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Harold Battiste: Prophet with Honor in His Own Land  E-mail
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Wednesday, 01 February 2006 22:37
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Harold Battiste
Prophet with Honor in His Own Land

By John Sinclair


An unhonored prophet in his home town for many years, saxophonist, composer, arranger, producer, recording executive, music educator and cultural activist Harold Battiste is finally gaining acclaim as a director of the burgeoning jazz studies program at the University of New Orleans and as chief executive of AFO Records.

Born in New Orleans on October 28, 1931, Harold Battiste grew up in the Magnolia Projects, where he was taught the rudiments of music by his clarinet-playing father.

Young Harold's imagination was fired by the sounds he could hear coming out of the Dew Drop Inn around the corner, and when he entered Dillard University in 1947 he undertook the formal study of music, soon becoming an accomplished saxophonist, pianist and arranger with a serious interest in modern jazz.

While still at Dillard Harold formed a group with clarinetist Alvin Batiste and drummer Edward Blackwell and began playing at little nightspots around town.

In his senior year Harold met a freshman tenor saxophonist, Ellis Marsalis, who was persuaded by Battiste to take up the piano and the exhilarating discipline of modern jazz.

Forty years later Ellis Marsalis, Director of the Jazz Studies Program at UNO, is able to offer his mentor a faculty position at the university and persuades his old friend to return from his long sojourn in Southern California.

Back in New Orleans since 1991, Harold Battiste has begun to reap some of the rewards that had eluded him so long, not the least of which are the recognition and oft-expressed appreciation of the local music, fine arts and academic communities.

Until suffering a stroke last year, from which he seems to be recovering with characteristic vigor and determination, Harold produced (and performed) in an impressive series of concerts at the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

He continues to function with equal vigor as president of AFO Records, bringing out reissues of AFO masters from the 1960s, issuing sessions that never came out at the time they were recorded, and making new records by artists of today like Victor Goines and Philip Manuel.

I visited with Harold at his UNO office on a bright March morning to see how he was feeling and to find out what's he's been up to. Young musicians passed in and out of the office as the interview progressed, and we stopped talking only when Harold was summoned to a prior appointment he'd forgotten in the flow of memories and ideas summoned by our conversation.


Harold Batiste: What's happening out here at UNO? The program started about five years ago, and what's going on right now is that the program has really exceeded all of the initial expectations, and as a result of that we have some very basic problems.

Like space: we've got too many people, a lot more people than we expected, and there's a definite shortage of actual space and equipment that we need to accommodate the program, to the extent that we were not prepared for the kind of response we've experienced.

So that's a problem, but that's more a function of the overall money problem in the state of Louisiana with respect to its universities. So that's a constant concern of ours, and the frustration also of not being able to do all that people want in terms of the program.

We give them something that they really love, and a lot of these kids won't even go home on the breaks--they stay here during the summer, and they become a part of the New Orleans community. A lot of the cats are beginning to act like this is their home.

But I think that's more a function of being in the New Orleans environment as an extension of being in school here, you know what I mean? And I think that's a real plus in terms of having a jazz program in New Orleans--this city deserves to have a program like this at the university level.

Right now we're experiencing another personnel problem, because [tenor saxophonist] Victor [Goines], who's a very important cog in this wheel, has been going out on the road with Wynton [Marsalis], which is very good because that's what he wanted to do, and the students really like that too, because they like to see their teachers go out there with their heroes.

And now [guitarist] Steve [Masakowski]'s got his new album out [on Blue Note Records], which is good, but it's also putting us in a pinch with regard to the program, because it creates an intense problem in terms of being able to replace the work they do here--being able to service the students in terms of top-level instruction--and there it's back to money again.

We could bring in adjuncts, you know, we've got enough cats around New Orleans--in fact, we've just got [trumpeter] Wendell Brunious on staff here, he just started classes.

Ultimately, my vision is that we'll be able to deal with all the various facets of New Orleans music here at the University, because I personally feel that we need to open the doors of the school to more than just "jazz"--we need to use the facilities of the university to add to the status and stature and understanding of rhythm & blues, gospel, and all the various forms of music.

