Henri Smith & Nat Simpkins, Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra
January 1, 1970The two pieces this week are a joint Jazz Notes profile of vocalist Henri Smith and tenor saxophonist Nat Simpkins, who forged their unlikely musicial partnership in New Orleans and transplanted it to Gloucester, Massachusetts, after Hurricane Katrina, and the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra as the Thursday Calendar pick.
In keeping with the other day's editorial-irritations theme, I'm happy to report that this week's column snafus were relatively minor. The guy editing me this week thought it important to add the words "a social organization" to describe what Mardi Gras Indians are, though I don't know that that actually explains all that much, and put quote marks around big chief. Nothing worth griping about there. But he also for some inexplicable reason switched the bit about Simpkins's contemplating selling his house and moving to New Orleans to having occurred "Long before Katrina struck." The fact is, Simpkins told me he'd dropped the idea BECAUSE Katrina struck. That is, he'd been doing his contemplating not "long before" it happened but rather just before it happened. Which makes sense: He'd been shuttling back and forth to New Orleans for eight years, loved the city — so of course he'd started thinking it might make sense to move there, and of course he would abandon the idea when the city was leveled by the storm. In any case, the "long before" part wasn't written by yours truly and is inaccurate. And it's right there in the story's first paragraph. Sigh.
Oh well, the rest of the story read okay. Hope you like it.
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A Cape Ann collaboration that was born on the bayou
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | February 24, 2006
GLOUCESTER — Henri Smith and Nat Simpkins don't look much alike, but fate has brought them together like brothers. It was Simpkins who talked Smith and Smith's fiancee, Anita Lavigne, into relocating to this Cape Ann fishing town after Hurricane Katrina drove them from New Orleans. Long before the storm struck, however, the moving nearly went the other way. Simpkins considered selling his house in Manchester-by-the-Sea and joining the singer in New Orleans.
Since autumn, Smith and Simpkins, a tenor saxophonist, have been performing regularly in and around Boston. On Tuesday, they'll celebrate Mardi Gras together in the South End, bringing their six-piece band and guest saxophonist Charles Neville to Bob's Southern Bistro for a night of New Orleans-style music that will include leading the audience in second-line dancing. The following Sunday afternoon they'll perform another Mardi Gras show at Gloucester's West End Theater.
Over lunch earlier this week at the Gloucester House Restaurant, the two men traced the evolution of their musical partnership. They met when Simpkins's wife brought him to New Orleans to celebrate his 50th birthday in 1997. It was his first trip to the city, but he felt an immediate bond.
"As soon as I got off the plane, I felt right at home," Simpkins recalls. "The atmosphere, the air, the people, the culture, the food — everything."
Simpkins had a new CD out at the time, for Bluejay Records, the Manchester-based label he cofounded with drummer/ producer Cecil Brooks III, and he dropped by WWOZ-FM his first day in town to promote it. That's how Smith, who hosted jazz shows two days a week for the station, became the first person Simpkins met in New Orleans.
"I was working radio one Saturday," explains Smith, whose day job at the time was teaching physical education and coaching basketball at a middle school, "and Nat came to New Orleans and knocked on my door." Smith says he played some tracks from the Simpkins CD "Spare Ribs" on the air that day, and the two men "struck a friendship."
Smith had begun singing publicly a couple of years earlier, a little ahead of his own 50th birthday. Smith's DJ gig and MC work at the city's famous jazz fest had made him a friend to many musicians, and one morning at the weekly Big Band Sunday Brunch at Tipitina's he told trumpeter Kermit Ruffins that he could sing the Nat Adderley jazz standard "Work Song." Ruffins called Smith's bluff a few weeks later, and when it went over well, began having Smith sing with him regularly. Suddenly Smith was a jazz singer.
"I got a standing ovation at Jazzfest," Smith says, "and sang in Portugal in front of 90,000 people, and so I guess I was hooked after that."
Smith found another collaborator in Simpkins, who had picked up his robust, Texas tenor style by hanging out at Sandy's Jazz Revival in Beverly as a teenager, and soaking up lessons from such old-time sax stars as Arnett Cobb, Buddy Tate, Houston Person, and Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson. "Some of them were like fathers to me," Simpkins says. "And they made me swear to carry on the tradition."
Simpkins began shuttling between Manchester and New Orleans and gigging regularly with Smith. In March 2001, they entered a New Orleans studio for a 10 1/ 2-hour recording marathon that produced two CDs: Simpkins's "Crescent City" and Smith's debut, "New Orleans Friends and Flavours." Among the musicians drifting in to join them throughout the day were Ruffins; Donald Harrison, the "big chief" of Smith's tribe of Mardi Gras Indians, a social organization; and percussionist Bill Summers, of Headhunters and Los Hombres Calientes fame. Jason Marsalis was recorded on vibraphone for the first time, and Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen made what proved his final recordings.
Smith and Simpkins would still be making music together in New Orleans if it weren't for Katrina. Smith fled the city with his fiancee's family the day before the storm hit — most of his own relatives had left days earlier, though his brother Edward remains missing — and endured an exodus whose low point was 30 hours of highway gridlock between Houston and San Antonio. Simpkins, meanwhile, was urging Smith to come to Gloucester, where the parents of one of Simpkins's private music students had offered the free use of an apartment.
"First thing that people told me when we got to Massachusetts," recalls Smith, "was, 'Don't worry about the cold weather and the snow, because our hearts are warm and we're going to keep you warm with our hearts.'"
Smith hasn't been back to New Orleans since, and doesn't know yet whether he'll ever move back. For the time being, he's happy staying put in Gloucester. "We've been working, been gigging a lot," Smith says. "You don't try to fix something that's not broken."
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Jazz Composers' Alliance Orchestra
Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. 617-923-8487. 8 p.m. $15, $10 seniors and students.
The Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra has been cranking out ambitious new music locally for a couple of decades now, some of it documented for wider audiences on the recent CDs "In, Thru and Out," "The Death of Simone Weil," and "Celebration of the Spirit." On Saturday, the 18-piece orchestra will unveil yet more fresh work from resident composers Darrell Katz, David Harris, Hans Indigo, Ken Schaphorst, Warren Senders, and Norm Zocher at Watertown's several-months-old Arsenal Center for the Arts. In earlier years, the orchestra often performed pieces by guest composers such as Julius Hemphill, Henry Threadgill, Dave Holland, and Maria Schneider. Lately, though, the emphasis has been on in-house talent. Besides the pieces getting their first airings in Watertown, his weekend's material will include a pair of orchestra director Katz's older works (recorded last month for a CD he plans on bringing out under his own name). Both incorporate text by Katz's poet wife, Paula Tatarunis. One of them, titled "December 30, 1994," is a reflection on the fatal shootings at a pair of Brookline abortion clinics. The point of the piece, says Katz, is that "rhetoric can be dangerous."
2-26 The Great American Songbook: The Music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn New Orleans visiting artist Donald Harrison, Berklee faculty vocalists Donna McElroy and Gabrielle Goodman, and student vocalists Apollo Payton and Grace Taylor join Berklee's 40-piece Great American Songbook Orchestra on new arrangements of classics by Duke and Strays. Berklee Performance Center, 136 Massachusetts Ave., Boston. 617-747-2261. 8:15 p.m. $25, $18.75 seniors.