Sunday’s heat at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival plus Rolling Stone writer David Fricke’s interview with Charles Neville on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage equaled two good reasons to visit the Fair Grounds Race Course’s air-conditioned grandstand.
The Heritage Stage features interviews with Jazz Fest performers during all seven days of the festival. Neville, a saxophonist and member of one of New Orleans’ most famous musical families, made the first appearance in his long career on the stage Sunday afternoon. He brought much heritage and history with him.
Neville and his pianist also performed a few blues and jazz pieces, illustrating the topics that came up during the talk.
Fricke asked Neville, who performed with his brothers Art, Aaron and Cyril in the Neville Brothers for decades, about his formative years in music, influences and early gigs.
Blues was his and his peers’ musical foundation, Neville said.
“When I first started playing, that was the music that you heard, the blues,” he said. “And that was without any musical training or musical knowledge, I could hear that. I didn’t know anything about chord changes, reading music and all that.
“A lot of the cats at the time didn’t read music, but we could play the blues.”
Neville, who’d later become a serious jazz saxophonist, toured for the first time with a blues singer named Gene Franklin.
“Back then the black recording artists were not seen on TV or in the newspapers or the magazines,” Neville recalled. “So nobody knew what they looked like. Well, Gene Franklin could sing and sound just like B.B. King. ... So we did gigs as B.B. King and his Orchestra.”
The artist impersonation business that was common in the era hit closer to home for Neville during a trip to Florida. A club down the street from the venue where he was playing promoted a show featuring Neville’s brother, Aaron, and another New Orleans singer, Ernie K-Doe.
“I’d been told Aaron was in town, so I go upstairs in their dressing and there’s these two guys I know from New Orleans. And I say, ‘Where’s Aaron? Where’s K-Doe?’ And one of the guys says, ‘Man, don’t blow my thing! I’m Aaron tonight!’ ”
Music Heritage Stage interviews are slotted for 45 minutes each. The Neville-Fricke session went quickly.
“Sorry we ran out of time,” Neville said at the end. “There’s much, much more.”
Neville is participating in “Nevilles Forever: A Celebration of the Neville Brothers and their Music,” Saturday, May 2, at the Saenger Theatre. The sold out show will feature all four Neville brothers, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Galactic, Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Terence Blanchard, Ivan Neville, John Boutté, Anders Osborne, Ian Neville and others.