To me, in my mind, it's always a thing that has been left out of my education, because when I came out of college, I knew the middle names of more European composers than I knew the first name of great American blues and jazz composers. I knew Peter Illych Tchaikowsky and Johann Sebastian Bach, I knew all of their history and all of their music and everything, and I didn't know nothin' about Louis Armstrong.

So I've always felt that we needed to begin to treat American music with the status--and that's what it is, it's a matter of status, it's not a matter of quality, because the actual quality of the music is already there. It's just the perception and the recognition that is missing, that the music has stature.

And it should have been recognized, you know, because other people have recognized the stature of this music. And then that will open up the avenues to money, because it's the stature or recognition that influences the revenues that are available.

For example, since the Conyers bill that recognized jazz as a national treasure was passed, there's been all kinds of money opened up to jazz, you know, through philanthropic organizations like the Lila Wallace [Readers Digest] Fund and all that. They'll give money to jazz once they've got the official recognition for it.

For that reason also, it's important to put the music every place you can put the music where it will enhance its stature and the perception in people's minds that it's worthy of recognition. They can look at this music and see it performed on Bourbon Street and other places like that, but still not think of it as something that's not valuable.

OffBeat: My perception of the UNO jazz program has been through hearing these young players in the coffeehouses and joints around town where they are playing surprising things from the classical modern jazz repertoire, like tunes by Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown and Miles Davis that you never hear anybody else play anymore, and when I've asked them about this music they say that these tunes were assigned to them by Ellis Marsalis at UNO.

Yeah, that's what's exciting to me--it's thrilling to have a shot at some young players, man, and know that the music's going to be in good hands.

I'm grading some papers now--I just assigned each of them to write an essay choosing Monk, Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, or Charlie Parker, and write a paper on the one of their choice. And I give them extra credit for the more obscure figures--the more remote the cat is, the harder it is to find material on him, the more points I give them. So it's fun--I mean, I'm enjoying this very much.

Along with your work here at UNO, you've also resurrected AFO Records in the compact disk era. I know that AFO grew out of your experience in the music industry, as an attempt to enable musicians to reap the financial benefits of their recording activities as well as a means of documenting their creative development as musicians. But how did you get into the record business in the first place?

Well, it started when Edward Blackwell literally convinced me and Ellis to leave New Orleans and go out to California with him in 1956. I had been teaching school here until 1956--I taught at McDonough 35, I taught at Carter G. Woodson, I was an itinerant music teacher based at one school but I would go around to different schools and teach music to their students. Walter Payton was in my class at McDonough No. 6, which is funny because he came out looking so much like me! And then he taught music in the schools for many years too.

Anyway, we went out to Los Angeles and did some things with Ornette Coleman, who had been around New Orleans for a while a few years back. Blackwell wanted to get together with Ornette out there, and we did some playing together. Then I recorded some little jazz demos, and I got hooked up with Specialty Records because I brought a demo there.

Bumps [Blackwell] was still working there, and he knew a little bit about me--he knew I was from New Orleans--and I was bringing this jazz thing there. See, I didn't know nothin' about a record company then at all, but I had this demo and I was taking it where I could.

Bumps was getting ready to do a date on Sam Cooke. You know, Bumps was one of those cats who would just grab up anybody who could do something, and he said, 'Look, man, I want you to help me get this together.' And I thought, well, if I can do this for him, maybe I can get him to listen to my demo.

So I got with Sam Cooke and went through his material--we'd go down in the basement--and Bumps already had it in his mind what he wanted to record on Sam. He wanted to record "Summertime" and some other standards like that, because he heard Sam as being a pop singer.

Sam had this song called "You Send Me," it was a nice little thing but it didn't say nothing, so he told me to change the words, and make this verse the second verse and something like that. "You Send Me" was just gonna be a B side--they had already done "Summertime" and we had some singers there in the studio for that, and they didn't have anything to sing, so I wrote out some parts for them and we started doing that.

And then at the session, man, Art Rupe [President of Specialty Records] came in, and he wigged! He didn't go for that. 'What you got Sam doing here? It sounds like white folks on there.' Art sent Sam home and took over the session, man, and tried to make a real rockin' tune instead.

