Batiste, Alvin 1932–2007
Alvin Batiste 1932–2007
Jazz musician, educator
Jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste was a living reminder of the persistence of the jazz spirit in the music's birthplace of New Orleans, Louisiana. The city remains home to numerous musicians who play jazz in traditional styles, but Batiste showed that jazz creativity in New Orleans extended to modern innovations as well. Collaborating with Ornette Coleman and other key modern jazz players in his early years, Batiste later became a jazz educator who helped inspire several of today's most important jazz artists. He was an important clarinetist in his own right, playing an instrument that became rare in modern jazz after the saxophone became the dominant reed instrument.
Batiste was born on November 7, 1932, in New Orleans. His father was a traditional jazz musician who played in barrooms and introduced his son to the clarinet, a favored instrument of New Orleans jazz players. Batiste had several top jazz musicians as teachers—at first future Duke Ellington Orchestra member Jimmy Hamilton and later Sidney Bechet, the king of New Orleans clarinetists. He received a solid grounding in technique, and, as he was quoted as saying by Val Wilmer and Garth Cartwright in the Guardian, he was especially impressed by a maxim of Bechet's: “Whatever you practise, practise in all the keys.”
Batiste lived in the so-called Magnolia Projects (officially the C. J. Peete Projects) and attended Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans. For a few years he struggled as a freelance musician, beginning with a two-dollar gig backing bluesman Guitar Slim. His life landed on firmer footing when he was admitted to Southern University in Baton Rouge, a historically African-American institution with a strong music program. There, Batiste immersed himself in classical music. He was selected to perform Wolfgang Mozart's concerto for clarinet and orchestra with the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra, becoming the first African-American student so honored. Batiste picked up the nickname “Mozot” as a result, one of several affectionate nicknames bestowed on him over the course of his career. He graduated from Southern in 1954.
After graduating, Batiste taught high school briefly in New Orleans. Then in 1956 he stretched his wings and headed for Los Angeles, where he participated in jam sessions with saxophonist Ornette Coleman. In 1958 he landed a job touring with Ray Charles. At one performance, the young clarinetist upstaged Charles with a brilliant solo and was chastised by the star. Batiste received the rebuke good-naturedly, later building one of his own compositions, “Ray's Segue,” around the episode.
Returning to New Orleans, Batiste became associated with a group of musicians that formed AFO (All For One) Records, a fledgling independent label that tried to keep the profits earned from New Orleans jazz and rhythm and blues in the community rather than in the hands of national or multinational recording companies. Even though the label was plagued by industry competition, Batiste remained connected with several later incarnations, and it still exists today.
Batiste married Edith Chatters, and in 1969, after earning a master's degree in music from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge (where he was one of just a handful of African-American students), he took an opportunity to join the faculty of his alma mater, Southern University. Batiste taught at Southern for the next seventeen years and intermittently thereafter, forming the Batiste Jazz Institute early in his tenure there as part of the university's African-American studies department. As well as hosting concerts and master classes by nationally known jazz artists, the institute had its own band, the Jazztronauts, which included Batiste himself and served as a key incubator of Louisiana jazz talent for much of the late twentieth century. Among its alumni were saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison and pianist Henry Butler.
Many of the players who passed through Batiste's program at Southern attested to not only his musical but also his personal influence. “He was not only a teacher, he was my father away from home,” Butler told Mary Foster of the Chicago Sun-Times. “He taught us about music, the history of music and the business of music. The ones who had the benefit of learning from him are better musicians and better people today.” Batiste also published the textbook The Root Progression Process: Fundamental Principles of African American Music in 1997.
For several years Batiste's teaching responsibilities left him little time for performing, but relatives reported that he still put in long hours practicing. In the 1980s he gradually restarted his own career. He made several albums with the all-clarinet group Clarinet Summit, and in 1984 he released an album of his own, Musique D'Afrique Nouvell Orleans, which paired his clarinet with African rhythms. Bayou Magic, featuring spoken poetry by Batiste's wife, Edith, appeared in 1988. After he signed to the Columbia label, he released Late in 1993; the album billed Batiste as a legendary pioneer of jazz. Batiste's music drew on various influences, including his classical training; Scott Yanow of the All Music Guide called him “an avant-garde player who does not fit easily into any classification.” He continued to tour with his Jazztronauts, where he experimented with new large-ensemble textures, and the band became a fixture of the U.S. jazz festival circuit.
Even though he and his wife lived in Baton Rouge (and opened their home to a large group of relatives and friends in the wake of Hurricane Katrina), Batiste maintained strong ties to his hometown of New Orleans and bought a home in the Uptown neighborhood there. He was one of the founders of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and taught there frequently in later years, putting his imprint on another new generation of Crescent City creative talent who called him Mr. Bat. Part of Batiste's secret as a teacher was that he approached his students as individuals. “Jazz pedagogy is really not scientific,” he told Jason Berry of Gambit Weekly. “It's theoretical. Each one of the personalities involved with a program gives it something different…. As long as you can get the content of knowledge in the jazz legacy, and have a chance to experience the time-tested procedures without psychologically arresting the creative process, then you have something that's nurturing.”
Gradually, Batiste became something of an icon in the New Orleans jazz community by playing high-profile gigs with local musicians and visiting artists alike. Among the awards he received was one from the state of Louisiana, for outstanding contributions to arts education, in 2005. In 2007 he was joined by several members of the Marsalis family for the CD Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste. On May 6 of that year, he was scheduled to perform a set with Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but word spread throughout the jazz community that he had died peacefully of a heart attack while watching television late the night before. The concert went on as planned, serving as a tribute to one of the most beloved jazzmen in the long history of New Orleans music.
At a Glance …
Born on November 7, 1932, in New Orleans, LA; died of cardiac arrest on May 6, 2007, in New Orleans, LA; married Edith Chatters. Education: Southern University, BA, music education, 1954; Louisiana State University, master's degree, performance and composition.
Career: Performed with Ornette Coleman and Ray Charles bands, late 1950s; Southern University, professor of music, 1969-86; New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, cofounder and lead teacher.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts, Louisiana Division of the Arts, fellowships; National Association of Jazz Educators, Humanitarian Award; International Association of Jazz Educators, Lifetime Achievement Award; Southern University, Distinguished Service Award; Louisiana Governor's Award for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education, 2005.
The Root Progression Process: Fundamental Principles of African American Music, A. Batiste, 1997.
Musique D'Afrique Nouvell Orleans, India Navigation, 1984.
Bayou Magic, India Navigation, 1988.
Late, Columbia, 1993.
Songs, Words and Messages, Connections, SLM, 1999.
Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste, Marsalis Music/Rounder, 2007.
Chicago Sun-Times, May 7, 2007.
Guardian (London, England), June 1, 2007.
New Orleans Times-Picayune, May 6, 2007.
New York Times, May 7, 2007.
Times (London), May 12, 2007.
“Alvin Batiste,” All About Jazz,http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/musician.php?id=3692 (accessed January 2, 2008).
Barry, Jason, “Bringing It Home,” Gambit Weekly, http://www.gambitweekly.com/dispatch/2007-05-15/cover_story.php (accessed January 2, 2008).
Yanow, Scott, “Alvin Batiste,” All Music Guide, http://wc10.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:h9fpxq95ldhe (accessed January 2, 2008).
—James M. Manheim
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