Pianist Jesse McBride rarely finds himself at a loss for words. But when asked to explain what compels his devotion to the second 50 years of New Orleans jazz, he hesitates.
"It's hard to explain why you love something," he says about working with his band, followed by a long pause. "It's the melodies, the rhythms, the harmonies, the people, the cultural and historical perspectives and connections."
More than a decade after taking the reins of The Next Generation from his mentor, Harold Battiste, McBride has become a leading advocate for the preservation of modern New Orleans jazz. His ensemble focuses on the work of composers like Battiste, Clyde Kerr Jr., Ellis Marsalis, Alvin "Red" Tyler and Alvin Batiste. As a bandleader — and as a teacher at Tulane University's music program — McBride also endeavors to pass along some of the higher-level lessons he learned while studying under Battiste.
"The Next Generation cats aren't my students, [but] I want them to be thinking, to be engaged," McBride says.
To keep them on their toes, he looks to the way Battiste and his peers approached music in their heyday.
"I never know what we're going to play," he says, noting that when players are forced to perform on the fly, they realize they have to learn everything in their leader's repertoire. "That teaches you to be incredibly prepared. At a certain point, a lot of these guys become bandleaders, and I want them to know how to develop their music."
The way McBride sees it, that ethic is no longer the norm.
"The cats in the generations before us knew all the music; whatever the gig called for, they'd learn it and go play it," he says. "New Orleans music is so diverse. There's always Professor Longhair and all the New Orleans R&B cats and Eddie Bo. All of these people are influenced by the totality of New Orleans music. That's the thing I'm trying to help these cats understand. We don't just do 'modern straight-ahead [jazz].'"
No figure in the canon of New Orleans music history better represents that holistic perspective than Battiste himself. Now 82, the saxophonist, composer, producer and arranger created The Next Generation after returning to New Orleans following a long career making hit records in the pop, blues and R&B worlds. He balanced those endeavors as a jazz performer and composer, recording for AFO Records, the black-owned label he pioneered in 1961. For Battiste, The Next Generation was a way of ensuring the work of modern New Orleans jazz masters, including those on his label, would continue to thrive.
In addition to The Next Generation's set at the Fair Grounds, the band will pay homage to Battiste, who's slated to receive a Jazz Hero award from the Jazz Journalists Association on April 30. As part of the award celebration, the group will perform music from Battiste's body of work during free shows at the Louisiana Music Factory and the Prime Example.