But we had done a couple of takes on "You Send Me," and Art offered that to Bumps--see, he owed Bumps some money, and he said, You can take this in lieu of the money I owe you,  and Bumps took it and ran. He put it out with some guys that had the Keen label, and that record ended up going all the way to Number One!

So that's how I got hooked up with Specialty, and after that, he hired me to go open an office back down in New Orleans. Then he hired Sonny [Bono] to run the Los Angeles office, because he used to come by--Sonny used to be driving a truck, a meat truck, and he would come by in his truck hustling his songs.

This was after Johnny Vincent had split from Specialty and started Ace Records, and I came back down here and set up an office on North Claiborne. That's when I cut those records with Jerry Byrne ["Lights Out," "Carry On"] and Art Neville ["Cha Dooky Doo," "Zing Zing"], and that was my learning--that was how I learned to do these things.

I stayed with Art Rupe about three years, until Art started to get out of the business and shut down. Art was about giving up hope because, man, he had lost Sam Cooke, and Little Richard was gettin' ready to get converted, and Larry Williams had went away--I don't know what happened to Larry--and he had lost Lloyd Price too.

Actually, that's how Larry Williams came about, because when Lloyd came back out with his second record [for ABC-Paramount], "Just Because," Art wanted to cover that. See, Art was pissed that he didn't have Lloyd back when Lloyd got out of the service, so Larry Williams used to come around the [Los Angeles] office, and he'd do anything to make a record.

And Larry said, Well, I can do that,  and he did, too--he did it to death, "Just Because," and that gave him a chance to do his little thing. He came up with "Short Fat Fanny," and Sonny [Bono] had the B side on that--"High School Dance"--that was Sonny's tune.

The way Specialty was set up, man, is that I would audition people here, and then Art would listen to the tapes and decide what they wanted me to record. Man, I had Chris Kenner, they turned him down. I had Toussaint--him and a cat named Allen Orange came and auditioned, and they turned them down. I had Irma Thomas--I mean, everybody around here, I had a shot at. Because I did auditions on them and sent them off to Art Rupe, and he passed on them.

I was with Specialty from 1957 to about 1959, and then Art stopped paying me a salary--I had been making about $100 a week to run the office for him. He still wanted me to do stuff as a producer, but Sonny kept advising me against it.

That's when I did this thing with Joe Jones--that record "You Talk Too Much"--that was in 1959, and we did it for Joe Ruffino [at Ric Records]. Now, Joe Ruffino never really went beyond the regional market, because he could sell enough copies regionally to keep himself happy, and he didn't want to push all that hard.

But me and Joe felt we could make this a big record. Joe was a real hustler, and we went out all through the South in his station wagon, stopping at every radio station that had an antenna. We went up through Chicago, and what we did--that was just about the time Fidel Castro was doing his marathon speeches, you know, in Cuba, so Joe started playing off that. He wrote a letter to Castro, and sent him a record, "You Talk Too Much."

By the time we got to Chicago, we had got an answer back from Castro! One of his boys, they wrote back a nice little letter, 'Thank you very much for the record.' So we went over to Jet magazine with this letter from Castro, congratulating us, and they ran a little feature. And the record really began to take off behind this publicity.

We went to Detroit, and when we left Detroit we were on our way to New York City. When we got to New York we didn't have but 29 cents between us. The subway at that time cost 15 cents, so we had enough for two tokens. We saw in the paper that Lloyd Price was out at Coney Island, and that's the only person we knew in New York--this was my first time in Manhattan--so we asked a subway guard how to get to Coney Island, and we took the subway out there to where Lloyd was playing.

We told him our story, and he took us in, got us a place to stay, and then he found out that we had this record out that was going into the charts, and that's how we got hooked up with [Morris] Levy [at Roulette Records]. Lloyd and his partner, Harold Logan, were with Levy with their label, Double-L, and they got our record with him, and it became a big hit.

