For most of his 74 years, Alvin Batiste was rooted by two passions: his wife, Edith, and his clarinet. Edith wrote poetry as they raised three children. His poetic voice was on the dark reed, full of soaring lines that summon comparisons to John Coltrane, the saxophone modernist famous for a style known as "sheets of sound."
The sounds of Batiste ended prosaically on the last Saturday night of Jazz Fest. His heart stopped beating as he dozed in front of a TV set. He had a major venue the following afternoon at the Fair Grounds for the new CD, Alvin Batiste on the Marsalis Music label's Honors Series, produced by Branford Marsalis. Along past midnight, Edith could not get him into bed. She called her brother, Maynard Chatters, a trumpeter and former band director at Dillard.
A younger trumpeter, Marlon Jordan, was driving home from a gig when his cell phone rang. His mother, Edvidge -- sister of Edith and Maynard -- reported the bad news. Marlon drove straight to uncle Alvin's just as his sister, Stephanie Jordan, the singer, was making her way to the Uptown house on Delachaise Street in response to a similar call.
By 3 a.m., 20 relatives had converged to sit with Edith and wait for Alvin's final departure.
Having vacated a FEMA trailer several months earlier, Alvin and Edith were back in the house, their second home, in the old hometown. They had spent more time here since his retirement in 2002 after three decades of teaching at the Jazz Institute (now named for him) at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Where other musicians might have savored the free time, Batiste plunged into post-retirement by teaching high school students at NOCCA.
Music was the center of gravity in the sprawling clan.
Edith and Edvidge Chatters married experimental jazzmen who became music professors -- Alvin and saxophonist Edward "Kidd" Jordan, the longtime director of the jazz program at SUNO.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, Kidd and Edvidge, Stephanie and her son, other Jordan and Batiste kin and Los Hombres Calientes percussionist Bill Summers went to the Batiste home in Baton Rouge. Marlon Jordan ended up on the roof of his house in eastern New Orleans for four days before being rescued by helicopter and evacuated to a military hospital in Birmingham, Ala., where he was treated for dehydration and broken ankles.
"I'm going to remember him showing me how to be a man and loving me as a nephew," Marlon reflected. "I was one of his students and got to see a different side by spending the night and eating with him and at family functions. I will miss him as more than a musician. He was like a second father. He would teach me every time he saw me. He'd say, 'Go get your horn' after Sunday dinner, and we'd practice duets."
Marlon, Stephanie, sibling Rachel Jordan (a violinist with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra) and their parents lived in eastern New Orleans. All had homes wrecked in the flood, but all are rebuilding and plan to move back.
Alvin Batiste played on several tracks on his niece's 2005 breakout CD, Marlon Jordan Introducing Stephanie Jordan: You Don't Know What Love Is.
Stephanie was barely a teenager when she saw a computer for the first time on a visit to the Batiste home in Baton Rouge. "Uncle Alvin had a keyboard attached to his TV and he was dealing with computer technology pre-DOS," she told Gambit Weekly. "He was always innovative. I think that's the one thing I learned from him -- always be aware of what's going on with the next thing -- expand the creative process. As a singer I will always take chances because of being around him. We've all learned to take chances, utilize technology, never be afraid of the next step. That's my approach to music. I'm not afraid of anything I want to sing."
If that sense of experimentation cut against a professorial stereotype, the reality is that Alvin Batiste, a large man with restless energy, limited his output as a recording artist precisely because of his teaching. Many artists strive to release a CD every year or two. (Wynton Marsalis has been known to do several in as many months.) Batiste had less than a dozen over more than 50 years of performing.
Still, the quality of his recording work seems destined for a boxed set to capture the arc of his journey through jazz impressionism.
"One of the fascinating things about Alvin is that he was a pioneer of modern jazz but stuck it out in the land of traditional jazz," says Xavier jazz professor and traditional clarinetist Michael White. "His accomplishment is even greater, when you consider that the clarinet is not well liked or accepted in modern jazz. For the longest time, he was one of the few African-American clarinetists in modern jazz. Yet he played with Cannonball Adderly and Ornette Coleman. Alvin believed in constant experimentation; he was an advocate of what he called 'the continuum' -- that jazz should change and you should always look for new directions."
In his long career, Batiste earned fellowships from NEH and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, The National Association of Jazz Educators Humanitarian Award, the International Association of Jazz Educators' Lifetime Achievement Award, Southern University's Distinguished Service Award and the Louisiana Governor's 2005 award for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education.
And yet, for all of those establishment credentials, Batiste had a deeply experimental side as an artist.
