In 1956, the city of Memphis, Tenn. held its annual Mardi Gras-esque Cotton Carnival. That year the festival was themed “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Meets the King of the Blues,” to show that local Memphis musicians could outrival those of any other city. A huge parade, with floats and performers, marched down Main Street to the docks at the Mississippi River waterfront, where two stages had been set up, one for B.B. King and the other for Elvis Presley. (At the time, it was still illegal for black and white musicians to play on stage together.)
Somewhere in the middle of those stages, perched on the precipice of history, stood a teenaged saxophonist from New Orleans, the second oldest of four brothers from a family destined to become music royalty.
More than half a century later, that saxophonist stood at Wendell’s old town hall here in the Valley, where he and his band once again headlined the benefit concert for this season’s Full Moon Coffeehouse under the name Charles Neville Jazz Quartet.
It’s been a long road from New Orleans to the Valley. And the stint in B.B. King’s band was one of many storied stops along the way.
“It was a statement that Memphis was happening,” recalls Neville of that Carnival long ago. “That it was home to the great black artist and the great white artist.”
Over the past half century, Charles Neville has played with many of music history’s biggest names, and in doing so, has woven himself into the fabric of American culture alongside everyone from Ray Charles to James Brown, Santana to The Grateful Dead, B.B. King to Allen Touissant to the Neville Brothers. Who needs Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon when you can have One Degree of Charles Neville?
“Elvis was a regular guy,” Neville continues. “He knew all the black musicians. He used to hang out on Beale Street. He and B.B. were friends.”
The soft-spoken Neville brother, nicknamed “the Horn Man,” has travelled widely, landing in New Orleans, New York, Eugene, Ore. and Huntington, Mass., where he has lived with his family in his wife’s hometown for close to 15 years.
But while the Nevilles are among the most notable names to come out of New Orleans, Charles has, over the past decade-plus, become a fixture here in the Valley. His quotation “I’d rather be in Wendell” greets surfers at the Coffeehouse’s website.
Neville’s quartet played the Northampton Jazz Fest last weekend, and on Oct. 9, they appear at the Paradise City Arts Festival. Two more shows in the area happen the following weekends, in Huntington and at Williams College.
Given the “Horn Man’s” diverse musical background, there is no telling what selections a Charles Neville performance will include. Last year at Wendell, he concluded his first set with a rousing, New Orleans-style version of “Nature Boy” that brought the crowd out of their seats to dance. This year’s set ended with a driving, calypso-infused remake of the Dave Brubeck classic (written by Paul Desmond) “Take Five.”
“It’s a Tito Puente cover” is the description of the son’gs unique remake offered by Neville, who is apparently still not quite willing, even after all these years, to take full credit for what was a brilliant performance.
Now nearly 73, Charles Neville exudes a distinctive timelessness—wisdom accrued over the years through life’s many experiences combined with the boundless energy needed for continued artistic expression.
“We didn’t have money for instruments at first, so we sang,” Neville says of his New Orleans childhood. “We didn’t know any kids growing up who didn’t have a musician in their family.”
Eventually he started playing the drums. “Then I saw Louis Jordan in a film clip,” he continues. “Those were like music videos before music videos. He was playing the tenor [sax], and I thought, ‘He looks like he’s having so much fun.'”
Neville’s great aunt agreed to buy him a horn if he made honors that year. He was in the eighth grade. He’s been playing the saxophone ever since. And his musicianship has afforded him the opportunity to pursue other interests, as well as the ability to play with an impressive cross-section of famous performers.
“We did a few benefit tours for Amnesty International as the Neville Brothers,” he says. “Our manager, Bill Graham, was involved with them. He also managed the Grateful Dead, Santana. He brought the [Rolling] Stones to America.”
More recently, Neville has been involved with Voice of the Wetlands, a conglomeration of New Orleans musicians, including his brother Cyril, supporting protection of coastal Louisiana. “This was before BP,” he explains. “Part of the effect of the storm surge from Katrina was deteriorated wetlands.”
Neville also teaches tai chi. “I’ve been practicing for 30 years,” he notes. “I teach when I can. Mostly in Huntington.”
He also teaches music in the Valley, giving saxophone lessons to local students, just as he first did some 50 years ago.
“I was the head of the music department at Angola,” Neville says of his time in Louisiana’s infamous prison. “I played alto, and taught other inmates.”
Busted for possession of two joints, Neville was sentenced to five years at Angola. He served three and a half years before making parole.
“I was fortunate to just get five years,” Neville recalls. “I knew other guys who got 15 years. Back then, marijuana was considered a narcotics charge.”
After six months of hard labor, the prison put him back to work as the musician he was. “The main band was the jazz band. And I was in charge of all the organized entertainment,” Neville explains. “We had to play for all the events. The Fourth of July, Easter, Christmas, even at football games between inmate teams.”
No matter where he was, no matter what else he was doing, Charles Neville has always kept playing music, and he has no plans to stop.
Last year, Neville released his newest album, Tree of Life, with Youssoupha Sidibe, the West African kora (harp) virtuoso. “We recorded it eight years ago,” he explains. “But it just came out.” Sidibe has recently moved back to the area, and the two musicians are in the process of booking dates in the Valley.
Neville’s collaboration with Sidibe is the latest expression and exploration of a new genre in a career that, spanning several decades, has covered virtually every form of popular music in 20th-century America, from jazz to blues to R&B and beyond. But one of Neville’s favorite musical experiences remains traveling with the Rabbit Foot Minstrel Show back in the ’50s.
“This was before the death of the minstrel shows,” Neville notes.
Playing in the blues band Gene Franklin and His Houserockers, Neville and the other members of the show performed all over the South, setting up tents wherever they went. “We were like a black circus,” he explains. “We had great dancers who couldn’t get jobs with the white ballets.”
It was the beginning of Neville’s own musical carnival, which, thankfully, has been traveling for decades.