After that I started thinking about the way things worked in the recording industry and what could be done about it. The musicians would be getting something like $51.50 to make a session, and the records would make millions for the record companies. Even the name artists were being paid on like a 5% royalty rate on their record sales.

It seemed to me that as musicians on the one hand, and as Blacks on the other, we had to do something to reclaim the ownership of the music we produced so that we would be the ones to profit from it, if there were profits to be had. So I started talking to the cats about this, and we formed AFO as a means of gaining some control over what we were producing.

The original shareholders and board of directors were also like the house band, what we called the AFO Studio Combo: Red [Tyler], Melvin Lastie, Roy Montrell, Chuck Badie and John Boudreux.

It's always intrigued me that AFO came out of the chute so fast with such great records--Barbara George, and Nookie Boy [Oliver Morgan], and Prince La La....

La La was a surprise, you know. We never planned to record him. He came in to play for Barbara to audition. He had his guitar, and he was trying to show Barbara how to sing "She Put the Hurt on Me," how to make it happen for her, and I think it was Red [Tyler] who said, 'Man, we better record this cat.' He was Papoose's brother, [Fats Domino guitarist] Walter Nelson--Prince La La's name was Lawrence Nelson.

So we did a split session between the two of them, and those first two records came out of a single split session, and the success of those sides surprised me, because I was just a jazz musician, basically.

Don't you and Mac Rebennack [Dr. John] go back to those days?

Well, as a writer, really. I always liked the things he wrote, and he knew this was a place where I would give his material a chance. So when I did Jerry Byrne's stuff, and some of the material I cut on Art Neville--"Cha Dooky Doo," I think that was Mac's tune, and "What's Going On." He did quite a few things with us at AFO, and we hooked up later on the West Coast, after I had moved back out there following the collapse of the whole scene here in the mid- 60s.

By that time I was working with Sonny [Bono] as his musical director, and we had those hits ["The Beat Goes On," "I Got You Babe"] on Sonny & Cher with Atlantic Records. I had got Mac into the [Sonny & Cher] band, and then we started recording the stuff that became the Gris Gris album when we could get a few hours of studio time for ourselves during Sonny & Cher sessions. Mac had that idea for Dr. John, who was originally supposed to be [organist/singer] Ronnie Barron, but Ronnie ended up not doing it and Mac became Dr. John.

So I produced those first two Dr. John albums for Atco, Gris Gris and then Babylon, which had some pretty far out things on it. But, you know, man, that whole Dr. John concept really came out of something Prince La La had brought in called "Need You," which we cut for AFO but never released.

"Need You" was a Jessie Hill tune with that real New Orleans/Congo Square thing in it, and I never forgot it. When Mac and I starting recording stuff later on in California, we kind of based our idea on that old Prince La La thing.

When I first examined that pair of AFO CDs that Ace Records put out in England last year [Gumbo Stew and More Gumbo Stew], it was kind of mind-expanding for me to see the range of activity you were engaged in at AFO between 1961-63, because the singles that came out were only like the tip of the iceberg. You had a relatively huge body of material that evidently you weren't able to get out at the time.

Well, we were able to be productive in what we could do because I didn't go to the cats as a businessman, I went as a musician saying, Look, we can record this stuff and get it down. 

Once we could make the records ourselves, after our disappointment with Juggy Murray [of Sue Records, manufacturer and distributor of AFO Records], because that sort of took the wind out of my sails....

See, I didn't really intend to be making and selling records, you know, distributing them and all the stuff like that--I wanted to produce records and have some other people take care of the business part, but it didn't work out like that because Juggy got mad with me when I produced "Ya Ya" on Lee Dorsey for Bobby Robinson.

I had done one record before on Lee Dorsey, "Lottie Mo," which was put out on Valiant and then leased to ABC-Paramount. When Bobby Robinson came down here to cut Lee he went to Toussaint, but Toussaint was under contract to Joe Banashek [at Minit Records] and couldn't do it, so he asked me to do it. Apparently a lot of people felt that was Toussaint on the piano, but that was really Marcel Richards playing piano on there.

Anyway, after we did that and Juggy found out that we had done it--see, Bobby put that out [on Fury Records] before we put "I Know" out [by Barbara George], which was our second release on AFO--and "Ya Ya" was a hit, and Juggy got pissed off. He said, why didn't we do that for him? He wanted to have our everything.

So I think that record went up the charts before Barbara's did, and Juggy and Bobby were New York City rivals, but I didn't know anything about that shit, man, New York and all that. See, me, I'm still thinking like [Elijah] Muhammad: we're all Black cats, you know what I mean? We'll supply all y'all's music, man, we got plenty of it here, there's no use fightin' over a record--we'll just do another one!

I never did really come at it like a business person--my entry into this was purely as a social activist. Because I had been in the Black Muslims and I had gotten my 'X' and I had gotten out of it, but the lessons I had learned about economics and self-determination, like we should have some land, and we should have some of this, these basic ideas--at the time I thought, well, shit, we do all this music, why don't we own it? So we moved along that line, as a collective, musician-owned company.

The purpose of AFO Records all along was, first of all, to demonstrate that we had a music here that people needed to pay more attention to. At the time I formulated AFO, All For One, it wasn't just for jazz, it was for New Orleans music, and it was about recognizing that we had a grass-roots talent base here that needed to be recognized by the business community the way other places that didn't have quite the wealth of talent we had, but they recognized what they had and they maximized its potential.

So that's what AFO was about: giving people here---and the public generally--an opportunity to be more conscious of the value of what New Orleans music is. And then the players would harvest themselves and have a fundamental place where they could be home and step toward the future and have some share in the success of their products.

My personal philosophy, then and even now, with the record label, I don't intend to take people's careers and do the most for them. I want them to be in a position to use what they can do here to step forward. If somebody can come along and do more for them, they're free to go--I want them to go on and step to the next level.

When I started AFO back up again this time, when I came back here to teach at UNO, I realized that once again we were in a position, the jazz cats--and of course I had realized over the years for myself about the value of the jazz things we had done back then, you know, we recorded Ellis [Marsalis] and them, the American Jazz Quintet, and we did all that stuff back then, and that was done purely as a means of preserving the music, because at that time I had no thought of making money with jazz.

I believed in Alvin [Batiste] and them cats so much that I believed they had to have a record for the record, so to speak, because otherwise it would've just disappeared. In fact, they would've even forgot all about it themselves, because they just kept on going from there and didn't even hardly remember that they had made those tapes.

You know, when we did that tribute to Edward Blackwell over in Atlanta a few years ago, before I came back here, when we got together to rehearse I brought all this music out and Ellis said, 'Man! This is the music of my education! If it wasn't for this, I probably wouldn't have gone into what I've been playing all this time.'

Anyway, when I came back I realized we still needed a base for young jazz players to have some kind of stepping stone so they could get their music recorded and at least have something in their hand that could help them with people who are interested in them and have some opportunities to offer.

So it's been two-fold: this thing with AFO has been to record some of the new cats, and to bring the older stuff into the CD format. The whole industry is reissuing all of the old stuff, and it's time to put the stuff we had done back then into the CD format for audiences today.

Plus we have put out some things from that period that had never been released--it gives us an opportunity to bring this stuff out, finally.

So, this time, we're hoping to open the doors and to get most of the stuff out on CD. The next thing we're trying to get out will be a tribute to Blackwell, which is actually a 'live' tape recorded at the Booker T. Washington Auditorium back in 1958--sort of the second edition of the AJQ, when Nat [Perillat] had taken my place in the group [on saxophone], but it was still Alvin [Batiste] and Ellis [Marsalis] and Boogie [Edward Blackwell] and Richard [Payne], but Richard was not there that day, so this cat named Otis Devraney played bass. I still have those tapes, so I'm putting it out on CD now.

It really does go to show the maturity that Blackwell had at that time--he was really the leader of the group. I mean, musically he was much more mature in his playing than the rest of the cats. Everybody else was playing good, you know, but they were still just young cats playing, whereas Boogie had been a serious cat for some time, as you can hear on these tapes. So hopefully we'll get that out by JazzFest time.


--New Orleans
April 1994



(c) 1994, 2006 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.


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