Born: November 7, 1932 | Died: May 6, 2007 Primary Instrument: Clarinet
A music master, composer, arranger, educator and performer - Alvin Batiste defies description.
He is a Renaissance Man for the 21st Century.
He is a Music Pioneer who has contributed to every genre.
He is simply Batiste - one of the most distinctive and virtuosic of modern jazz clarinetists, and his name alone has become synonymous with taking the music to the next level and the next generation.
Although sometimes called a New Orleans clarinetist (his Columbia album even billed him as a Legendary Pioneer of Jazz), in reality Alvin Batiste is an avant-garde player who does not fit easily into any classification. Under-recorded throughout his career, Alvin Batiste was a childhood friend of Ed Blackwell and he spent time in Los Angeles in 1956 playing with Ornette Coleman....
The final day of the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrated the life and music of Alvin Batiste more poignantly than anyone imagined.
The modern jazz clarinetist, composer and educator was scheduled to share a two-hour set Sunday with veteran drummer Bob French at the AT&T/WWOZ Jazz Tent. Special guests Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. would sit in as a tribute to Batiste and French, two musicians whose influence far outstripped their fame.
But 13 hours before the performance, Batiste's wife and constant companion, Edith, checked on her husband as he sat in front of a television in their Uptown home. He did not respond. He had died of an apparent heart attack at age 74.
So Sunday's show functioned as a jazz funeral, but an especially joyous one.
It's so profound that the Creator chose this day to take him, said drummer Herlin Riley, a former Batiste student. Because now we could all get together in a celebratory fashion and pay homage to him.
Batiste was born in New Orleans in 1932. He was introduced to the clarinet by his father, who played traditional jazz. Batiste's modern approach to the instrument was derived in part from Charlie Parker albums.
He went on to largely define the improvisational role of the clarinet, an instrument generally associated with traditional jazz, in modern bebop. Along with Ellis Marsalis, Harold Battiste, drummer Ed Blackwell and others, he helped establish the modern jazz community in New Orleans.
He composed orchestral works and three operas, as well as the textbook The Root Progression System. He toured with or wrote songs for Ray Charles, Billy Cobham and Cannonball Adderley, among many others.
In college, he became the first African-American soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic Orchestra. He earned a master's degree from Louisiana State University in performance and composition.
Student teaching as part of that program introduced him to a new calling in the classroom. His most enduring legacy may be the scores of students he instructed. He co-founded the jazz studies program at Southern University of Baton Rouge, among the first of its kind in the nation, and was instrumental in the formation of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he continued to teach.
Indicative of his legacy, all three NOCCA seniors who performed as Batiste's band on Sunday have received scholarships to music conservatories.
He was the ultimate educator, performer, mentor, said Astral Project saxophonist and Loyola professor Tony Dagradi. He was all that rolled into one. There's nobody else in the world who did it as well as Alvin.
At Southern, Batiste's students included future American Idol judge Randy Jackson, pianist Henry Butler and saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. Batiste famously dismissed Branford Marsalis from the Southern jazz band, believing he had not yet committed himself to the music. Marsalis later credited that dismissal with helping him focus on his career.
Batiste taught Riley, who went on to play with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra, at Carver High School.
He was a perpetual student and a perpetual educator, Riley said. He would practice every morning when he woke up. He was still searching, still looking for something new in the music. And when he found it, he passed it on.
Connected to the music
Both French and Batiste recently issued CDs through Branford Marsalis' record label. Batiste took great pride in his new CD, Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste. Consisting mostly of his original compositions, it features Marsalis and Riley. Riley recalled that, after the band recorded the song Clean Air, Batiste shed tears of joy.
The music touched him that way, Riley said. He had that kind of connection to the music.
Word of Batiste's passing spread quickly among musicians. WWOZ-FM dedicated much of its Sunday broadcast to his music. Artists ranging from Allen Toussaint to modern jazz trumpeter Maurice Brown acknowledged Batiste's legacy on stage at Jazzfest.
he day's ultimate tribute turned out to be the show he would have starred in.
When he first received the news early Sunday, Jazz Tent coordinator Greg Davis briefly considered canceling the show. Then Davis, the co-founding trumpeter of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, just as quickly realized that the show must go on, if with a slightly different tone.
Some folks were making contingency plans about whether we should go on, Davis said. But this was going to turn into a real tribute to someone people genuinely loved. These musicians really loved Bat.
'We decided to keep on'
Batiste's band of NOCCA students -- bassist Max Moran, 18, pianist Conun Pappas and drummer Joe Dyson, both 17, and NOCCA graduate and alto saxophonist Khris Royal, 20 -- received word of his passing early Sunday.
They assembled in a trailer behind the Jazz Tent and rearranged their set to proceed without their instructor.
Mr. Batiste would have wanted us to play, so we decided to keep on moving, Pappas said.
They had performed with Batiste on Saturday at a festival in Baton Rouge. Batiste rarely shared a stage with his son Maynard, a piano player and attorney. But on Saturday, Maynard joined him on stage in Baton Rouge for what proved to be his final concert.
On Sunday afternoon in the Jazz Tent, Maynard delivered a brief eulogy for his father. Then his students went to work, opening with the Batiste composition Picou. Branford Marsalis soon joined in.
Batiste's niece and nephew, vocalist Stephanie Jordan and her trumpeter brother Marlon Jordan, teamed up for the ballad Here's to Life. Both were in tears by the song's conclusion.
Then drummer Bob French and his band took over, with Harry Connick Jr. on piano. French focused on the second part of a jazz funeral, when the tempo picks up and the musicians set free the spirit of the departed.
Forty minutes later, long past when Connick was scheduled to leave for his headlining set at the Acura Stage, he delivered his own eulogy. With Marsalis on soprano saxophone, Connick sang a slow, mournful Just a Closer Walk With Thee.
Then they celebrated one last time with Didn't He Ramble.
Later, during the all-star jazz jam that closed the Jazz Tent, nearly two dozen musicians and singers gathered onstage for a joyous I'll Fly Away. Jazz Tent decorum was set aside as people danced in the aisles and stood on chairs.
Onstage, Riley danced with a snare drum around his waist. Tony Dagradi, trombonists Troy Trombone Shorty Andrews and Big Sam Williams, trumpeter Maurice Brown and singer John Boutte all joined in the Jazzfest send-off for Batiste.
Although he's physically not here, I really believe this is what he would have wanted, Greg Davis said. This way, his fans got to share in the tribute.