On the death of Charles Neville in 2018, many mourned the passing of a superbly talented musician who not only performed in a variety of styles, but who everyone agreed was always generous to share his music with. ‘other players and fans.
And Neville, a saxophonist who earned the moniker “The Horn Man” for his distinctive sound, was also someone who had gone through some serious trials in his life and had come to a place of acceptance and self-acceptance.
As Northampton musician Roger Salloom recalled in an interview with the Daily Hampshire Gazette after Neville’s death at the age of 79, “He was kind, he was gentle, he was forgiving and he was at peace with him- even.”
New exhibit at Springfield Museums pays homage to Neville’s long life and career, from his birth in New Orleans and his days as a touring musician in the Jim Crow South, to a stint in a difficult prison in the Mississippi and the drug struggles – such as his rebirth in the 1970s when he reconnected with his siblings to form The Neville Brothers, the popular R&B, soul, jazz and funk group that starred in nationwide and abroad and won a Grammy in 1989.
The exhibition, “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville“, also encompasses another important chapter in his life: meeting his future wife, Kristin Gaitenby Neville, originally from western Massachusetts, in 1990, which will lead to their marriage, two children and a move to Huntington in the late 1990s.
Neville then became a key figure in the valley’s music scene, although he continued to tour elsewhere and perform with a range of musicians.
The exhibit, at the Wood Museum of Springfield History, will run until November 28.
Last fall, Kristin Neville contacted museum officials to suggest the exhibit. A key connection, she said in a recent interview with the show, was the volunteer teaching her husband had done with the Community Music School in Springfield, as well as his participation in the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, an event year that Kristin Neville co-founded in 2014.
“Music was such a big part of his life,” Neville said. “It was his passion, and sharing it with people, using it to bring people together, was so important to him.”
Maggie Humberston, curator of the Springfield Museums Library and Archives, said that given the Wood Museum’s emphasis on Springfield history, it was important that the story of Charles Neville resonate in the city.
And it was, added Humberston: “We jumped on it. Kristin made a very good record for the show, and we’re excited to do so.
She notes that in an era of broader racial reckoning across the country, “Horn Man” also speaks of broader issues in American society and history.
The exhibit includes a host of memorabilia and other items from Neville’s career: photographs and notebooks, concert flyers, one of his saxophones, intricately carved wooden sticks he made, as well as than a number of his paintings. He began painting when he was jailed for possession of marijuana in the early 1960s in the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, a prison (and former slave plantation) sometimes referred to as “Alcatraz of the South.” “.
Kristin Neville has created several large blocks of text, all of which include vintage photos, which depict different periods in her husband’s life, from his childhood in New Orleans – he was born in 1938 – to his time as as a traveling musician in the South and then moving first to New York, then to Massachusetts.
There is a photo of a smiling, cherubic Charles, aged about 9, from elementary school, and another of him from a two-year stint in the Navy in the 1950s. There is also a vintage photo of a legendary New Orleans club, the Dew Drop Inn, where he played in the 1950s.
Find your way
But a larger story told on these panels is the ingrained racism and oppression that Neville and other blacks had to contend with in the South, a stifling force that Kristin Neville says contributed to her shift to drugs and his feeling, when he was younger, that the skills he had to offer to the world “just weren’t valued or recognized”.
“He grew up in an environment of fear,” she added. “It was something that was ubiquitous in black-white relationships… and it kept him from expressing himself creatively.”
Neville eventually conquered his addiction through methadone treatment and his exploration of Eastern religions. Kristin Neville says her husband also started tai chi in the 1980s and the discipline he developed has helped him get rid of drugs and bring a new level of serenity to his life – an inner peace that then spread in his music.
And the exhibit describes how Kristin and Charles met in 1990 in New Orleans, when he was playing a show with the Neville Brothers and working at a city food bank as a VISTA volunteer.
She jokes that she was able to get into the front row of the concert and at one point she made eye contact with Charles. It was a thrill on its own, she said, something she imagined sharing with her mother: “Charles Neville smiled at me!”
In fact, they were featured after the show and love blossomed down the road; the couple married in 1995 and had two sons, Khalif and Talyn, both of whom grew up playing music with their father (Khalif Neville is now a multi-instrumentalist and singer / songwriter).
Humberston says one of his great lessons from the exhibit is the resilience and determination that Charles Neville has shown, the way he rose above the Jim Crow South and his personal struggles to find peace. in his life, satisfaction in his music and acceptance of people on their own terms.
“He just showed a remarkable wit, and I think he used the music to stay centered,” Humberston said.
The exhibit features five sound stations – you activate them by walking on them – that offer playlists of songs Neville has played or that represent the style of music he played at different points in his career (Khalif Neville helped to create the sound stations, sound says the mother). There are other important “Horn Man” memorabilia on display, such as the yin-yang necklace he often wore and a tie-die shirt he preferred.
Humberston and Kristin Neville say they hope to link the exhibit to this year’s Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, which will take place in August, as well as links to schools in Springfield. Neville has partnered with other organizations in the city to create the Charles Neville Legacy Project, through which, starting this fall, black musicians will perform residencies at Springfield high schools to conduct classes examining black roots and Caribbean American music.
Music, after all, was what Charle Neville was. As he once said, “Common languages are music and love, and music is an expression of love.”
For more information on “Horn Man” visit springfieldmuseums.org and follow the link for the exhibits.
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at [email protected]