A Modern Kind of New Orleans Jazz In Town

JAZZ as we know it began in New Orleans. Black musicians may have been improvising a jazzlike music in other cities and towns in the early years of this century, but Buddy Bolden, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, Louis Armstrong and the other innovators who stamped their identities on the new music and breathed life into it were all New Orleans men.

Tonight and tomorrow night, at the Public Theater, a specially assembled group of New Orleans jazzmen, including the celebrated drummer Ed Blackwell and the formidable young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, will be performing. They will not be playing the traditional jazz that most listeners still associate with the Crescent City. Although they are proud of and well versed in the rich heritage of their hometown, they are thoroughly modern musicians.

Ed Blackwell has made many recordings with Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and other innovators, and Wynton Marsalis records for Columbia. But most of the modern musicians in New Orleans have been ignored by record companies and jazz writers, and so has the New Orleans modern jazz scene. In fact, most jazz fans are surprised to hear that New Orleans has a modern-jazz scene and are more surprised to learn that New Orleans musicians played a key role in the development of free jazz in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.

Why have musicians as gifted as the pianist Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste – called the greatest modern-jazz clarinetist by musicians as diverse as Ornette Coleman and Cannonball Adderley – become forgotten men of jazz? The public image that New Orleans has cultivated since the traditional jazz revival of the 1940’s is at least partly to blame. The city’s Chamber of Commerce, its Bourbon Street clubs and bars, and institutions like Preservation Hall have all encouraged the notion that time somehow stands still there, that traditional jazz (or Dixieland as it is sometimes erroneously called) still reigns supreme.

That simply isn’t so. It is true that commercialized traditional jazz is the only brand of jazz heard in the French Quarter’s tourist traps. But as more of the old-timers die off, they are replaced by younger musicians who play ‘‘When the Saints Go Marching In’‘ only because they have to in order to make a living. Some of these younger musicians would rather be playing rhythm and blues or soul music, but most of them would rather be playing modern jazz.

Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis and Ed Blackwell, who are appearing at the Public Theater this weekend along with Mr. Marsalis’s sons, Wynton on trumpet and Branford on saxophone, are all natives of New Orleans. They began playing together there in the mid-1950’s, when the city was the rhythm-and-blues capital of America. Bourbon Street was already a tourist mecca, but for young black musicians, the desirable jobs were with such rhythm-and-blues band leaders as Dave Bartholomew, who backed Fats Domino, Little Richard and other singers on records that had sold spectacularly and were beginning to appeal to white teen-agers as well as to blacks.

Ellis Marsalis’s first musical appearances were as a rhythm-andblues saxophonist. He had memorized the frenzied tenor saxophone solo from Roy Brown’s ‘‘Good Rockin’ Tonight,’‘ an influential hit that was recorded in New Orleans in 1947, and when he began working with some other youngsters in a band called the Groovy Boys, he found that this solo always excited audiences. He left the Groovy Boys to play with the Johnson Brothers Band, replacing Plas Johnson, the saxophonist and future Los Angeles studio musician. But he was becoming more and more interested in jazz and in the piano, and by the mid-50’s, when he began playing with Ed Blackwell and Alvin Batiste, he had put his saxophone away. A Drummer to Be Emulated

Mr. Blackwell had also played in various rhythm-and-blues bands, but he was developing a fresh and fascinating style that would by the end of the 50’s make him the city’s most emulated jazz drummer. New Orleans has long been known to musicians as a drummer’s town. Its percussive tradition dates back to pre-Civil War days, when it was the only city in America that allowed African slaves to manufacture and play drums.

After the emancipation, African-derived drumming and call-and-response singing continued to flourish in New Orleans’s black neighborhoods, and in the early years of this century African polyrhythms and syncopation became important parts of jazz. Ed Blackwell grew up listening to the African rhythms of the black Mardi Gras celebrations and to the syncopated parade drumming that accompanied the brass bands, and he worked the traditional rhythm patterns he heard into a freer, more flexible modern-jazz context.

