Despite his obscurity outside of his native New Orleans -- and in addition to his considerable accomplishments as a jazz drummer and composer -- James Black was simply one of the greatest funk drummers of all time.


Listen to "HOOK AND SLING" pt1
Listen to "HOOK AND SLING" pt2
James' best known performance (and his only national hit) was on Eddie Bo's "Hook And Sling". That song, and especially the extended drumming on the B-side ("Hook And Sling" Part Two), stands with James Brown's "Funky Drummer" as one of the greatest and most intriguing moments in funk drumming -- infinitely danceable, deceptively simple, and never since reproduced.

The lack of awareness of (or even reliable facts on) James Black can be blamed in part to the frenetic pace of the development of funk music in New Orleans in the 1960's and early 1970's (a golden era he played a major role in), and also due to the lack of musician credits on the many funky 45's of the time. Many of those records are now highly sought after simply because of James' drumming, even among those who do not know who they are listening to -- or sampling! And although the historical importance of these records is becoming clearer, the exact details of the sessions are hazier than ever -- even to James' longtime collaborator Eddie Bo (who produced many of James' most vital sessions). Still, many decades later, the memory of the man is unfaded:

"You've never heard drums like that and you'll never hear drums like that again. James was one of the most talented drummers I ever worked with and James was way out there. Not many folks could play that many rhythms at one time. And then he was spaced out and he would go further with his drums. James never did stay on this planet. Now James, I never had to tell James what a pocket was. He'd go out of the pocket and play in the pocket at the same time. Now how he got there, I don't know, but all those rhythms he was playing, I didn't need extra drummers or to hit on something extra to get that second beat, he did it himself. But he had to have a cigarette in his mouth, and it had to be burning. Until it burned his lips, then he'd drop it and light another one." (Eddie Bo, reprinted from Offbeat Magazine)


It may be surprising to think that despite these accomplishments, James Black apparently approached his R&B and funk recordings as a side job; his first (and best) writing and arranging efforts were in the realm of modern jazz. Indeed, in what has to qualify as a separate lifetime of accomplishments, he played with Cannonball and Nat Adderley, Horace Silver, and Yusef Lateef, and toured with Lionel Hampton. Some of the best recorded evidence of this can be heard on James' performance -- and compositions -- on an album cut with Ellis Marsalis that's now considered a milestone in New Orleans jazz: The Classic Ellis Marsalis. Originally released as "The Ellis Marsalis Quartet - Monkey Puzzle", that recording features James' songs "Monkey Puzzle" and the odd-time-signature "Magnolia Triangle", among others. On that record, as with his seminal funk recordings, James Black again was years ahead of his time. In the words of fellow New Orleans legend Idris Muhammad:

" James was originally a trumpet player. In college he played the trumpet. Then he could write and arrange music. Man, he wrote some hip, hip, hip music. Back then, he was a cold-blooded jazz player. James Black was so great that his life ended so fast. That's how great he was. He lived a very fast life and the next you know it was over. He wrote about four tunes with Nat Adderley and Cannonball. Before Coltrane was playing like he did, Nat was playing like that in New Orleans. If you find this record, 'In the Bag,' with Nat Adderley (cornet), Cannonball Adderley (alto sax), Nat Perriliat (tenor sax), James Black (drums), Sam Jones is playing bass and Ellis Marsalis is playing the piano - it's a great record. James was an exceptional drummer. The arrangements that he was writing threw Cannonball and Nat down. Nat Perriliat had been playing with James so he knew most of his tunes. James brought some new tunes and threw Nat and Cannonball down to learn these tunes 'cause the tunes were so hip. And he swung so heavy. " (Idris Muhammad, reprinted from





