I never knew him. I never saw him play. Only within the past few years did I become aware of his existence. But James Black has cast a spell on me.
I am haunted by the unexpected shifts in his compositions and arrangements, the restless creativity of his unquiet spirit, the unfinished business of hit-and-run sessions long unissued. As I listen to these songs, my mind combs through the fragments of his story, through the rare interviews and stray anecdotes, as I try to piece together an image of the man and a picture of his volatile and truncated life.
James Black: Who, according to legend, once set up his kit on a New Orleans sidewalk and played “duets” with a utility worker’s jackhammer. Who walked off the bandstand and into the New Orleans night when pianist Harry Connick Jr. couldn’t cut it on Black’s own “Magnolia Triangle,” the very first tune of the set.
(“The bass player and I just couldn’t keep up with him,” Harry told his audience before playing the song during a 1999 concert in Richmond, Virginia.)
James Black: Who wrote four out of seven tunes for Ellis Marsalis’ classic 1963 album Monkey Puzzle—intricate, harmonically rich songs like “Whistle Stop,” “Dee Wee,” “Monkey Puzzle,” and “Magnolia Triangle.” The band is Black, Marsalis (piano), Nat Perrilliat (tenor), and Marshall Smith (bass). The CD reissue (AFO, 1991) closes with a ten-minute live version of “Night in Tunisia” that burns as hot as any mainstream jazz performance I’ve ever heard on record. Black drives the group so hard that the stage seems in danger of collapse; on the explosive solo that ends the track, he sounds like at least two drummers.
“James…is probably the most aggressive and dynamic personality of the group. His playing reflects his personality very accurately. He is constantly bored with the present because the future is unexplored, and in his mind is in the unexplored future…” – Harold Battiste (circa 1963)
James Black was born February 1, 1940. His musically inclined family lived at 1215 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter, later moving to 1218 Ursulines Avenue. He received his first musical training as a student in Joseph A. Craig Elementary School.
“[The school band director] ask me what I wanted to play and I told him I wanted to play the drums. And this motherfucker told me he had 50,000 drummers already, so what else did I want? He ask me did I want to play the flute, and I told him no ‘cause the flute was for bitches. And I ain’t no bitch…”
(Above and all other James Black quotes are excerpted from the liner notes for the out-of-print box set New Orleans Heritage/Jazz: 1956-66.)
Instead, Black took up the trumpet and later studied piano. Said to have excelled on both instruments, he never recorded on either one. He began playing drums in junior high school.
“I was about two or three years behind [John] Boudreaux and Smokey [Johnson] and them cats…I had to play the trumpet to be in the school band, so I went on and played the shit they wanted me to play. But shit, I knew I was a drummer so I went on and played the drums anyhow.”
Upon graduation from Joseph S. Clark HS, James received a band scholarship (on trumpet) to Southern University in Baton Rouge where he majored in composition and music education. He also played r&b in a band with Nat Perilliat and guitarist Roy Montrell and was influenced by the playing of the great Ed Blackwell, best known for his work with Ornette Coleman.
“That was some interesting shit, the way [Blackwell] was playing…I asked him to let me sit in, ‘cos I’m a cheeky, bold black motherfucker!”
Just six months before graduation, James dropped out to take a gig with Ellis Marsalis and Marshall Smith at the New Orleans Playboy Club. (He later expressed regret over the loss of his diploma: “I’d rather have it and don’t need it than to need it and don’t have it.”) Six months later, the group moved to Ellis’ own club, The Music Haven—at that time, the only modern jazz venue in New Orleans.
In 1962, Black, Marsalis, and Nat Perilliat joined brothers Nat and Cannonball Adderley on the New Orleans recording sessions for Nat Adderley’s Jazzland LP In The Bag. James contributed his original compositions “Sister Wilson” and “New Arrival” to the repertoire, but poor sound quality renders his drumming nearly inaudible for much of the date.
On the last two tracks of the Fantasy CD reissue, “The Popeye” and “The Gospel Truth,” Black is suddenly and startlingly present. He plays pure second-line rhythms with joyful abandon, never consecutively repeating a single phrase or accent for the duration of the performances. His percussion is easily the most striking element of these pleasant r&b instrumentals, which were paired on a Riverside single and issued under the pseudonym of Spider Johnson & His Popeye Band. But Black’s playing is so free, so far beyond the rhythmic requirements of the dance floor, that—as one contemporary listener put it—“he effectively destroyed any chance of the record ever becoming a hit.”
In 1964, under the aegis of singer/pianist Joe Jones (“You Talk Too Much”), Black moved to New York as part of a group of Crescent City journeymen that also included guitarist/vocalist Alvin “Shine” Robinson. After falling out with Jones, the drummer played a few nights at Birdland with Horace Silver before successfully auditioning for Lionel Hampton.
“I worked for this motherfucker for a year and a half. I had a run-in with Gladys, his old lady [and also Hampton’s business manager] …I was on my two weeks’ notice because I wouldn’t play 4/4 on the bass drums, when I got a call from Yusef [Lateef]. So when my two weeks was up, I met Yusef in Washington, D.C. at the Bohemian Caverns. I stayed with him for a couple of years.”
Black recorded several excellent albums with Lateef for Impulse, although only the first volume of Live At Pep’s (originally released in June 1964) is in print at this writing. Lateef and trumpeter Richard Williams are in excellent form on these dates, as Black’s impeccable support allows both men to give their best. James Black also performs on Yusef Lateef’s Psychicemotus (Impulse, 1965), a studio date reissued by Verve in 2005.
“Yusef was another one of them cats who wanted you to be good. You know, like he was always trying to save you…Shit, I don’t need to be saved—I’m already saved.”
In 1967, James Black came home to New Orleans to live for the rest of his life. In the preface to a 1974 CODA interview, writer Val Wilmer noted that since his return, James had played “with saxophonist James Rivers, and with Fats Domino and Professor Longhair for a while although he never recorded with either performer. He did, however, record with Lee Dorsey, Irma Thomas, and the Meters, and for some time made all of Allen Toussaint’s sessions.”
An aura of mystery surrounds the music of (I NEED) ALTITUDE. The specific recording dates and exact personnel are unknown. But we know that in 1969, Black drummed on (one might say detonated) a session for Al Scramuzza’s Scram Records that brought forth one of the all-time New Orleans funk classics, Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling (Parts 1 & 2).” Towards the end of the allotted hours, the label owner was called away from the session and the musicians hastily recorded two of Black’s own songs, “Mist” and “Tune #6”—both included here. When interviewed decades later, Al Scramuzza stated that the ensemble included Eddie Bo (piano), Walter Payton (bass), Walter “Wolfman” Washington (guitar), and saxophonists Fred Kemp and “Shemp.”
(I NEED) ALTITUDE culls music from two other James Black sessions. Around 1976, four tracks from an aborted album project for the Sound of New Orleans label featured bassist Jim Singleton, pianist David Torkanowsky, and Earl Turbinton on saxophone. Approximately six years later, Allen Toussaint gave Black two days of “spec” recording time at the former’s Sea-Saint Studios. (As the Crescent City’s premier producer/arranger, Toussaint has said that he frequently called on James to play parts that other drummers couldn’t handle.)
At Sea-Saint, Black shared lead vocals with his long-time companion and stage singer “Sister” Mary Bonette. Today, she recalls the supporting presence of Torkanowsky, Singleton, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, and trumpeter Clyde Kerr—all of who gigged with “The James Black Ensemble featuring Sister Mary” at various times in the Seventies and Eighties.
“James wanted musicians that could read. He had everything written out for those sessions.” — Mary Bonette.
James Black died of an overdose in 1988, without ever seeing a record released under his own name. His last recording session, with singer Germaine Bazzle, was released the following year on The New New Orleans Music: Vocal Jazz (Rounder).
On February 1, 2002, a quartet led by pianist Eric Reed performed James Black’s compositions as part of a “Jazz Composer Portraits” series at Columbia University. “This concert,” wrote Ben Ratliff in the New York Times, “should be a fascinating attempt to highlight a musician whom we should have known better.”
“Everybody knew James was great. He just never got a break.” – Mary Bonette.
Readers of these notes will draw their own conclusions about the music herein. Suffice to say that “(I Need) Altitude” and “Storm In The Gulf,” to cite two examples, are unlike any funk, jazz, or jazz-funk you’ve ever heard before—from New Orleans or anywhere else. Yet this music could have come only from New Orleans…and only from the mind and soul of James Black.