Alvin Batiste was still a student, but already an accomplished clarinetist, when he became the first black musician to appear as a soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic. Later, he worked as a saxophonist with Ray Charles, Guitar Slim, Smiley Lewis and other rhythm-and-blues stars. But by the mid-50’s he was concentrating on his first love, the clarinet. It was around this time that Mr. Batiste, Mr. Marsalis, Mr. Blackwell, the bassist Richard Payne and the tenor saxophonist Harold Battiste formed the American Jazz Quintet, which played a kind of advanced chamber jazz.

This quintet recorded an album that was released some years later in a limited pressing, but at the time there did not seem to be much of a future in playing contemporary jazz in New Orleans, so Mr. Marsalis, Mr. Blackwell and Harold Battiste left for Los Angeles. There they ran into a saxophonist from Fort Worth who had met Mr. Blackwell while passing through New Orleans in 1949. The saxophonist’s name was Ornette Coleman and, according to Mr. Blackwell, he was already playing free jazz in Los Angeles in 1956. Most Los Angeles jazz musicians thought he was a madman and would leave the bandstand whenever he had the nerve to get up and play, but Mr. Blackwell was intrigued, and the two men shared a small apartment in Los Angeles for a few months. The Call From Coleman

Ellis Marsalis returned to New Orleans to help his father run the family business, a motel, but Mr. Blackwell stayed on in Los Angeles. When he returned to New Orleans, he played in a few rhythmand-blues and rock-and-roll recording sessions, but his style was too adventurous to fit in. Meanwhile, Ornette Coleman had arrived in New York and was turning the jazz world upside down with his revolutionary free-form music. When the drummer Billy Higgins left Mr. Coleman’s group, the saxophonist sent for Ed Blackwell, who got to New York in time to play on some of the most influential jazz albums of the 1960’s -’‘This Is Our Music,’‘ ‘‘Ornette!’‘ and ‘‘Ornette on Tenor.’‘ He also performed and recorded with Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Randy Weston, John Coltrane and other top musicians.

Mr. Blackwell has lived in the Northeast ever since. But Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste prefer New Orleans, where they are active as musicians as well as educators (Mr. Batiste directs the Jazz Institute at Southern University in Baton Rouge). Wynton and Branford Marsalis have been making names for themselves on the competitive New York jazz scene.

Wynton Marsalis is still in his early 20’s, but he is a remarkably resourceful trumpeter with a huge, brassy sound and impeccable control in all registers. He has a thorough knowledge of traditional and contemporary jazz styles, but by inclination he is a be-bopper, the most spectacular young inheritor of the modern trumpet tradition that begins with Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro and includes Clifford Brown, Booker Little, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard. He is also an accomplished classical player; like Alvin Batiste, he appeared as a soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic while still a student. Marsalis in Fancy Company

Art Blakey, whose Jazz Messengers band has included Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard, heard Wynton Marsalis in New Orleans several years ago and asked him to join the Messengers. Musicians soon began passing the word along that Mr. Blakey had discovered another exceptional trumpeter, and before long Herbie Hancock hired Mr. Marsalis to play in a quartet that also included Ron Carter and Tony Williams. This is fast company, but Mr. Marsalis was ready, and he has continued to work with the finest musicians in jazz. Mr. Hancock, Mr. Carter, Mr. Williams and Branford Marsalis, an accomplished and creative tenor saxophonist, played on ‘‘Wynton Marsalis,’‘ his first album for Columbia.

The young trumpeter’s second album for Columbia involved his brother and his father and is called ‘‘Fathers and Sons.’‘ One side features the father-and-son team of Von and Chico Freeman, both tenor saxophonists from Chicago, and the other side is a showcase for the Marsalis family, with original compositions and arrangements by Ellis Marsalis. The album is the elder Marsalis’s first appearance on a major record label.

The family ties that bind the Marsalises should make this weekend’s concerts particularly warm and relaxed. But the modern jazz musicians of New Orleans constitute a kind of extended musical family. All of them have endured adversity and indifference in their hometown and all share a heritage of street parades, jazz funerals, Mardi Gras chants and other New Orleans music that has few parallels in other American cities. Now, finally, they are getting the chance to show New York what they can do, not as individual sidemen or group leaders but as a hometown team. They will be assisted by the bassist Mark Helias. Shows are at 9 tonight and 9 and 11 P.M. tomorrow. Tickets are $7.50 and are available through the Public Theater box office, 598-7150.

By Robert Palmer
Source: The New York Times

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