Only in New Orleans
23rd July 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
It’s been quite a week in New Orleans even considering this city’s penchant for events. We mourned the great loss of our beloved “Uncle” Lionel Batiste in the only way we—and he—know how—second line! Almost every night since his passing on Sunday, July 8, brass bands paraded in the streets of the bass drummer’s stomping grounds of the Tremé neighborhood.
Always the entertainer, Uncle Lionel offered us one last glorious gift. The coffin stood empty at the Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home where Batiste was to “lay” in state. To the astonishment of all, he stood in his usual dapper attire – his gold watch on his hand, the signature sunglasses, his cane – as if to greet those who came to say goodbye. The response by most was one that Uncle Lionel surely would have desired. There were more smiles than tears.
On Tuesday night, Lionel Ferbos celebrated his remarkable 101st birthday at the Palm Court and was on the bandstand to toot his own horn.
Meanwhile, another generation of musicians were learning the jazz ropes at the 18th edition of the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp where the great, Grammy-winning saxophonist/composer/arranger David Murray took time out of his incredibly busy schedule to act as artist-in-residence.
Murray, a jazz giant who has released an amazing 150 albums under his own name, resides in Paris. He often does workshops when on tour in Europe though there, he explains, the students are usually young adults. “What I like about it here is that young adults are mixed with the youth,” Murray says of the Jazz Camp where he’s gotten to work with students as young as nine years old. “I like that. They have to start somewhere and they might as well start right in the middle of it – with musicians that are 75, 55, 35 and 10. That’s a great feeling because it gives you a sense of infinity and continuum. The future and the past are all entwined. There is so much learning going on. In an hour hundreds of questions are answered.
Murray, 57, was omnipresent in New Orleans last week. Beyond his work with the kids at the camp, the saxophonist headed to The Music Shed studio to add Gregory Porter’s vocal track to a new recording by Murray’s group the Black Music Infinity Quartet. Directing the session, he showed no signs of his hectic schedule, as, with shoes off and glasses dangling, he meticulously and patiently worked with Porter to perfect his musical composition, “Monster Love,” with lyrics by poet Ishmael Reed.
At Wednesday night’s jazz camp benefit concert at Cafe Istanbul, a fine venue in the St. Claude Avenue’s Healing Center, it was time for Murray to blow. He performed with members of the impressive faculty that is headed by saxophonist Kidd Jordan, an old friend of Murray’s and an impetus for him coming to New Orleans. In the late 1970s, Jordan invited Murray along with fellow saxophonists Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake down to perform a concert and do a workshop. That blossomed into the formation of the internationally renowned World Saxophone Quartet. “It just seemed to click,” Murray says, “and we made 37 and a half years out of it.” Jordan recorded with the WSQ, filling in for Lake, on its 2011 release Yes We Can.
“We have history – Kidd is such a legend,” says Murray who, after pushing the envelope as the soloist on the classic “Body & Soul,” blew head-to-head with Jordan on some free style jazz. Murray also expressed his admiration for Jordan’s leadership at the Jazz Camp. “They really have that discipline and it all starts with Kidd.”
On Friday night, Murray was scheduled to perform with the camp’s students who will play one of the saxophonist’s original composition “Dreams.” He’ll then return to Europe to continue the tour with his big band with special guest Macy Gray.
In between all of this, Murray took time out to pay his respects to Uncle Lionel Batiste by stopping by the funeral home. Later he stood outside to watch the second line strike up.
David Murray, one of the finest saxophonists of our era, has been incredibly prolific in his musical output in a vast array of settings. His schedule of gigs, recording dates, workshops is equally mind-boggling. So how does he do it all?
“I just keep breathing,” Murray says, noting that he sleeps about four hours a night. “Have saxophone will travel,” he adds with a laugh. “I just keep a positive outlook and try to stay healthy.”
Betty Shirley – Renaissance Woman
Betty Shirley is not just a singer, she’s a jazz singer. She could also be considered a Renaissance woman as her talents include visual arts and jewelry making.
“I like jazz,” declares Shirley, who performs at Snug Harbor on Sunday, July 21, with her trio—pianist Chuck Chaplin, bassist Richard Moten and drummer Julian Garcia. “It’s a very challenging art form that I think is so beautiful. It’s our heritage. While I was comin’ up, I realized this music, it tells a story, it has feelings.”
Born in Mississippi, Shirley grew up in Chicago where she was exposed to some of jazz’s finest. “At the time I was coming around there were great horn players – Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Miles Davis. I kind of ran away to New York to go to school and get into this music.”
She attended the Staten Island Community College, earned a degree in art, took private lessons and jumped into the scene to play with the likes of saxophonist Benny Green. Encouraged by some New Orleans musicians she met, Shirley headed south.
A creative vocalist who knows her way around jazz’s essential improvisation, Shirley meant to keep her focus on singing. It was pianist/educator Ellis Marsalis who urged her to get involved with teaching.
“He was instrumental in that,” Shirley says. “He said, ‘Betty, why don’t you go back in the schools and teach. They could use a good artist here.’”
She entered the public school system but, she explains, that after Katrina the artists were all let go. She was qualified to return as a math or English teacher but that wasn’t her desire. “I wanted to be in voice or visual arts,” she says, “because that’s my love.” She presently works with the Young Audiences program, an after-school and summer course of study for elementary school-age children “They’re learning to be young entrepreneurs and young artists.”
She also keeps busy designing and creating jewelry. “I like making things that can bring out the beauty in someone,” Shirley offers. “So I make earrings that create another atmosphere around whoever wears them.” She sells her wares at art markets and stores and to individuals.
“I’ve always dreamed of just being a singer,” Shirley admits. “Singing for me is an expression of myself and it’s an opportunity for me to reach out and bring something that is giving of myself. I chose this music years ago and I just love it.”
This article originally published in the July 23, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.