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Back To His First LoveCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1998
Tyler, AlvinAlvin 'Red' Tyler was best known for his work as a baritone saxophonist and arranger on a host of New Orleans rhythm and blues hits of the 1950s, notably with Fats Domino. Tyler was one of a group of largely unsung but hugely in demand musicians who fueled the rhythm and blues output of the New Orleans recording studios, but he was also an accomplished jazz player in his own right, and spent the latter half of his career concentrating on that area.
He recalled that his earliest musical memories involved that most quintessential of New Orleans experiences, the funeral parade bands which would make their way through the neighbourhood. He developed that interest listening to local bands, firstly in the locality ("I remember as a kid that the WPA would pay musicians to form a band and play around the city. I'd go a block from my house to a school where they played and hear them"), and later in the city's dancehalls.
He began to play saxophone while in the Navy during the war, and exercised his option under the GI Bill of Rights to attend music school after leaving the service in 1947. He was encouraged to consider a musical career by Clyde Kerr, an instructor who had a particularly influential effect on him (Tyler would later work with Kerr's trumpet-playing son, also Clyde, in his own band).
He began working professionally in the city almost immediately, and his first significant engagement came when he joined the band led by trumpeter Dave Bartholemew in 1950. It had a considerable local reputation, and often furnished personnel to back visiting artists in both concerts and recordings.
"I learned about musicianship and professionalism from Dave," Tyler recalled. "We had to dress in a suit and tie, and when we came onto the bandstand we couldn't pick up our horns and run through tunes with each other. He'd stop us and say, 'Look, you don't practice on the bandstand. You practice at home.' There was no drinking or smoking on the bandstand, and if you were late for rehearsal or the gig, you were fined. Dave was a good trumpet player. He had traveled with Jimmy Lunceford's orchestra, and he had learned by playing with a lot of the major bands in the city before he formed his own."
Despite an increasingly full workload with the band and in freelance studio engagements, Tyler also liked to jam in the city's jazz clubs whenever possible, where he remembers a thriving bebop scene during the 1950s, playing alongside musicians like clarinetist Alvin Batiste or pianist Ellis Marsalis, the father of Wynton and Branford Marsalis.
His professional career continued to be focussed on the more commercially lucrative rhythm and blues genre. He made his recording debut with Bartholemew's band on Fats Domino's "They Call Me The Fat Man", and became part of an elite session unit known simply as the Studio Band. They were famous not only for their ability to play anything which might be required, but for the spontaneous feel of their arrangements, many of which were concocted or significantly modified on the spot in the studio, a process which Tyler felt "may have been why some of the things were so groovy -- they were done how we felt, not how they were written."
Satisfied customers included not only Fats Domino, but also Little Richard, Lloyd Price, Jimmy Clanton, Lee Dorsey, Aaron Neville, and numerous other rhythm and blues artists. In the early 1960s, Tyler was involved in setting up a new record label, AMO Records, but in 1967, decided to take a non-musical day job as a liquor salesman.
Paradoxically, that decision meant that he was able to concentrate much more on his first love, modern jazz. He has said on many occasions that his real inspriation was the music of the bebop era, and that "the Charlie Parkers and Dizzy Gillespies were my real heroes." Although still taking part in occasional recording session with artists like the idiosyncratic Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown and Johnny Adams, his musical focus from the late-60s onwards lay in leading his own jazz bands -- and often writing his own material -- in the city's clubs, and was able to find spots like his ten-year residence at Mason's Motel Lounge which spared him the necessity "of having to be on Bourbon Street playing tourist music."
While the baritone saxophone had been his primary instrument during his years as a studio musician, his jazz playing gradually came to rely much more on tenor saxophone, and his rich, soulful sound found a fine showcase in two autumnal albums for the Rounder label, Heritage and Graciously, in the late 1980s.