"For bebop musicians, the clarinet was marginalized," says Tulane Hogan Jazz Archive curator Bruce Boyd Raeburn. "Charlie Parker Bird was so dominant that the saxophones became the influential reed instruments. ... Alvin found a great voice on his instrument. To me, he's like the John Coltrane of the clarinet. He opened up the possibilities of that instrument in the free jazz context. But everyone knows him as an educator."
Ironically, from his teaching position in Baton Rouge, Batiste became a catalytic force in developing a generation of musicians -- some local, others not -- whose works constitute a post-bebop New Orleans impressionism.
"Mr. Bat was the teacher who loved to teach," recalls saxophonist Wess "Warmdaddy" Anderson, a former student who performed with Wynton Marsalis and is now a recording artist in his own right. Anderson teaches music at Michigan State, with a permanent home in Baton Rouge.
Raised in Brooklyn, Anderson turned down a scholarship in Boston at the prestigious Berklee College of Music for the chance to study at Southern. "The joke at Berklee was, you graduate and you can't find a place to play -- you've got to go on the road to prove your chops," explains Anderson. "I wanted to go somewhere and learn the craft of playing. [Batiste's] classrooms were hands-on. He'd show you something and then take you to the Hilton in Baton Rouge to play for a convention, or drive down to Snug Harbor in New Orleans. You played on-the-job training."
SNAPSHOT, 1982: Seeking an interview for a book-in-progress, I spent several days on the phone with Batiste, trying to nail down a time. He wanted to help, but a foreign concert tour was looming. He was busy. Come on this day, he said, no that day -- wait, come this other day at exactly such-and-such a time. I drove to his house in Baton Rouge; Edith directed me to a studio on the outskirts of town. A bearish guy with a radiant grin, Batiste greeted me like a lost relative and said he wouldn't be long. "Leaving for France tomorrow, gotta wrap up some things. Watch."
Watch -- said in a tone of authority, suggesting that you'll get more than you thought.
The session was behind schedule. I watched. He was like a hunter tracking wild boar -- crossing and criss-crossing the studio, resetting vocal arrangements, studying the playback, demanding more precision on the horns, dispensing orders in a firm-yet-patriarchal manner to young musicians who held him in awe. We'll do the interview over dinner. When I left at midnight, he was still at work. Nobody had ordered out.
Born Nov. 7, 1932, in New Orleans, Alvin Batiste was the son of a railroad worker and avocational clarinetist who gave the boy his first instrument. A product of the city's public schools, he graduated from Booker T. Washington High in 1950 and went on to Southern University in Baton Rouge. As an undergraduate, he won a competition to perform as a soloist on a Mozart composition with the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony -- the first African-American student to do so. In 1954, he graduated from Southern. That summer, he toured with the Ray Charles Orchestra and in September began teaching music at McDonogh 35 Senior High. Later he became one of the first African Americans to study at LSU, where he earned his master's in music.
His reputation as a bebop stylist spread to New York, where he began making trips to perform, and he recorded with Cannonball Adderly. Back home, he became a central figure in the coterie of modernists in New Orleans who recorded on Harold Battiste's AFO (All For One) label: Ellis Marsalis, Ed Blackwell, James Brown, Nat Perilliat and Melvin Lastie among others. In 1966, A.B. Spellman published Black Music: Four Lives and made passing reference to Batiste -- "now in New York, where he is regarded as an underground giant of the clarinet" -- at the very time he was in Baton Rouge working with the university's marching band. In 1969, he founded SU's Jazz Institute, which, over the years, drew a line of young talents because of "Mr. Bat."
Herlin Riley, a drummer who grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, says he "knew about Alvin Batiste from my uncles." They included trumpeter Mel Lastie, saxophonist David Lastie and drummer Walter "Popee" Lastie, all now deceased.
Riley, who drummed on the final Alvin Batiste CD, continues: "When I was in high school, I got to meet him and hang around him a little bit. He was doing Jazz Artists in Residence -- this was in 1973, before NOCCA -- and he would drive down from Baton Rouge. I was going to Carver High School [studying music] under Miss Yvonne Busch. Alvin would come down three times a week. Herman Jackson, the drummer, was going to school up there; Julius Farmer was the bass player who has since passed away. Also Henry Butler was there. I got to meet them. That was part of the dedication I experienced from him early on. ... And Mr. Bat would practice all the time. Even during 1974, Miss Edith would talk about Alvin 'shedding' for an hour and a half" -- meaning out in the woodshed, practicing.
The Alvin Batiste CD includes lyrics by Edith on "My Life As a Tree" and his son Maynard, an attorney and musician, on the songs, "Everloving Star." Another cut, the instrumental "Bumps," is the nickname of Alvin's grandson.
