Born: February 1, 1940 | Died: August 30, 1988 Primary Instrument: Drums
He is one of the key players in New Orleans drumming continuum. In what has to qualify as a lifetime of accomplishments, he played with Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Horace Silver, and Yusef Lateef, and toured with Lionel Hampton. He was the drummer on seminal recordings by Ellis Marsalis, worked with many R&B artists, and laid the foundations for the funk and jazz drummers that followed.
Born in New Orleans on February 1, 1940, James Black absorbed the second line rhythms from a young age. Like so many other native New Orleans musicians, James Black came up through the public school system's music programs under the guidance of Yvonne Busch. Miss Busch was known for requiring her students to play at least two instruments. James gave her great credit, saying instead of just being a drummer, now I'm a musician. He later studied music at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and played in their marching band. Like any New Orleans drummer, he was greatly inspired by the street percussions of the Mardi Gras Indians and developed his street beat by following second line parades.
His professional career began in 1958 at the age of 18, and by the early '60s was already doing session work for the likes of Fats Domino. His main interest was jazz, however, and he played in a group at the Playboy Club with the young Ellis Marsalis on piano and Nat Perrilliat on sax. Nat Adderley (along with brother Cannonball) used all three on his 1962 session “In the Bag,” to which Black contributed two compositions. The following year, Marsalis cut an underrated album of modern jazz called “Monkey Puzzle” this time out Black handled four of the seven compositions; including the intricate 5/4 piece Magnolia Triangle, which ranks as perhaps his greatest work. Black went on to play with Yusef Lateef and Lionel Hampton in the mid-'60s, although his career was interrupted by a stint in the Angola State Penitentiary (during which time he actually played in a prison band with pianist James Booker and saxophonist Charles Neville).
In the late '60s, Black paid the bills with R&B gigs around New Orleans, and in 1968 caught on at the Scram label as a house drummer. He played on Eddie Bo's Hook and Sling, helping to make it one of the great New Orleans funk singles, did session work with Fats Domino, Johnny Adams, The Dixie Cups, and soon took his place as one of the city's top drummers. Meanwhile, he continued to play jazz on the side as part of Ellis Marsalis' band ELM Music Company; they took up residency at Lu and Charlie's beginning in 1972 and became local favorites.
During the '70s, Black also led his own group, the James Black Ensemble, which often featured his longtime girlfriend Sister Mary Bonette on vocals. He attempted several times to record a full-length album, including once for the Sound of New Orleans label and another time at Allen Toussaint's studio, but the sessions never progressed beyond a few tracks.
Black continued performing in New Orleans into the '80s, still playing with Ellis Marsalis (as well as Marsalis' then-teenage pupil, Harry Connick Jr.); he also served as the drummer for the 1982 Marsalis Family album “Fathers and Sons,” and on the Ellis Marsalis’ “Syndrome.”
James Black died on August 30, 1988, in New Orleans.
In 2002, the Night Train label assembled a compilation of mostly unreleased tracks, many from Black's aborted LP sessions; “I Need Altitude” Rare and Unreleased New Orleans Jazz and Funk, 1968-1978, ran the gamut from heavy funk and psychedelic soul to soul-jazz, and featured several of the drummer's own vocals. In the spring of 2003, Ellis and Wynton Marsalis presented a program of Black compositions as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series, with New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad playing for James Black.