Alvin Batiste once kicked Branford Marsalis out of the jazz program at Southern University. “I was trying to play like Grover Washington Jr. to impress the ladies,” Marsalis recalled, amid the blur of musicians in one of the trailers that served as dressing rooms for last month’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. “Alvin kicked my butt out of the school.”
He now credits that dismissal with strengthening his resolve. And nearly30 years later, Marsalis returned the favor by producing what would turn out to be Batiste’s final recording, Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste—now an epitaph for a singular clarinetist and master educator.
Death, and the transformative rituals surrounding the passage from earthly existence into a hereafter, anchor New Orleans cultural life, often in dramatic fashion. Clarinetist Michael White recently told me how bassist “Papa John” Joseph, a cousin on his mother’s side, played an extended solo on “When the Saints Go Marching In” one night in 1965 at Preservation Hall. The crowd went wild. Papa John fell to the stage floor, never to rise again.
More than 40 years later, 13 hours before Batiste was to take the stage on the final Sunday of this year’s Jazzfest, his wife Edith went to check on him: He’d fallen asleep in front of a television in their uptown New Orleans home. Alvin didn’t stir. He’d died of a heart attack at age 74. So what had been billed as a CD-release party—for Batiste’s new album, and that of another local hero, drummer Bob French—became the first of several memorials for a fallen icon.
Born in New Orleans in 1932, Alvin Batiste got his first clarinet from his father, who played the instrument a bit. Although the clarinet was a staple of the city’s music at the time, Batiste wasn’t much interested in learning it until he heard Charlie Parker’s bebop anthem “Now’s The Time” at a friend’s house. “My reaction was immediate,” Batiste once told me. “I wanted to know if I could do that on clarinet.”
His investigation lasted a lifetime, always with a modernist bent. In 1956, he helped start the American Jazz Quintet in New Orleans with drummer Ed Blackwell, pianist Ellis Marsalis, saxophonist Nat Perrilliat, and bassist Chuck Badie. He was a central figure in the small circle of musicians that recorded for Harold Battiste’s All For One (AFO) label. Yet 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, from Wynton Marsalis to Donald Harrison, Herlin Riley to Henry Butler.
He paved the way for younger musicians in other respects, too. While still an undergraduate at Southern University in Baton Rouge, Batiste became the first African-American soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony. He was among the first African-Americans to study at Louisiana State University, earning a master’s degree in music. He cofounded the jazz studies program at Southern University of Baton Rouge (one of the earliest such programs), and was instrumental in the formation of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he continued to teach until his death.
Saxophonist Kris Royal, who studied at NOCCA, was one of the many players that Batiste convinced to use the “double-cushion” method— covering both the upper and lower teeth with your lips, instead of biting down on the reed. “But he didn’t just change the way I played the instrument,” Royal noted. “He made me think about music in a different way.” Drummer Troy Davis, who followed Batiste’s lead into both performing and teaching, added, “He taught me everything that was hip, valid, and worth knowing.”
In the jazz tent that Sunday, Batiste’s niece and nephew—vocalist Stephanie Jordan and her trumpeter brother Marlon Jordan—teamed up for the 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—18-year-old bassist Max Moran, along with 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.
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.
“Alvin was steeped in New Orleans tradition,” clarinetist Michael White told me. “But he was no traditionalist. He was an explorer who used tradition as a tool.” As clarinetist Don Byron put it, “Alvin played clarinet in New Orleans, but he wasn’t old-timey.” In the course of his career, Batiste played with Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cannonball Adderley, Ray Charles, and Ornette Coleman. At the 2003 Jazzfest, he proved adept at improvising within Coleman’s “harmolodic” system; with his own book, The Root Progression System: The Fundamentals of African American Music, Batiste codified his own approach. In the ’80s, he toured with the innovative “Clarinet Summit,” which included John Carter, Jimmy Hamilton, and David Murray. His had range, too—on 1993’s Late, Batiste’s “Banjo Noir” is based on a 19th-century Creole folk song; among the seven Batiste originals on Marsalis Music is “The Latest,” which delves into John Coltrane’s pan-tonal palette.
The day Batiste died, the folks at the WWOZ-FM Jazzfest tent asked me to drop in and say a few on-air words about him. I wondered aloud if Batiste’s passing would compel anyone to consider the value of music education: In post-Katrina New Orleans, with communities hanging in limbo and a school system in shambles, it’s important to remember what gave rise to all this music.
At Batiste’s funeral, saxophonist Kidd Jordan turned to the casket of his close friend and played “For ‘Trane,” a tune Jordan composed the morning Batiste called to let him know Coltrane had died. Jordan told me that he’ll carry a bit of Batiste with him when he comes to New York to play at the Vision Festival later this month. “Alvin would always be changing his methodology, challenging himself to grow,” he said. “That’s what we do.”