"When we finished that track ["Bumps"] Alvin was crying," recalls Riley of the final production. "He was really choked up, pulled out his handkerchief. I said, 'What's the matter, Mr. Bat?' 'Oh the music's so good,' he said. 'So, so good.' I didn't see him act that way before. When I saw Maynard at the last set [at Jazz Fest, honoring Batiste the day after his death], I told him that story about the studio and we both kinda broke down over it. Alvin Batiste was such a dedicated man."
Riley was one in a succession of players who went to Southern to study with Batiste. The jazz professor steered his better students to Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Center jazz program in New York, where Riley would become a regular performer. Recording the final disc with Branford Marsalis, his former student, on the Marsalis Music Label, was the closing of a circle for the clarinetist.
"I used to call him daddy," recalls Wess Anderson. "Branford told me to go study with him in '82. I stayed till '88. I became very close with him and his wife. It wasn't just professor-student -- it was like family. From the first time I met him, he took me through the whole step of registering for school. A professor doesn't have to do that. ... When I finished school, Mr. Bat made sure I got to meet Wynton."
The career paths that moved from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to New York revolved around Batiste, Ellis Marsalis at UNO, and Kidd Jordan at SUNO. As mentors, each man had his own style, his own approach to the jazz tradition and his own set of contacts for students who worked the hardest.
"Jazz pedagogy is really not scientific," Batiste told me in 1989. "It's theoretical. Each one of the personalities involved with a program gives it something different. ... As long as you can get the content of knowledge in the jazz legacy, and have a chance to experience the time-tested procedures without psychologically arresting the creative process, then you have something that's nurturing."
His recordings in the 1980s included Musique D'Afrique, which marked a phase in which he matched the ranging clarinet lines with African percussive rhythms, and Bayou Magic, which included a cut with Edith reading her poetry. The sinuous melodies that Batiste spun off in his solos, from one recording to the next, seem as natural as beads of sunshine rippling on a brook.
And yet for all his paternal warmth, the message he drove home to his students was blunt. "He was all about the work ethic," says Donald Harrison Jr., the alto saxophonist who studied at Southern in 1978 and '79 after going to NOCCA and Nicholls High School, with Kidd Jordan as a private instructor.
"Jordan's universe was to let each person find the most natural thing for them to do," continues Harrison. "Alvin developed The Root Progression System [a textbook], that was similar in approach but got you to develop your hearing in all directions.
"You learned to get up in the morning with the music ritual -- play the long tones, practicing scales, parts of the classical pieces," explains Harrison. "I was having trouble learning circular breathing. He took me outside and showed me a hosepipe. He said to think of my air like the water and how it flowed. He would make up things to help you understand what he was talking about in terms of music and how to achieve it."
By the end of the week after his death, with plans underway for a wake and funeral at Gallier Hall, Alvin Batiste's final presence would follow the few musicians so remembered at the city's chief ceremonial temple -- Danny Barker and Ernie K-Doe.
Of the many friends and family making plans for those events, two would not attend. Stephanie Jordan was due to perform in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center for a Ladies in Jazz concert series, with a band led by Marlon.
"I got the blessing of my family to do the concert in Washington," Stephanie said early last week. "My heart will be at the funeral but I know Uncle Alvin would understand. He encouraged me from the day I decided to be a singer. I was floored when he said, 'I want you to come sing with me at Snug Harbor.' In my mind, Snug is the jazz club in New Orleans. For him to say, 'I want you on my bandstand,' meant more than I can say. He invited me to sing with him at Jazz Fest, too. Even though he's my uncle, he was a real musician. One of the greatest compliments he gave me was, 'You are a world-class singer. Keep going. Don't have any doubts.' I love that man and will miss him every day here on."
Jason Berry is author of the novel Last of the Red Hot Poppas.
- Scott Saltzman
- Batiste blows his clarinet in the Jazz Tent as the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
- Sydney Byrd
- Throughout his career, Batiste played with some of the top names in jazz. Here he plays a concert with pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines, whose jazz recordings with Louis Armstrong are considered among the most important of the 1920s. Hines died in 1983 at the age of 80.
- Brian Hammell
- Batiste (second from left) with NOCCA students Max Moran, Conun Pappas and Joe Dyson Jr.
- Sydney Byrd 2007
- Batiste in a study at his home in Baton Rouge.
- Scott Saltzman
- Branford Marsalis plays in front of a large photo of Alvin Batiste during a tribute set in Batiste's honor at Jazz Fest.