Saxophonist Charles Neville, who won a 1989 Grammy for his rendition of “Healing Chant” on the CD “Yellow Moon,” is the second oldest of The Neville Brothers -- four brothers, including vocalist Aaron Neville.

Saxophonist Charles Neville – who won a 1989 Grammy for his rendition of “Healing Chant” on the CD “Yellow Moon” -- is the second oldest of  The Neville Brothers, four brothers, including vocalist Aaron Neville.

As well as performing together, the Nevilles are known for their individual musical paths.

Charles Neville started playing music at age 12, in a school band. By age 15, he was on the road with Gene Franklin & the Houserockers.

Over the years, he has played with many acclaimed musicians, including Johnny Ace, Little Walter, Jimmy Reed, Big Maybelle, James Brown, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Ray Charles.

A long-time resident of western Massachusetts, Neville, 71, joins New Orleans vocalist Henri Smith – who moved to Gloucester after losing his home to Hurricane Katrina – and Colonial Inn regulars the Workingman's Jazz Band at the inn Saturday for an evening of New Orleans jazz.

Here, he talks about his long career, life in a family of musicians, and his hopes for keeping his birthplace’s musical traditions alive.

Q. What do you have planned for the show?

A. It’s mainly Henri’s show. He sings all these great New Orleans tunes. There will be bluesier kinds of New Orleans things, and other, really danceable music. We will do some instrumentals as well – jazzy, with New Orleans rhythms.

Q. Please explain what distinguishes New Orleans-style jazz.

A. The rhythm, and the drums ... a lot of it is based on what they call New Orleans street beat, the way the drums are played in the Mardi Gras parades. ... It has a really distinctive and unique kind of rhythm, and that is the signature of New Orleans music.

Q. Are you concerned that any of that tradition might be lost since the hurricane?

A. Some of it has been dispersed rather than lost. Henri and I did a Mardi Gras show the first year he was in Boston. A lot of people from New Orleans came and they loved it. They had come to the area after the storm. (Because of the evacuees) the music has spread to different areas.

Q. You come from a family of high-profile musicians. With so many musicians in one family, are there in challenges in being your own style of performer?

A. Oh yes. From when we first began, we had a lot of common influences, but we also each had one particular area that seemed to speak more to us individually. For me, it was jazz ... when we put it all together, the unique approach we each took makes our music together different from anything else.

Q. Are there benefits from coming from a family in musicians?

A. Yes, that’s another way it happened – growing up and doing stuff together helps us to communicate. The same thing applies with playing with Henri. We have common influences and common background. It’s easy to know what he’s doing.

Q. Your brother Aaron is quoted as saying, “Brother Charles was the family jazzman. He blew sax and schooled me in the ways of improvisation.” What do you think of that quote?

A. He was more into listening to a song and doing it the way he had heard it done. I said, “Don’t do it the way the other artists do it. It’s the way you express the song that matters, not just how others do it.”

Q. You’ve played with many great musicians; were any of them mentors to you?

A. Years ago, I played with Fats Domino. He’s a great guy. B.B. King was another one. When I played with B.B. King, I was really learning to play. They really helped point me in the right direction. They were so nice. They treated the band like family. I had worked with some artists ... OK, Wilson Pickett, and Johnny Taylor. It was like, “us and them.” They wouldn’t ride in the same car. Taylor said, “Musicians are a dime a dozen.”

Q. Did you learn valuable things, even from negative or disappointing experiences or musicians who were more difficult to work with?

A. Yes. We learned how to be disciplined, and we learned what to do for what the job demanded.

Q. Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?

A. If I had known better, I would not have done any drugs. It was like, what was expected of you if you were a musician. We were all young, and nobody really knew any better, because everybody did it. All the guys we looked up to did it and we thought, they did it, so it must be cool, must be all right.

Q. What happened that made you see otherwise?

A. (Laughs) I got arrested in New Orleans, for holding two marijuana cigarettes. (Neville served 1964-1967 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.) I did hard labor. It was a plantation – cutting sugar cane, digging cotton, hard labor. I didn’t have to spend the whole three years doing hard labor, because I got a job in the prison teaching music. I became head of the prison’s music department and was responsible for putting on shows for the holidays and for the administrative staff.

Q. Were you able to quit drugs then?

A. I decided to quit, but it took years after making that decision not to do it. One of the main negative consequences was addition. In 1967, there was this concept that they had found a cure for addiction with methadone. But methadone for me was more addicting than heroin or morphine, so then you got hooked on that. It was years of going around that cycle ... . I did a show with Dr. John, in a treatment program, 20 years later. We laughed about it, because we were 20 years clean.

Q. Do you talk to younger musicians about your experiences with drug addiction?

A. We go in different treatment centers and other schools and talk about what it can mean to your life. A lot of people who did drugs are not around now. They either killed themselves, or got killed – some of the guys were killed by the company they kept. There was a whole other danger – I heard some people I knew in New York were dying, and I thought, they must have OD. But, they died of AIDS, from sharing needles. I thought, "Oh my God, I’ve got to get tested." There was so much danger in so many other directions.

Q. For someone who has been a musician as long as you have, are there still new things to learn?

A. Oh, yeah. I still practice every day. One thing I learned when I was in school, studying classical music theory, was that you can learn some of it in a lifetime, but you can’t get it all, because it has been around for thousands of years. I am still learning. Also, there are things that have evolved – the approach to playing improvised music in the 1950s and 1960s has opened up new directions. I’m exploring all of that.

Q. With many jazz traditions of distinct local areas finding each other, are you concerned that in the blending that the original sounds will be lost?

A. No, because it gets expressed in other sounds. I play with a lot of Latin musicians – Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians. In the cultures in Puerto Rico and Cuba, the traditional music exists within the families, and all the kids. They may get into hip-hop and other stuff, but they have their foundation in their music. But kids don’t get their early foundation in some other cultures. They only get what’s happening in the present. They get disconnected with the past. 

Q. Do you see yourself as having a role in passing on tradition?

A. That is one thing I really like to do – go to schools and talk to the students. When I was in Vermont, I taught the history of black music in America, and I’m still studying that as well. Because of my experiences, and because the different people I played with were icons in the history of American music, these were experiences I could show. I would show them in my playing what things I got, and where I got them from.

That was the silver lining, if you will, in the dark cloud of being in prison. When I was in prison in Louisiana, on the plantation, there were old guys who had been there for many years. It was hard work, and they were singing these songs. It was like the stuff in the books about the slaves. I was actually living it and experiencing that. I thought, that is the feeling in these songs.

 If you go

Charles Neville and Henri Smith, with the Workingman’s Jazz Band

When Saturday, March 20, 8 p.m.
Where Colonial Inn, 48 Monument Square, Concord
Admission No cover
For more information Visit

Margaret Smith is Arts and Calendar editor at GateHouse Media New England’s Northwest Unit. E-mail her at