By Patrice Theard
Special to the Sentinel
“Falling In Love” with Music Legend, Former Angeleno, & New Orleans Native Harold Battiste Jr. on a Cozy Sunday Afternoon in L.A.’s Baldwin Hills, as Part of Jazz Appreciation Month
“I’m falling in love with Harold Battiste”, gushed one of the many guests at the Club Theard Book Signing & Tribute, held Sunday, April 17, 2011, in honor of the life and body of work of music legend Harold Battiste Jr., and in celebration of his award winning book, “Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man”.
Paraphrasing the gorgeous, melodic, moving and melancholy song, “Falling In Love”, written by Battiste Jr. in 1964 and recorded by Sam Cooke for RCA that same year, and played on CD to the delight of the Book Signing & Tribute guests, those and similar sentiments (another said “That man touched my heart and one point I had to fight back tears”) about Harold became resounding expressions shared passionately and constantly during the intimate gathering that was held on a comfortable and clear day in the beautiful neighborhood of Baldwin Hills.
Hosted by Dr. Lowell Theard and Ms. Debbie Dixon at their home, affectionately called Club Theard because of their love for music and hosting of music performances (Dr. Theard is a practicing medical doctor and longtime jazz pianist), the Book Signing & Tribute brought together an eclectic group of music lovers including a beloved politician, corporate leaders, renowned musicians, music composers, school teachers, university professors, physicians, firefighters, filmmakers, entrepreneurs, homemakers, and more.
They came from near and far traveling to the event not only from Los Angeles communities but from San Diego and New Orleans, all to meet, learn from, obtain the autographed copy of the book about, and be in the midst of, the brilliant, the talented, the spiritual, the mentor, the master, the coveted music man upon his return to Los Angeles where he once lived..
The afternoon event began as a festive indoor and outdoor soiree with guests enjoying live jazz by the spirited Stevo Theard Jazz Quintet, and New Orleans style fare by The Creole Chef, while Dr. Battiste Jr. had conversations with and signed books for people. Guests purchased the books (which sold out) at the event from the visiting representatives of the book’s publisher Historic New Orleans Collection, Sarah Doerries (editor) and Alison Cody (art designer).
The tribute portion of the event took place in the living room of Club Theard which showcases visual art depicting jazz legends including Billie Holiday, Sonny Rollins, Dizzie Gillespie, Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis.
Dr. Theard welcomed and thanked guests for attending and shared an inspiring glimpse of his memories of childhood in New Orleans’ Magnolia Projects with Harold Battiste, and a summary of the impressive music achievements (and successful artist collaborations) of Battiste including Sonny & Cher, Sam Cooke, and Dr. John to name a few.
Dr. Theard described Battiste’s impact on jazz icons including the Marsalis family, and jazz education including that he started the University of New Orleans Jazz Department with Ellis Marsalis.
Battiste facilitated anticipation in the room as he talked about the cultural impact of the song “You Send Me” which Harold arranged for Sam Cooke and RCA, and he introduced the extraordinary live performance of the song by the Jazz Quintet, with the lush solo vocals by Stevo Theard, being performed, among many other Battiste songs during the event, in tribute to Harold.
Retired Congresswoman Diane Watson attended the event and delighted Harold and the guests providing a moving tribute to Battiste as she highlighted the uniqueness of his music contributions and recalled the impact of his work with icons like Sonny & Cher.
Renowned trumpeter Clora Bryant was vibrant in her charming Louis Armstrong like serenade (What a Wonderful World) to Harold, an old friend she used to visit with often when he lived in Los Angeles. Patrice Theard, the event organizer introduced two songs that were played by CD for the guests and in tribute to Harold: The sweet anthem like song “I Got You Babe” by Sonny & Cher which Harold Battiste Jr. arranged during his work as music director for their variety show, and lovely and haunting “Falling In Love”.
Finally, and with his devoted son Harlis Battiste caring for his father by his side, the passionately loved and deeply respected Harold Battiste Jr. spoke gently and ever so humbly of how much this gathering meant to him and how happy he was to see and meet so many people there. He talked of how excited and surprised he was to have completed an autobiography, and shared that it was Dr. Lowell Theard who, years before when he’d returned to Los Angeles to be with his family after Hurricane Katrina, suggested that he write a book about his life. And he marveled at the tributes of song and word given to him that afternoon, and had the crowd in laughs as he communicated surprise that a Congresswoman knew about the song and his work on “I Got You Babe”, which Congresswoman Watson then smiled from ear to ear and said “absolutely I know that era”.
After a resounding applause from the guests to close the formal tribute portion for Harold, the soiree continued with the Stevo Theard Jazz Quintet bringing everyone to their feet or their groove, and the book purchase and signing and one to one’s with Battiste being enjoyed until the event’s delayed end.
But a encore tribute had Harold and his traveling companions from New Orleans in tears of joy: Bassist Nedra Wheeler, a former student and staff of Harold’s when he taught at the Colburn School while it was located on the campus of USC, and pianist Art Hillery rushed over eagerly hoping to see Harold at the Book Signing after their performance at an earlier event.
Nedra serenaded Harold, whom she calls Mr. Battiste and considers a mentor of hers, in song with Art Hillery joining in, and by playing songs she remembered that he loved on her standing bass which she hurriedly unloaded from her car wanting to, and succeeding in, create a memorable on the spot tribute for him.
Love was in the air in Baldwin Hills on Sunday, and many lovers — new and old — fell hard!
Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man, by Harold Battiste Jr. with Karen Celestan
Published by The Historic New Orleans Collection