Listen to "I'VE GOT REASONS"
Like so many other native New Orleans musicians, James Black came up through the public school system's music programs under the guidance of Yvonne Busch. "Miss Busch" also schooled Smokey Johnson (another drummer preferred by Eddie Bo) among many others, and was known for requiring her students to play at least two instruments. James gave her great credit, saying "instead of just being a drummer, now I'm a musician". He later studied music at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and played in their marching band. Like any New Orleans funk drummer, he was greatly inspired by the street percussions of the Mardi Gras Indians and developed his "street beat" (perhaps most conspicous on the classic Eddie Bo track "Check Your Bucket") by following second line parades. His professional career began in 1958 at the age of 18, and eventually took him to New York with the pianist Joe Jones. He performed as a member of the AFO Executives for AFO Records (the first African American owned record label in the United States), a cooperative founded by Harold Battiste and featuring many of the top musicians in New Orleans. He did R&B session work with Fats Domino, Johnny Adams and the Dixie Cups (although the exact song credits are unclear). In 1967, while serving time at Angola Penitentiary, James played in a prison band "The Knicknacks" which included Charles Neville and keyboard legend James Booker (along with singer Chris Kenner, who had recorded with Eddie Bo as Candy Philips). In the late 1960's he became a regular drummer for Eddie Bo on Al Scramuzza's SCRAM label (and later on SEVEN B, BO SOUND, POWER-PAC and others), cementing his reputation as a great funk drummer. He continued to gig in New Orleans, as part of Ellis Marsalis' ELM Music Company and later on in the James Black Ensemble, often featuring the voice of his longtime girlfriend "Sister Mary" Bonette. In the 1970s through the 1980s he rarely recorded, but continued to drum for Ellis Marsalis, and a young Harry Connick Jr, and mentored a new generation of drummers including Herlin Riley.

James Black died in 1988 of a drug overdose, and was laid to rest in an unmarked grave in New Orleans. The Eddie Bo, Ellis Marsalis and Johnny Adams records he drummed on have since been included among the 100 Most Essential Louisiana CD's of all time by New Orleans' Offbeat Magazine. His funkier grooves have been sampled endlessly, most recently by DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist for their Brainfreeze project which featured at least four different James Black drum breaks; Brainfreeze has almost singlehandedly created a phenomenal interest in funk 45's among a new generation of fans who were raised on hip hop. A James Black songbook is being transcribed and compiled by New Orleans musicians. Medeski Martin & Wood have incorporated the James Black composition "Old Wyne" in their live shows. In 2003, Ellis & Wynton Marsalis performed a James Black tribute (with Idris Muhammad on drums) at the Lincoln Center in New York City which was aired on national television.

Some quotes from those who knew him or love his work:

" James Black was the James Booker of the drums. He had a restless and explosive musical personality, little patience for sub-par musicianship, and the ability to play everything from ferocious funk to beautiful ballads. He drummed as a sideman for diverse artists such as Fats Domino, Yusef Lateef and Lionel Hampton, but when he died from an overdose in 1988, he'd never recorded an album as a bandleader. Perhaps his greatest artistic achievement was his contribution to Ellis Marsalis' classic 1963 modern jazz album, Monkey Puzzle; Black wrote four of the album's seven songs and infused the whole album with challenging labyrinthine rhythms. "
- Scott Jordan

" Out of the cats in my father's band (Nat Perillat, James Black, my father), I liked James the most. He wrote a lot of tunes, like "The Magnolia Triangle." He had the talent. But he had a volatile personality. He was always getting into some kind of trouble, and he was always ready to fight at the drop of a hat. You never knew what he was going to do; he was unpredictable. But as a boy of like, seven, six, eight, there was always something about him I liked. He also was a trumpet player. I was influenced by his music. I liked his songs, like "A Love Song," and things that the people wouldn't know... "
- Wynton Marsalis

JAMES BLACK DISCOGRAPHY - FUNK / R & B (best guess so far)

 1960s - (Fats Domino sessions - exact tracks unclear)
 1960s - (Johnny Adams sessions - exact tracks unclear)
 1960s - (Dixie Cup sessions - exact tracks unclear)
 1960s - (Dave Bartholomew sessions - exact tracks unclear)
 1967  - Eddie Bo & Inez Cheatham - Lover & A Friend 

