they called him "mr. bat"

Tearful hugs filled the trailers that served as dressing rooms at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was near time for what would have been a celebratory double-bill concert on the event's closing day: Clarinetist Alvin Batiste and drummer Bob French, beloved local heroes, each with a new CD on saxophonist Branford Marsalis's label. But 13 hours earlier, Batiste's wife, Edith, had checked on her husband as he sat in front of a television in their Uptown New Orleans home. He didn't stir. He had died of an apparent heart attack at age 74.

"I can't even remember when I first met Alvin," said Branford Marsalis, who had been informed of Batiste's passing by a four-a.m. text message from his father Ellis. "He was like a big oak tree in the backyard, always there, always ready for you to lean on him."

Born in New Orleans in 1932, the son of a railroad worker and avocational musician, Alvin Batiste got his first clarinet from his father.

As a central figure in the small circle of forward-thinking jazz musicians that recorded for Harold Battiste's All For One (AFO) label, which included pianist Ellis Marsalis and drummer Ed Blackwell, Batiste helped establish the modern jazz community in New Orleans. But he recorded just a dozen albums during his half-century career. Like his close friends Ellis Marsalis and saxophonist Kidd Jordan, Batiste devoted much of his time to teaching; he schooled a long list of prominent players and helped forge a foundation for formal music education in his hometown, and in jazz in general.

Batiste's 1993 album Late (Columbia) arrived within a series titled "Legendary Pioneers of Jazz." In fact, Batiste was a pioneer of a deeper sort. While still an undergraduate at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, he performed as a soloist on a Mozart composition with the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony -- the first African American to do so. He was among the first African Americans to study at Louisiana State University, earning a master's degree in music. He co-founded the jazz studies program at Southern University of Baton Rouge, among the first of its kind in the nation, and was instrumental in the formation of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he continued to teach until his death.

"When I was in school at Southern," recalled Branford Marsalis, "I was trying to play Grover Washington Jr. to impress the ladies. Alvin kicked my butt out of the school." Marsalis now credits that dismissal with strengthening his resolve. Pianist Henry Butler recalled Batiste urging him to "improvise with more freedom and on a more serious level. "He was a guidance counselor," Butler said, "a guru, a father figure away from home." Saxophonist Kris Royal, who studied at NOCCA, was one of the many players that Batiste convinced to use the "double-cushion" method -- using the upper lip, instead of biting down on the reed. "But he didn't just change the way I played the instrument," said Royal. "He opened up to new ways of thinking about music."

In the jazz tent that Sunday, Bob French led his band through "Didn't He Ramble." Batiste's niece and nephew, vocalist Stephanie Jordan and her trumpeter brother Marlon Jordan, teamed up for a teary-eyed ballad "Here's to Life." Harry Connick Jr. played and sang an equally emotional rendition of the spiritual "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" in duet with Branford Marsalis. The NOCCA students who made up Batiste's last working band -- bassist Max Moran, 18, pianist Conun Pappas and drummer Joe Dyson, both 17 -- performed Batiste's "Picou," the first time they'd played the tune in public without him. By concert's end, some two-dozen musicians converged on the stage. The following Saturday, Batiste's casket was escorted by a second-line parade. Organizers were careful to ensure a traditional version -- slow hymns for the first dozen or so blocks, before releasing into more uptempo music and dance.

Yet Batiste understood tradition as something marvelously fluid. "Alvin would always be changing his methodology, challenging himself to grow," said Kidd Jordan. In the course of his career, Batiste played with Earl "Fatha" Hines, Cannonball Adderley and Ornette Coleman. Among the seven original songs on the new Marsalis Music disc is "Bumps," which contains some of the freest, most creative clarinet soloing I've ever heard.

Batiste's legacy challenges his hometown, whose flood-wracked school system struggles to rebuild, not to overlook the primacy of music education. It proposes to jazz educators around the world that formalized tradition need not be frozen in the past. And it reminds us all that the clarinet, raised so often to evoke early jazz, can point in a decidedly modern direction.

May 27, 2007 11:11 AM |

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