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Clarinetist Alvin Batiste Dies at 74

Alvin Batiste, a New Orleans-born clarinetist who played in modern settings far removed from the swing and Dixieland music usually associated with his instrument, died Sunday from an apparent heart attack. He was 74.

Batiste was born in NOLA in 1932, attending Booker T. Washington High School and then Southern University in Baton Rouge. Shortly before beginning at Southern, he was chosen to be a guest soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic. While in college he met tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan, who would also apply his traditional musical training to the avant-garde, and the pair performed together in both school marching bands and jazz bands prohibited from performing on-campus, among them The Dukes of Rhythm. Batiste served in the military briefly following his graduation, toured (even playing baritone sax in Ray Charles’ band) and then played with Ornette Coleman in Los Angeles in 1956. (Coleman would hire Batiste’s boyhood companion, the drummer Ed Blackwell, to perform in his quartet a half-decade later.)

Batiste returned to Louisiana, and along with pianist Ellis Marsalis, tenor saxophonist Harold Battiste, bassist Richard Payne and Blackwell became part of the American Jazz Quintet in the late 1950s, a group that was uncharacteristically modern for a New Orleans-based band. In the era of N’Awlins R&B stars like Earl King and Lloyd Price, this quintet played a highly personalized take on bop and hard-bop that employed the soulful rhythmic sensibility of Bourbon Street alongside the innovations of 52nd Street; Batiste was in particular an admirer of Charlie Parker. The group reunited in full in 1987 for the Black Saint release From Bad to Badder, where Batiste and co. turn in an almost 16-minute-long version of the Batiste original “Edith,” a song the clarinetist composed for his wife, the poet Edith Chatters Batiste. The couple had been married for 53 years when Batiste passed on Sunday.

But Batiste didn’t earn his living primarily from performing music. Rather, he taught extensively in Louisiana, creating Southern University’s innovative Batiste Jazz Institute in 1969. His students at Southern included bassist/composer/producer Randy Jackson and saxophonist Branford Marsalis. Citing a lack of commitment, Batiste once kicked Marsalis out of the University’s jazz ensemble, though the two men maintained congeniality and respect throughout the years (Marsalis even produced and guested on the clarinetist’s final album). Batiste also taught and mentored the N’Awlins fonk-style pianist Henry Butler.

Because of his work as an educator in Louisiana, Batiste’s discography is relatively scanty. Two of Batiste’s most available recordings are the 1993 Columbia CD Late-a cleverly titled overdue ovation and a fine example of Batiste’s mixture of blues- and bop-based jazz and creative improvised music-and his recent swan song, an entry in the Marsalis Music Honors… series. Writing in JazzTimes‘s May 2007 issue, critic Will Smith remarked of the latter album: “[The CD is] a treat for listeners as well as fans of the clarinet, an often-treacherous instrument not generally employed in modern jazz-and Batiste has largely tamed his instrument’s maverick tendencies,” adding later, “Batiste’s darkly mellow clarinet sound is beautifully displayed throughout.” As a sideman his credits run a gamut that reflects the trad-jazz and blues roots he never surrendered even as he experimented with free music. Batiste recorded on sessions led by Cannonball Adderley, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Cobham, Wynton Marsalis and others. Batiste also performed with Texas-born clarinetist John Carter as part of Carter’s Clarinet Summit during the mid-to-late 1980s, and recorded for the India Navigation label as a leader in 1988, resulting in Bayou Navigation.

Among the many awards Batiste received were the International Association for Jazz Education’s Lifetime Achievement Award and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Division of the Arts.

He was to play the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival last Sunday with drummer and fellow New Orleanian Bob French. Batiste will lay in state tomorrow at Gallier Hall, located at 545 St. Charles Ave. in New Orleans.

He is survived by his wife, three children and 12 grandchildren.

Originally Published