 1967? - Hooper, Mary Jane & Richie Matta - Stolen Moments
 1968? - Roy Ward - Horse With A Freeze
 1968  - Mary Jane Hooper - I've Got Reasons / Teach Me 
 1968  - Mary Jane Hooper - I've Got What You Need
 1969? - Inell Young - The Next Ball Game 
 1969  - Betty Harris - There's A Break In The Road 
 1969? - Roy Ward - Horse With A Freeze
 1969  - Eddie Bo & The Soul Finders - We're Doin' It (Thang) 
 1969  - Eddie Bo - If It's Good To You (It's Good For You)
 1969  - Eddie Bo - Hook And Sling / Hook And Sling pt2 
 1970  - Eddie Bo - Check Your Bucket / Check Your Bucket pt2 
 1970  - Lee Dorsey - Riverboat [on Yes We Can Can LP] 
 197?  - Eddie Bo & The Soulfinders - Showdown
 1971  - The Explosions - Hip Drop 
 1971  - Sonny Jones - Sissy Walk
 1973? - Chuck Carbo - Can I Be Your Squeeze 
 1973? - David Robinson - I'm A Carpenter 
 posthumous releases:
         Johnny Adams - New Orleans Rhythm and Blues Vol 1
 2002  - James Black - (I Need) Altitude (recorded 1969, 1976, 1982)
 2003  - Mary Jane Hooper - Teach Me (Psychedelphia) (recorded from 1968 onwards)
         (these tracks feature James Black: I've Got Reasons, Don't Change Nothing, 
         You've Got What I Want, Remember When, I'm in a Lovin' Groove, 
         I Got What You Need, How Long, That's How Strong Love Is,  Psychedelphia, 
         Let My Pass Go, Teach me, Stolen Moments)


 1962  - Nat Adderley Sextet - In The Bag (Milestone Records)
 1963  - Ellis Marsalis Quartet - Monkey Puzzle (AFO)
         later reissued as Ellis Marsalis - The Classic Ellis Marsalis (AFO)
       - (unknown) - What a Wedding Day (AFO)
 1964  - Yusef Lateef - Club Date
 1964  - Yusef Lateef - Live at Pep's (Impulse)
 1964  - Yusef Lateef - Live at Pep's, Vol. 2 (Impulse)
 1964  - Yusef Lateef - Psychicemotus
 1965  - Yusef Lateef - 1984
 1980  - Eric Gale - Touch of Silk (Sony)
 1981  - Jasmine - Tropical Breeze (Inner City)
         (feat. Cassandra Wilson)
 1982  - Marsalis Family - Fathers & Sons (Columbia/CBS)
 1983  - Ellis Marsalis - Syndrome (ELM)

 posthumous releases:
       - Various Artists - New Orleans Heritage Jazz 1956-1966 (Opus 43)
         (incl. Ellis Marsalis recordings)
 1998  - Various Artists - The NEW New Orleans Music: Vocal Jazz (Rounder)
         (James Black's last recording)


 1962? - AFO Executives (aka All For One Executives) - AFO (AFO)
            ("Old Wyne")
 1963  - Ellis Marsalis Quartet - Monkey Puzzle (AFO)
            ("Whistle Stop", "Dee Wee", "Magnolia Triangle", "Monkey Puzzle")
 1964  - Yusef Lateef - Live at Pep's (Impulse)
            ("Magnolia Triangle")
 1964  - Yusef Lateef - Live at Pep's, Vol. 2 (Impulse)
            ("Magnolia Triangle")
 1989  - Dr. John - Brightest Smile In Town (Clean Cuts)
            ("Monkey Puzzle")
 1990  - Ellis Marsalis Trio 
            ("Whistle Stop")
 1992  - David Torkanowsky - Steppin Out (Rounder)
            ("A Love Song")
 1994  - Ellis Marsalis - Whistle Stop 
            ("Whistle Stop", "Dee Wee", "Magnolia Triangle", "Lil Boy Man", "Monkey Puzzle")
 1995  - Johnny Adams - The Verdict (Rounder)
            ("Down That Lonely Road")
 1998  - Mark Turner - Mark Turner (Warner Brothers)
            ("Magnolia Triangle")
 2002  - Stanton Moore - Flyin' The Koop (Blue Thumb)
            ("Magnolia Triangle")


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