Harold Battiste, New Orleans saxophonist, composer and educator, dies at 83
Harold Battiste Jr., the prolific saxophonist, pianist, producer, arranger and educator who helped shape music in New Orleans and beyond for more than six decades, died early Friday (June 19) after a lengthy illness. He was 83.
Mr. Battiste founded A.F.O. Records, the first New Orleans label owned by musicians, which released Barbara George's 1961 hit "I Know (You Don't Love Me No More)." He collaborated with Sam Cooke on two of the soul star's landmark singles. After moving to Los Angeles in the 1960s, he served as Sonny and Cher's musical director, and helped launch Dr. John's career.
In 1989, he returned to New Orleans and joined the jazz studies faculty at the University of New Orleans, mentoring and inspiring countless students.
"He has a glass-half-full approach to life," Ed Anderson, a former student who went on to become an assistant professor of music and director of Dillard University's Institute of Jazz Culture, said in 2009. "He was always encouraging. He motivated us to keep pushing forward, trying to get better. We all saw this old, wise man sitting there quietly. People love to be around Harold."
Mr. Battiste was born Oct. 28, 1931, in Uptown New Orleans. In the early 1940s, as he recalled in his 2010 memoir "Unfinished Blues," the family moved to the then brand-new Magnolia Housing Development. Their new apartment was close to the Dew Drop Inn on LaSalle Street, the famed nightclub and hotel. Already he sang in a junior choir at church, and had recently acquired his first clarinet.
"I could hear the music coming from there on my front porch and in my living room," he wrote in "Unfinished Blues." "It was the music of the Black stars of the day: lots of R&B, a little swing, a little jazz, a bit of jump. It was all about the rhythm, and I couldn't help but be drawn to that music because it spoke directly to my spirit."
Mr. Battiste graduated from Booker T. Washington High School and went on to earn a degree in music education from Dillard University in 1952.
In the 1950s, he performed in bands at the Dew Drop Inn and on Bourbon Street, sometimes alongside his friend Ellis Marsalis. He worked as a public school music teacher, as a New Orleans-based talent scout for Specialty Records — he auditioned a very young Irma Thomas — and as an arranger for recording sessions. He helped shape Sam Cooke's 1957 smash "You Send Me" and, years later, played piano on Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," which was recorded at RCA Studios in Los Angeles in early 1964. He also contributed to Joe Jones' hit "You Talk Too Much" and Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya."
In 1961, he launched A.F.O. ("All For One") Records out of a desire to give musicians, especially studio musicians who received only flat fees for playing on hit records, a bigger piece of the pie. He recruited five fellow African-American musicians for the A.F.O. board.: Saxophonist Alvin "Red" Tyler, bassist Peter "Chuck" Badie, drummer John Boudreaux, cornet player Melvin Lastie and guitarist Roy Montrell.
They played in the label's house band and produced records. They released an album called "Compendium" with vocalist Tami Lynn that was half jazz, half R&B, with the company's philosophy spelled out in the liner notes. In addition to Barbara George's million-seller, which hit No. 1 on the R&B charts, the label's releases included "Monkey Puzzle," the first album by Ellis Marsalis.
"If Louis Armstrong and his generation were to be compared to Adam, I would consider Mr. Battiste and his generation to be Moses," Anderson said in 2009. "They were the second wave. They changed the direction of jazz. They started the modern jazz movement in New Orleans.
"They took it from the traditional style that you'd hear at Preservation Hall and brought it into the modern vein by being influenced by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Fusing with that New Orleans, down-home sensibility, they created their own strain of jazz."
But A.F.O. could not replicate the early commercial success of "I Know." In a 1993 interview with The Times-Picayune, Mr. Battiste said an unscrupulous record distributor from New York lured away Barbara George, A.F.O.'s biggest star. In need of additional investors, income and opportunity, the label's principals moved to Los Angeles. But A.F.O. ran out of cash and dissolved.
"None of us, including myself, really understand the inner workings of American capitalism and the business," Mr. Battiste said in 1993, shortly after relaunching A.F.O. The music business "is just like any other business. And we're coming from a place of emotion and love, and that's not necessarily compatible with business and economics."
However, in Los Angeles, Mr. Battiste's versatile skill set — he could write and arrange, as well as play multiple instruments — led to eclectic collaborations. He worked with Sonny Bono and Cher for 15 years. He arranged, and contributed the distinctive soprano sax melody, to their 1965 hit "I Got You Babe." He served as the musical director for the duo's TV show, "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," which launched in 1971. He later became musical director for Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis.
In the late 1960s, fellow New Orleans expatriate Mac Rebennack looked up Mr. Battiste in Los Angeles. Mr. Battiste got Rebennack work at recording sessions with producer Phil Spector and Sonny and Cher, among others. He helped Rebennack conceive of the Dr. John persona, and produced the first Dr. John album, "Gris-Gris," in 1968. The collection of hoodoo funk, featuring "I Walk on Gilded Splinters," found an audience among psychedelic rock fans. Mr. Battiste also produced and arranged the second Dr. John album, 1969's "Babylon."
He eventually took a job as director of jazz studies for the Coburn School of Music of the University of California at Los Angeles. When Ellis Marsalis became head of jazz studies at the University of New Orleans in 1989, Mr. Battiste returned to his hometown to help mold the next generation of the city's musicians.
In his later years, Mr. Battiste revived A.F.O. and sought to introduce and mentor young musicians in a project dubbed Harold Battiste Presents the Next Generation. He also dedicated himself to preserving and promoting the music of New Orleans' early modern jazz masters via "The Silverbook," a collection of compositions by the likes of James Black, Ed Blackwell, Ellis Marsalis, Nat Perrilliat, Red Tyler and others. His own compositions included the swinging, Count Basie-like "Alvietta Is Her Name" and the percussive "Marzique Dancing," both named for his daughters.
In 2009, the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra performed a tribute concert of Mr. Battiste's works, orchestrated by Anderson. "Bravo Mr. Batt!" also featured the Dillard University Choir, pianist Henry Butler, percussionist Bill Summers and vocalists John Boutte and Wanda Rouzan, an indication of breadth of his catalog.
Among other honors, he received OffBeat Magazine's Best of the Beat Lifetime Achievement in Music Award in 2009.
Mr. Battiste suffered a stroke in 1993 that limited his ability to play saxophone. In recent years, his health declined steadily.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete.
Music writer Alison Fensterstock contributed to this story.