ALL FOR ONE
By Kalamu ya Salaam
When Creole French writer Alexander Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers and coined the phrase, “all for one, one for all,” he was not thinking of Black musicians in America wrestling with segregation in New Orleans. But the phrase struck a resounding chord in the soul of AFO founder Harold Battiste, Jr., who initially aspired to be a jazz musician, but who instead became the single most influential force in the development of late 20th century New Orleans jazz.
Harold Battiste had a vision so advanced that even when he articulated it, some people could not grasp the concept of Black people controlling the music they created.
“When we went to City Hall to get our license and legal paperwork, they kept saying, ‘so you want to open a record store.’ They just couldn’t believe that we wanted to start our own record company,” he said.
But, in the early sixties in the deep South, astounding as the concept of Black musicians owning their own intellectual and cultural creations may have been, Battiste had far more in mind.
“I guess you might say my emphasis was on ‘ALL.’ All meant owning the publishing. All meant scouting for new talent. All meant writing our own history. All meant, well, everything.”
AFO succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Within a few months, they produced a million-selling hit record, Barbara George’s “I Know.” They also released the first recordings featuring seminal New Orleans musicians Ellis Marsalis, James Black, Edward Blackwell and Alvin Batiste. Indeed, in one of those ironies that seem to characterize Black life in America, their success led to their demise. Major companies raided the AFO stable and tempting offers to relocate to the West Coast also depleted the AFO ranks.
Nearly 50 years later, Harold Battiste, Jr. is still a visionary. After producing both the persona and the early recordings of Dr. John, after working with Sam Cooke, after scoring a Hollywood movie in the sixties, and after being one of the first Black musical directors of a nationally televised, weekly music variety program, “The Sonny & Cher Show” (Battiste also produced all of the duo’s gold records), Battiste returned to New Orleans ready to reactivate AFO Records and ready to cultivate a new crop of jazz artists.
Battiste became a professor of music in the University of New Orleans Jazz Studies Department, under the leadership of Ellis Marsalis. Battiste released recordings featuring multi-reed musician Victor Goines (currently head of the Julliard School of Music’s jazz program), trumpet sensation Nicholas Payton, and legendary vocalist/educator Germaine Bazzle. Battiste also released the Silver Books, compendiums of AFO jazz compositions that included sheet music, background information, as well as composer biographies and discographies.
“My goal is to make this music and its history available to anyone and everyone who wants to know about the second 50 years of modern jazz in New Orleans,” Battiste said.
Although he is well past the prime age of retirement, Battiste continues to remake and renew AFO. Battiste has collected and produced the mother lode of New Orleans modern jazz. If you want to know how early Ellis Marsalis sounded, or if you want the sheet music for a James Black composition, or maybe you just want to read the bio of legendary baritone and tenor saxophonist Alvin “Red” Tyler (who was one of the founding members of AFO) Battiste’s revamped AFO Foundation has the answers to your questions. Harold Battiste and the AFO Foundation are keeping the history alive.
“We will have our website up soon and then you will be able to see pictures, hear and download music, order recordings, read biographies, and refer to exclusive interviews,” Battiste said.
Alexander Dumas said a mouthful when he coined the phrase, “all for one.” Thankfully, Harold Battiste digested the full significance of Dumas’ aphorism and created an archival feast of New Orleans music that one and all can acquire and enjoy.