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).