In June, the Collection — a research center, publisher and museum dedicated to preserving the history of the Crescent City –- released “Unfinished Blues: Memories of a New Orleans Music Man,” by Harold Battiste, Jr. with Karen Celestan.
The first in a new series of musicians’ autobiographies, the book tells the story of one of New Orleans’ most influential composers and arrangers, a 79-year-old legend who helped launch the careers of Sam Cooke, Dr. John and Sonny and Cher and founded New Orleans’ first African-American owned record label, AFO.
“Mac told me that he had been reading up on this character called Dr. John from the New Orleans Voodoo tradition and wanted to work something around that,” Battiste recalls in a section devoted to his work with Mac Rebbenack. He goes on to explain how, with the help of Cher’s seamstress and a cast of key recording artists like Jessie Hill, Battiste worked with Rebbenack to create the “tongue in cheek” stage persona that evolved into one of the great music figures in New Orleans’ history.
“People want to focus on traditional jazz when they talk about New Orleans music, as if there was a period that existed and is over – but it’s actually an integral part of our culture,” says HNOC editor Sarah Doerries. “We’re not focusing on the rarified Louis Armstrong example. We’re hoping to look at artists like Battiste, [Ernie] K. Doe, and other musicians who maybe every music lover in the world doesn’t know about, but should.”
The HNOC also houses an extensive library of research and original documents about Buddy Bolden, as well as important contemporary cultural figures like the photographer Michael P. Smith, who was best known for his documentation of Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras Indians from the 1970s until his death in 2008.
At press time, the publishing house at the HNOC was still in the process of negotiating for the next autobiography, and is working towards a goal of publishing a new one every two to three years.
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