The smooth flow of Rivers, James Rivers
10th September 2012 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
James Rivers has long enjoyed broad appeal. The reedman, vocalist and New Orleans native knows how to please a crowd without sacrificing the integrity of the music or his talent. Having the ability to blow in many styles and on an array of instruments, Rivers, who performs every Thursday night at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, brings the people what they want.
“I do what I do,” Rivers says simply. “And what I do is a variety of music – I do jazz, I do blues, a little bit of everything. Like now, I’m even putting some country music in my repertoire. I think that’s what’s been keeping me going all these years.”
Rivers, who began playing clarinet at the Tremé’s Joseph A. Craig Elementary School when he was 14, is best recognized as a modern jazz tenor saxophonist. However, he’s also renowned for being a jazz man who performs on bagpipes.
“You don’t see too many guys playing the bagpipes and then there’s this black guy playing bagpipes,” he says with a laugh. “I got it from the ‘president,’ Rufus Harley. Rufus Harley was the first Black guy that played bagpipes. He’s one of the reasons why I took the instrument up. That’s why I call him the President. People be comin’ there (to the Jazz Playhouse) to hear me play the bagpipes. One time I didn’t bring it out and like this guy wanted to kill me. The word gets out that there’s this guy playing the bagpipes. That’s really the trump card for me.”
Rivers credits the older musicians who he came up under for his ability to judge a crowd’s preferences. “What you’ve got to do is to be able to read the room,” he explains. “There are feelers that I put out when I’m playing.”
Among the clientele at the Playhouse are some of the saxophonist’s older fans who used to go hear him back in the day at Sylvia’s where his gig would start at 3 a.m. There are also those who would regularly head to Tyler’s Beer Garden where Rivers performed weekly from 1978 to 1990. There too, the saxophonist would mix things up.
“I like to go to different extremes where I have my audience puzzled about where I’m coming from where and where I’m going to go next. I like to play maybe a jazz tune—I’m always going to play jazz—and right behind that come with a Jimmy Reed blues. I like to pick up a saxophone and then pick-up a harmonica and then I have a harmonica mounted on my flute.” (Rivers rigged up that unusual combo himself.)
The trump card of Rivers’ life though was music itself. Growing up in the 6th Ward, which the Tremé neighborhood was called in his era, Rivers recalls traveling around with some “unscrupulous characters.” The Joseph A. Craig band would often parade on nearby North Claiborne Avenue that was then—before the overpass was erected—alive with activity and lined with trees.
“Everybody’d be running saying, ‘Hey it’s Joseph Craig’s band,’ and I realized ain’t nobody running towards me and the thugs I was with,” Rivers vividly remembers. “I said wait a minute, something isn’t right here. So I went home and told my parents that I wanted to play music. Music bailed me out. I would have been in Angola or dead by now if I kept on that road. That’s why I went to Booker T. (high school) instead of Clark and started hanging uptown with nothing but musicians. Booker T. was the tops at that time,” Rivers adds mentioning fellow students and future stars like drummer Smokey Johnson, guitarist Al “Shine” Robinson, trumpeter Porgy Jones, Art Neville and Allen Toussaint.
Like most New Orleans jazz musicians, Rivers was active in the New Orleans rhythm and blues scene. After graduation from Booker T. Washington High School, he switched from clarinet to saxophone and never went back. It is his sax that is heard on such classic singles such as “Don’t You Just Know It” by Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns, “Carnival Time” by Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Frankie Ford’s hit “Sea Cruise,” Eddie Bo’s “Every Dog Has It’s Day,” a version of “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” by Allen Toussaint and others. Rivers also put out several 45 rpms under his own name for producer Senator Jones. In more recent years, the saxophonist went to his main squeeze of jazz in releasing 1996’s I’m the Man and 2001’s The Songs People Love to Hear.
The saxophonist has been leading his own ensemble, the James Rivers Movement, since the early 1970s. Onboard for his dates at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse are keyboardist Peter Cho, who’s been with band for 19 years, bassist Millard Green and drummer Mayumi Shara. He’ll also be invited as a guest on gigs and was recently heard blowing tenor on some wonderful sets with drumming great Herlin Riley that tonally and rhythmically spoke of New Orleans particular style of modern jazz.
“To my way of thinking, I can please everybody,” Rivers says of playing for the mixed crowd of locals and tourists at the Playhouse.”
That is just what James Rivers has been doing for his over a half a century long career. It’s difficult not to like a super-talented jazz playin’ saxophonist, flautist and bagpipe man, a soulful blues harmonica and singin’ guy and a musician who is aimin’ to please.
The Palm Court Swings
The Palm Court Jazz Café reopened last Thursday following its annual summer hiatus. The return of the friendly Decatur Street music club and restaurant is always celebrated by those traditional jazz loving locals who enjoy hanging at the bar as well as those visiting the city who can dine while listening to the music born of this city. This week the musical line-up includes: vocalist Topsy Chapman, Sept. 12, trumpeter Duke Heitger, Sept. 13, trumpeter Charlie Miller, Sept. 14, trumpeter, Lionel Ferbos, Sept. 15 and trombonist Lucien Barbarin, Sept. 16.
This article was originally published in the September 10, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper