With the publication of 'Unfinished Blues' music legend Harold Battiste no longer is living the unexamined life

With the publication of 'Unfinished Blues' music legend Harold Battiste no longer is living the unexamined life
June 8, 2010
By Alison Fensterstock

If Harold Battiste weren’t such a pack rat, the annals of music history would suffer a serious loss. Happily, the visionary arranger, composer, producer and reed man saved two decades’ worth of day planners — the pages of some of which are reproduced in his new autobiography, "Unfinished Blues" — as well as letters, notes and other ephemera going back to the mid-’50s.

Harold Battiste’s ‘Unfinished Blues,’ published by The Historic New Orleans Collection, is equal parts chronicle of a singular musical career and journey of personal discovery.
Harold Battiste & Friends “Unfinished Blues” book release
What: The New Orleans music legend and A.F.O. Records founder celebrates the publication of his autobiography with a cocktail reception and live conversation with editor Karen Celestan and music writer Ben Sandmel, plus a concert by Harold Battiste & Friends, including the Ellis Marsalis Trio.
Where: Reception and discussion at the Historic New Orleans Collection's Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres St., 504.523.4662; concert at One Eyed Jacks, 615 Toulouse St., 504.569.8361.
When: Reception is Tuesday, June 8, from 6-8 p.m. with the concert following directly after.
Tickets: Tickets to the reception are $150 and include a signed copy of “Unfinished Blues,” a CD featuring Battiste’s work and a ticket to the concert.
Concert-only tickets are $10 in advance, $15 day of show.
"Most of my life, I’ve been writing essays and things like that," Battiste said. "Just to keep up with what I was doing. As far as back in the ’70s, there was a little book you could get at a place like Office Depot, called the Daily Reminder. Every year, I would buy one of those and I would keep notes on what was happening in my life, in my business and in my family."
The idea for turning his files into a book came about more than eight years ago, at the suggestion of poet Kalamu ya Salaam, who was running a writers’ workshop.
"So I brought a lot of my writing over to them, to let them check my spelling and stuff like that. And they suggested, after reading the stuff that I’d written, they said, ‘You ought to try to write a book.’ "
Two of Salaam’s students, Cassandra Lane and Karen Celestan, began working with Battiste, fleshing out the Daily Reminder notes and saved letters with long, taped interviews. Battiste’s papers are now archived by The Historic New Orleans Collection, which published "Unfinished Blues."
Battiste has been behind some of the most enduring and popular music of the mid-20th century, from Ellis Marsalis’ "Monkey Puzzle" LP to the creation of the Dr. John character and his landmark 1967 "Gris-Gris" album. In 1961, Battiste founded the visionary A.F.O. Records, probably the first black-owned collective label and publishing company in the U.S. After meeting Sonny Bono in the late 1950s, when both men worked for the Los Angeles-based Specialty Records, he wound up as Sonny and Cher’s longtime musical director for television and tours.
Quirky, entertaining details pepper the text of "Unfinished Blues." For example, Marsalis did not share the driving on the American Jazz Quintet’s first road trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles. Battiste’s handwritten application to the Nation of Islam twice was rejected because of spelling errors and lack of neatness. A promotional copy of Joe Jones’ "You Talk Too Much," which Battiste co-produced and arranged, was mailed to Fidel Castro. (Castro received it and apparently didn’t get the dig; Battiste received a form letter of thanks from Cuba.)
But between the lines of Battiste’s vivid tales of the music and television business in 1940s and ’50s New Orleans and 1950s and ’60s California, a more intimate tale emerges: an intense, self-reflective narrative of an African-American music professional, husband, father and provider working to fulfill those roles at a time when the definition of each was changing drastically. "Unfinished Blues" is full of subtle and poignant memories of navigating the shifting boundaries of race and gender in the ’60s and ’70s.
As a 21-year-old music teacher in Louisiana, Battiste was addressed as "boy" by a school board member — he recalls the incident two decades later, when he’s flummoxed by giving orders to a white chauffeur, while on tour with Sonny and Cher. He also looks back ruefully on his inability to respond to his wife, Alviette’s, frustration with her increasingly absent husband (the two divorced in the late 1980s) and the gulf that her desire to work outside the home created between them. "The feminist/Women’s Movement hadn’t reached us yet," he writes.
Nearly a decade younger than New Orleans’ first crop of postwar musical giants, Battiste looked up to pioneers such as Dave Bartholomew. He recalls trying his best to mimic Lee Allen’s signature R&B sax sound on Specialty Records sessions in New Orleans while he was working as a talent scout and producer for the label. But his love was modern jazz, and many of his Daily Reminder notes reflect the struggle he felt internally between bread-and-butter pop jobs that gave his family security and the less lucrative projects that let him soar creatively.
As he ricocheted between New Orleans and Los Angeles, directing "third- and fourth-rate" musicians in Sonny and Cher’s road band, he tried to find time for outlets such as "Alone Together," a collaboration with fellow A.F.O. founder Melvin Lastie, or a still-unfinished project inspired by an anthropology text, "African Genesis Suite." But there often were feelings of having gone too far afield from the work he wanted to do. Looking back on 1975, the year he suffered a mild heart attack, Battiste muses, "All I had done since 1957 had been off on a tangent from the real Harold Battiste."

Harold Battiste was touring with Sonny & Cher as their musical director when they appeared at the Blue Room in the Fairmont Hotel in 1970
"I didn’t leave New Orleans to go write music for Sonny and Cher," he said in an interview. "I thought I was going to be a jazz musician.
"Ellis Marsalis and Ed Blackwell and I went out there together. But I was the only one who was married and had a son by then. So when I got out to California, my first thing was to get a job. I got a job at the post office. Most of that work I did was just so that I could support my family."
According to Battiste’s afterword, the intimacy of his revelations came about in large part due to the guidance of his editor, Karen Celestan. He writes, "Karen would ask some personal questions and push me to talk about what I felt regarding certain aspects of my life … all of this talk about deep stuff that I either never thought about or didn’t want to think about.
"For example, choosing words to express what I felt during the time of the divorce was impossible. I didn’t have them. I tried, but nothing felt right. I did hear melodies, but no words."
The process of looking again, and more closely, at the sum of 60 years’ worth of personal and professional choices was deeply emotional.
"I sent the book to them, and they brought it back to me to proofread," he said. "And that’s when it brought tears to my eyes to read. I had never seen my life in a package like that … to discover myself."
The tale of Battiste’s journey to canny self-knowledge is one of the most arresting part of the story, making "Unfinished Blues" a more compelling work than the average music-business career recap. In the book’s closing sentence, Battiste writes: "I’ve been back in New Orleans since August 2008. I’m still here, but I am tired! By coming home again, I got to meet Harold Raymond Battiste Jr. He got lost in Los Angeles, but New Orleans found him."
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