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Paint It Black

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"He took his music really seriously, and I thought that kind of dedication was interesting to portray, and yet on the flipside, he was kind of a f--k-up. These days, jazz musicians are very much in the mode of Wynton Marsalis; they're all dressed well and they're not that kind of hustler. His story is definitely from when jazz musicians aren't as respected as they are now."

WWOZ DJ, radio documentarian and Gambit Weekly contributor David Kunian is talking about drummer James Black, the subject of his newest radio documentary, Guardian of the Groove: New Orleans Drummer and Composer James Black. This is his eighth such project examining New Orleans' musical history, and the show will air on WWOZ-FM (90.7) at 10:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17; 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19; and noon Wednesday, Dec. 22.

Black rose to prominence in the early 1960s playing with Harold Battiste, Dr. John and Irma Thomas, among others. He moved to New York City to record and tour with artists such as Yusef Lateef, Freddie Hubbard and Cannonball Adderley, but by the start of the '70s he was back in New Orleans, where he lived and played until he died in 1988.

For Guardian of the Groove, Kunian spent a year interviewing more than 40 people who knew Black from all phases of his career, including Ellis Marsalis, with whom Black played on Marsalis' 1961 The Monkey Puzzle. He also found talking to Charles Neville useful because "he's a great guy and has a great perspective and he has a memory for things that I'm amazed he remembers."

Kunian chose Black as a subject because of his influence. "I see his imprint on modern jazz in New Orleans," Kunian says, listing the reasons: "All the (members of) Astral Project played with him and was very influenced by his whole attitude. He worked in all sorts of interesting meters that you don't usually see jazz tunes in, and he, like a lot of New Orleans drummers, could get a lot of sounds out of one drum." For the documentary, drummer Herlin Riley played in the studio to help demonstrate what made Black special.

The premiere parties for Guardian of the Groove at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and at Lounge Lizards will feature highlights from the show as well as the James Black Tribute Band assembled by pianist David Torkanowsky. The Lounge Lizards party is also a benefit to raise money for a headstone to mark Black's grave in Resthaven Memorial Park on Old Gentilly Road.

"In the litany of drummers in this town, Black may have been the best one," says Kunian, "and that's saying a lot. I thought [his compositions were] great examples of complex, modern jazz, (with an) upbeat, New Orleans feel to the melodies. His tunes brought you in."

Once, WCKW-FM 92.3 was the home of classic rock in New Orleans and Walton & Johnson in the morning, but times have changed. The station underwent a number of format changes including all-1980s and light adult contemporary, but starting Nov. 18, 92.3 became WDVW-FM: "Diva Radio, Music for the Diva in You."

According to Dave Siebert, vice president and marketing manager of Citadel Broadcasting, it's the first such station in the country. "We did some focus groups -- two or three, actually -- and came up with an area that was underserved," he says, referring to professional women from ages 28-42. To reach that audience, there are regular features on travel, therapy and beauty, including advice from Rachael Hayes Gaylle, beauty editor for Cosmopolitan. The hourly Diva Glamour Report provides tips on makeup and clothes, though it's a little disconcerting to have host Katie Block introduced by a voice-over announcer who sounds like he also hypes monster-truck rallies.

In three hours of listening, the most contemporary song played was "Miss Independent" by Kelly Clarkson, recorded in 2003. Evidently, divas like their music generally upbeat, leaning heavily toward the '80s and '90s. "We try to make it fun," Siebert says, and with mothers in mind, he adds, "It's 'G' rated."

For news on Johnsinclairradio.com and reviews of CDs by Lil Jon & the East Side Boyz, Ying Yang Twins, Mos Def and Daniel Johnston, see "Opening Act" online at bestofneworleans.com.

For Guardian of the Groove, David Kunian spent a year interviewing more than 40 people who knew the New Orleans drummer James Black from all phases of his career.
  • For Guardian of the Groove, David Kunian spent a year interviewing more than 40 people who knew the New Orleans drummer James Black from all phases of his career.

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