It was 1998, and Charles Neville and I were walking through the French Quarter on a steamy hot Orleans afternoon. Out of nowhere, a small man in a raggedy woolen overcoat approached Charles.
Unhesitatingly, Charles embraced him, exclaiming, “Waterman Willie! When did you get out, brother?”
“Well, here you go.” Charles emptied out his pockets and handed Willie all the bills and change in his possession.
“You make it out of Angola and the odds are still stacked against you,” Charles told me after Willie thanked him and went on his way.
Charles knew. He had made it out of the infamous Angola penitentiary and did more than survive; as a creative artist and human being, he thrived. He was a man – an intellectual with strong metaphysical leanings – deeply committed to expanding consciousness.
The second oldest of the four brilliant Neville brothers, Charles died on April 26th of pancreatic cancer. He was 79 and at peace. He had been at peace for years.
“When you go from criminality to spirituality,” he told me while I was ghostwriting The Brothers, the Nevilles’ autobiography, “your mantra is simple: gratitude, gratitude, gratitude.”
Neville was a precocious science student, but his grammar school project was rejected for admission to a national contest because of his color. “That’s when I said, ‘Fuck it.’ I’ll do whatever I wanna.”
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He learned saxophone well enough to gig with B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Little Walter. He also got hooked on heroin. Minor crimes landed him in Angola.
“My stint was a godsend,” he said. “Despite the inhumane conditions, there were books. I read everyone from Homer to Nietzsche. Ever since genius pianist James Booker was incarcerated, Angola had the baddest band in the land. It was where I was finally able to woodshed and seriously study the masters – Pres, Bird, Trane – with absolute focus. Reflecting on the non-attachment nuances of Zen Buddhism in my miserable piss-stained jail cell was a key to enlightenment. Not to mention getting clean.”
Once out, he eventually worked with siblings Art, Aaron, Cyril and their Uncle Jolly to form the incandescent Wild Tchoupitoulas, the Mardi Gras Indian funk band that brought the divergent brothers together for the first time. That was the mid-Seventies. In the following decades Charles toured with the Brothers, served as featured sideman on Aaron’s solo dates and played jazz clubs with his own group.
Bebop was his bible. Before starting our interviews, he invariably asked that we meditate for 30 minutes and then spend another 30 listening to Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins or Stan Getz.
Brother Aaron called him the Horn Man. His timbre suggested the misty blue shadings of Jug Ammons and Fathead Newman. His colleague Allen Tousssaint described his tone as “so lush it’ll make you blush.”
Charles’ radiant smile was incorruptibly permanent, a smile that said he had unsuccessfully faced, fought and defeated the forces of darkness. Charles lived in lightness. He knew no bitterness.
I listen to his “Safe in Buddha’s Palm” and think of the safety he offered to all who came into his presence. I listen to his “Angel Eyes” and see Charles’ sweet smiling eyes. His sound washes over me like a healing balm.
If greatness is measured by gentle, compassionate and extravagant love, Charles Neville was a great man.