen have spent in the classroom, I would never have been interested in them if they couldn’t play. We call these guys educators, but was Louis Armstrong any less of an educator? Was Cannonball Adderley any less of an educator? Was Miles Davis?

Mayfield called upon fellow UNO faculty members Victor Atkins, Ed Petersen, and Steve Masakowski to present the aforementioned concert series honoring the music of Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, and James Black respectively. Mayfield spoke of their accomplishments with great reverence, and considers it a privilege to carry on the work of these men, as one of the city’s leading practitioners and educators of jazz.  

“There’s something inherently attractive about being a small part of a large continuum,” Mayfield said humbly. “That’s why at UNO, if we don’t support AFO and 50 years of modern jazz, then we really don’t have a ground to stand on.

“There’s only a finite group of people who are here the were part of a movement of people interested in playing jazz in their time. Obviously, I’m honored, and it’s great to be a part of it. I was a student of both of these gentlemen at the University of New Orleans, and I knew both for a really long time before I came here. I’ve had a unique perspective to grow up in New Orleans and experience this music in many dimensions – Being a musician where the music speaks directly to me, and I appreciate it.

“Art only talks to some people in a creative way,” added Mayfield. “I’ve got to go and do this even though I’ve got 6 kids (referencing the challenge that Marsalis faced raising a family and pursuing life as a modern jazz musician). Or I’ve got to do it even though the guy at the record label says we don’t need to promote this music, but I want to give up my studio time and let the guys come and record it (referencing the dedication to and sacrifices made by these men in pursuit of this music).”

Talk show host Tavis Smiley, in a PBS special profiling the charismatic Los Angeles Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel once said, “I’ve often thought kids have a lot in common with old Polaroid photos. Just as that process needed exposure to the air to develop into fully articulated photographs, kids need to be exposed to the best in this world to develop into fully realized human beings.”

Similarly, Mayfield states, “The mandate has to be across the board that in New Orleans, every kid is going to know the sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and the recipes of Leah Chase. Those things are not less important than what Hemingway wrote. A dish, a word, and a sound are equals. This city brings about economic opportunity through the combination of those things.”

In closing, Marsalis echoed those sentiments with regard to the importance of exposure to the masses of jazz performed at the highest level.

“When it comes to the more serious aspects of jazz, it’s important that kids are exposed to the reality of what it is, whether or not they become professional musicians—exposure to the serious side of music. There’s a need for the development of the intellect, regardless of the avenue that you choose.”

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