Alvin Batiste

Alvin Batiste
Photo Credit: Jeffrey Kliman


Alvin Batiste

On this edition of Billy Taylor’s Jazz at the Kennedy Center, clarinetist and educator Alvin Batiste joins Dr. Billy Taylor, as these two masters of jazz take their captive audience to school. The show’s interactive format capitalizes on the intimate confines of the Kennedy Center Theater Lab, as the exquisite musicianship and wisdom of Alvin Batiste enthralls the audience. Accompanied by Dr. Taylor’s trio, Batiste opens the show by soaring through a version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" that would thrill even the Harlem Globetrotters’ Meadowlark Lemon.

Jazz history and theory freely funnel through the Louisiana-born Batiste. He not only plays the clarinet with unrivaled talent, but he also displays an unsurpassed knowledge for his art. Batiste teaches at his own Jazz Institute--part of Southern University in Baton Rouge. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonists Branford Marsalis and Donald Harrison, and bassist Chris Severin all studied under Batiste. Batiste credits clarinetist Jimmy Hamilton with his first lesson in jazz. As a young man, Batiste helped Hamilton prepare for weekly gigs at Booker T. Washington High School in New Orleans by bringing his equipment into the auditorium. There, Hamilton taught Batiste the value of chromatic scales, which Batiste admits, "I still use today."

Later, Batiste himself attended Booker T. Washington. He loved this high school experience and says that he lived a musically charmed life, despite the fact that segregation ruled the academic environment of New Orleans in the 1940s. At Booker T. Washington, legendary clarinetist Sidney Bechet’s musical principles inspired Batiste. Bechet taught Batiste the credo Alvin still plays by and teaches, "Whatever you practice, practice in all the keys." Batiste reminds the audience that Bechet, not Louis Armstrong, played the first composed blues solo ever recorded on Sidney’s "Blue Horizons" record. Then Alvin demonstrates that historic line for the audience.

Batiste recalls his first playing days and the musical lumps he had to endure along the way. For example, his first gig was with "Guitar" Slim for a measly $2. "Guitar" Slim used a clamped guitar, forcing Batiste to play difficult keys and thus put Bechet’s advice immediately to work. Next, Alvin received his "first college degree" playing with the legendary Ray Charles. Batiste fondly remembers being reprimanded by Charles in Detroit for playing a clarinet solo that stole the spotlight from the piano great. This discussion naturally leads into a swinging, bluesy version of "Ray’s Segue."

As a native of New Orleans, Batiste has a special appreciation for the city’s artistic heritage. He describes the inclusive New Orleans’ culture as a "model for global civilization" with jazz at its center. When Alvin recalls the New Orleans’ social and pleasure clubs of his youth, he helps trace the history of rag as it spilled into blues. Each social club promoted a particular national heritage and sponsored a band that played its respective military marches. When those social-club bands began to interact, the music evolved from military rag to New Orleans’ rag to blues. The African rhythmic influence was at the center of much of this musical evolution. Batiste and the trio pay homage to these New Orleans roots with their rhythmically alluring rendition of "Banjo Noir."

When an audience member asks Alvin how he acquired such a fine ear for harmony, Batiste wastes no time recognizing the influence of Sonny Stitt. According to Batiste, Stitt, not Charlie Parker, played the saxophone in a way that made harmonic accompaniment possible. Stitt’s playing allowed Alvin to recognize his own "intuitive consciousness." At another point, Batiste discusses the advice he gives his students, saying he reminds them to use "warm air" to fill their wind instruments. That warmth, displayed by such great clarinetists as "Big Eyed" Louis and Johnny Dodds, denotes the melodic sound of New Orleans. Dr. Taylor uses this conversation to inspire a harmonically pure rendition of the ballad, "Body and Soul."

This most intellectually fruitful edition of the show ends with Alvin Batiste paying tribute to Gershwin. Dr. Taylor and his trio join Batiste for a spirited rendition of "I’ve Got Rhythm."

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