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Alvin Batiste (11.7.32 – 5.6.07)

Like many of the guys from his generation, Alvin played everything but was classically trained, so all of his music was informed by that classical training. When Larry Combs, the retiring principal clarinetist in the Chicago Symphony, was in New Orleans for a while, Alvin asked him for a lesson. Larry told Alvin to play something, and Alvin played a bit of the Mozart Clarinet Concerto. After listening, Larry said, “That’s great. Do you play jazz, too?” After he heard Bat play a few songs, he then said, “There’s nothing I can teach you, but thanks for stopping by.”

Another attitude common toward Alvin and his contemporaries was that they didn’t look down on being educators because they had really good teachers themselves. Their teachers were disciplinarians, and as they got older they saw the value of that discipline-of asking more from students than students might ask of themselves. I think that the segregated society that Alvin grew up in played a part in that. As society had drummed the specter of inferiority into black people at that time, it really had meaning when a teacher told him just as insistently that he was better than people told him he was. That is one of the sad things missing in the minority community today.

Alvin had an academic brain, and one of his contributions was figuring out how to apply the cycle of fourths on a variety of chords. He pointed out that I sounded like him on one of my early recordings with Wynton, and he was right, because some of that approach definitely rubbed off on me, even though I try to avoid learning patterns of any kind. But technique was never enough for Alvin. As intellectual as he was, he was always keener on the spirituality that informs great music. That’s what separated him from the other great teachers I had.

It’s funny how the memory can play tricks. I was teaching at Alvin’s school [the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts] the day before he died, and he told his students that he took me to a national competition for classical music in Oklahoma and I won. But it didn’t happen exactly that way. I won the Louisiana portion of the competition, but they didn’t give me the prize at the nationals because I was only a freshman and they wanted the award to go to an older student. In any event, Bat was really proud. He also denied that he threw me out of his program at Southern University for preferring to play Grover Washington, Jr. jams for the ladies rather than apply myself; but whatever the specifics were, he did throw me out-basically because he knew that I was the kind of guy who would do the least amount of work I could in order to get by. And he was right, which is why I always thanked him for what he did.

Originally Published