Batiste was born in New Orleans in 1932, and is among the rare artists who have created a modern approach to improvising on the clarinet. “My dad played the clarinet,” Alvin explains, “and was a boyhood friend of the great Edmond Hall as well as a fan of Benny Goodman. I wasn’t that interested in learning the instrument when he bought one for me, until I heard Charlie Parker’s recording of ‘Now’s the Time’ at a friend’s house. You could only find records like that in one or two stores in New Orleans at the time, and my reaction was, ‘What was that?’ I started practicing seriously at that point.”
After applying himself in a high school that also produced his future colleagues Harold Battiste and Ed Blackwell as well as trombonist Benny Powell, Batiste entered Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he majored in music. The Civil Rights era was dawning, and white musicians like trombonist Frank Rosolino still had to sneak over from the segregated Louisiana State University campus to jam with Southern students, but the US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education gave Batiste a glimpse of new opportunities. “I was a senior getting ready to graduate when the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, which led my clarinet teacher to entice me to apply to play with the New Orleans Philharmonic. I won the audition to play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, a gig that fell on the same night I was working with [trumpeter] Melvin Lastie, [tenor saxophonist] Nat Perriliat, [pianist] Ellis Marsalis and [bassist] Richard Payne. I wore my tux to the band’s gig, and invited all of them to what was their first symphony concert. Melvin, who was so impressed, just kept looking at me and saying ‘Mozart,’ but he pronounced it ‘Mose Art,’ which is the way we’d say it in the community.” And while many in New Orleans began calling him Mozart, Batiste’s intimates are more likely to refer to him simply as Bat.
Batiste took to the road briefly after college, including a stint with Ray Charles where he played baritone sax as well as piano when Charles was not on stage. He also did some jamming in Los Angeles with the then-unknown Ornette Coleman, but was quickly lured back home by the rich New Orleans music scene. Batiste began doing blues gigs with Guitar Slim, which the clarinetist recalls as “a rude awakening, because Slim played everything in F#, which is a rough key for the clarinet.” There were also rhythm and blues jobs with Buddy Stewart, big band music with George Williams and the modern jazz Batiste loved with friends Battiste, Marsalis, Payne and Blackwell in a group that came to be known as the American Jazz Quintet.
Returning home also gave Batiste the opportunity to enroll in the newly integrated LSU, where he became one of the first African-Americans to earn a Masters degree in both performance and composition. It was also at this point that he became interested in a career in education, after some student teaching and an offer to become the band director at a New Orleans high school. “I finished my degree, then took the band director’s job, and the first year was rough. They didn’t have uniforms for the band director, so I had to wear a student uniform. I was also frustrated by what I thought was indifference, until some older colleagues made me realize that a student who is looking out the window may be taking in more than one who looks you straight in the eye. After that first year, with both the joy and the dues you pay in helping other people, I never considered teaching to be a drag. In fact, from an aesthetic perspective, nothing is better than being able to teach and play.”
From that point forward, Batiste made his mark as one of the most important figures in the field of jazz education. In 1969, he founded a jazz studies program at Southern University, the first of its kind at an historically black campus (“I was ahead of Donald Byrd at Howard by a few months”); and two years later set the process in motion for the creation of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which led to a decade of commuting between the Southern University campus in Baton Rouge and NOCCA. Between the two programs, an incredible array of talented artists benefited from Batiste’s instruction, and from the textbook he wrote, The Root Progression System. At the same time, Batiste was composing ambitious works for orchestra, including “North American Idiosyncrasies,” “Planetary Perspective,” “Musique D’Afrique Novelle Orleans” (recorded for India Navigation Records in 1984) and three operas.
With all of this activity, there were few opportunities for those outside of Louisiana to hear the Batiste clarinet. The Adderley brothers had included two of his compositions on Nat Adderley’s 1962 album In the Bag, and Cannonball produced what was supposed to be Batiste’s debut album for Riverside; but the session tapes disappeared and were never found. Cannonball did feature Batiste on his 1970 disc Messiah, and on his final session Lovers, which includes the first recording of Batiste’s “Salty Dogs.” Former student Randy Jackson (of American Idol fame) got Batiste a gig with Billy Cobham in 1977. “When I got to that band,” Batiste recalls, “there were two electric guitars, electric keyboard, and Billy was even playing electric drums. But he gave them up when he heard me, and told me that my sound was too good to add electronics. That was great – to be humble enough to take that gig, and still have an aesthetic victory.” In the 1980s there was some touring with the innovative Clarinet Summit, an all-clarinet quartet that also included John Carter, Jimmy Hamilton and David Murray; and three recordings followed under Batiste’s own name.