Los Angeles, CA — Grinding it out, year after year, for our musical pleasure is the genius of the Neville Brothers–Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril, whose careers have spanned over five decades. Our Weekly had the opportunity to chat with Charles Neville, as he and his brothers prepare to perform this weekend for the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl.
Our Weekly (OW): You have always spent a lot of time on the road. How does this compare to earlier in your career?
Charles Neville (CN): It varies from year to year. In the earlier years, when I was young, I wanted to do what the older musicians did–to live on the road. And so we would go out for three or four months at a time without going back home. But in these more modern times, there have been occasions when we have gone on tour like two months, but mostly it’s like three or four weeks.
OW: A lot of other musicians report that they have to do a lot more live shows on the road because their songs are stolen off the Internet.
CN: Yes, and because record stores are going out of business. And with radio, there are only certain stations, mostly public stations that have jazz programming but no all jazz stations except on XM radio.
OW: Your group, and each one of you as individual artists, have been able to have a style that transcends just one type of category.
CN: Right, that comes from growing up in New Orleans where there was no real distinction made between the styles.You weren’t either just a jazz musician, a blues musician or a rock musician–you were simply a musician. You might get called on to play a gig that was jazz, Dixieland, rhythm and blues, straight up blues, or bebop. And so you had to be able to do it all.
We started in the ’50s. We were first influenced by the music of the ’30s and ’40s. Rhythm and blues really had it’s hey day in the ’50s and the stuff that they later called rock and roll was just beginning to happen. Then we were still playing in the ’60s and ’70s when the psychedelic music started. Then, we were still around in the ’70s when disco came about. So, we’ve done stuff during all those periods in keeping with what was happening with the time. But we still always did the type of music that identified us as New Orleans musicians.
We’ve even done a little hip hop. We had one recording where Aaron and Cyril’s sons got involved, so we have a couple of songs. And, we did one way back when Cyril wrote that song for Rosa Parks, “Thank you, Miss Rosa”–that was definitely a hip hop song.
OW: So, how did this appreciation for music start?
CN: I started playing the saxophone at the age of 12. In grade school I played the drum in the drum and bugle corps. There was music all around us, all the time. That was before the days of television, so when adults came over to our house they played instruments or they played records. Every place had a juke box. We couldn’t go into the bars, but there were little places that they called Sweet Shops that were kid-oriented joints that didn’t sell liquor.
In the theaters, in between the main features, they would show what they called “short films.”
One of the most popular shorts at the time featured Louis Jordan. It was one of the first music videos. He looked like he was having so much fun playing the saxophone. I said, ‘Oh man, I want to do that!’ So I got a saxophone and started playing blues and rhythm and blues. And when I heard Charlie Parker, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s all about!’
OW: Where do you call home?
CN: I now live in western Massachusetts. I left New Orleans in the ’60s, partly because of the discrimination in the South and because I got sent to prison for five years for having two joints.
People talk about how New Orleans was so different from other parts of the South, and in some ways it was. But, if you see that movie “Eyes on the Prize,” you will see New Orleans during the school desegregation days. Those were some of the most violent reactions and as a result, a lot of White people took their kids out of the schools and moved to the suburbs. All of the schools that were integrated became mostly Black schools.
OW: Does being spread out across the country create a problem when the brothers have to get together to do gigs?
CN: No, we meet wherever the first gig of the tour is. Aaron is in New York, he was in Nashville for a while. Cyril lost his home to (Hurricane) Katrina and he is now in Austin, Texas. Art is still in New Orleans and a couple of the band members live in other cities.
OW: In your career, you have performed with some of music’s greats. Who is left that might be on your wish list for a collaboration?
CN: Sonny Rollins and Yusef Lateef are both up in this area and those are two that I would really like to play with.
OW: What can your Los Angeles fans expect to hear when you and your brothers perform on Saturday?
CN: They can enjoy some traditional New Orleans funk tunes, a couple of Aaron’s pop tunes and some of his really beautiful ballads, a touch of jazz and maybe some Latin and a little gospel.
OW: What does the future hold for the Neville Brothers?
CN: We’ve been performing since the ’50s and we are very happy to be here in the 21st century still doing what we’ve done 50 years later. Everyone is still writing and working on material. Cyril has recently released a blues album. Amazingly, when we went to Morocco, on the way to the airport we heard some of his stuff playing on the radio.
It’s all about the music.