Celebrating Charles Neville: Musicians and friends rally for the saxophone legend 

  • Charles Neville, foreground left, leads music students in a parade at the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival. Photo by Ed Cohen

  • Singer Henri Smith, here with an umbrella at the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, will perform at Saturday’s benefit concert for Charles Neville. Photo by Ed Cohen

  • Another sax great, Branford Marsalis, who first heard Charles Neville play when he was growing up in Louisiana, will perform at Saturday’s show.

  • Charmaine Neville, Charles’ daughter, will join her brothers Khalif and Talyn at the Academy of Music on stage on Saturday.

  • Another key member of The Neville Brothers: Singer Aaron Neville will perform for his ailing brother on Saturday.

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 01, 2018

Well before he moved to western Massachusetts in the late 1990s, Charles Neville was a legend, a master of the saxophone whose playing, on his own or with his brothers Aaron, Art and Cyril — the Grammy-winning band The Neville Brothers — could light up jazz, be-bop, blues, R&B and a whole lot more. 

And since settling in Huntington with his wife, Kristin, and their children, Neville has made many more connections with musicians and people in the Valley. He’s a “gentle giant,” one local player calls him, who makes other people feel at ease.

Now the New Orleans native, who’s 79, is facing a tough fight with pancreatic cancer. So his friends and family are pitching in with a benefit concert for him — and the breadth of the performers, as well as advance tickets sales for the show, are evidence of the deep bonds Neville has forged in his adopted home, organizers say.

“Celebrating Charles,” which takes place at the Academy of Music in Northampton Saturday evening, is designed both to raise money for the Neville family’s medical expenses and Charles’ lost income and to honor the music he has created — music, the show’s producer says, that has touched the lives of many.

“This is a way for us to give back to a guy who has given so much to our community,” said Kyle Homstead of Laudable Productions, whose Easthampton company is producing the show. “And the way people have responded is a sign of just how transformative [Neville’s] music is, how it brings people together.”

The show’s lineup is a mix of local and more far-flung talent, including another saxophone legend: Branford Marsalis, a Louisiana native himself who remembers first hearing Charles Neville “when I was just a snot-nosed kid,” as he put it during a phone call from his home in North Carolina.

“I’ve known Charles pretty much forever,” said Marsalis, 57, who like Neville has played a variety of music over the years, from jazz to pop to classical. “In New Orleans, everyone knew the Neville Brothers.” Marsalis, in fact, played on their 1987 album “Uptown” and has gigged with Charles Neville at other times.

When he learned (through Aaron Neville’s Facebook page) that Charles was ill and that a concert to raise money for him and his family had been scheduled, Marsalis says he got in touch with Laudable Productions and asked if he could be part of the show.

“I ain’t a doctor, but I can do this,” Marsalis said. “When you’re from New Orleans, you’re family.”

Speaking of family, Saturday’s show will also feature Aaron Neville, singer Charmaine Neville (Charles’ daughter), and his sons, Khalif (keyboards) and Talyn (drums). Other performers include singer Henri Smith, a New Orleans native who moved to Massachusetts after Hurricane Katrina, and saxophonist Amadee Castenell.

A “house band” with area musicians such as bassist Guy DeVito and guitarist/keyboardist/singer Mitch Chakour will help anchor the concert and back up the other guest musicians, Homstead said. All of the musicians in the show are playing for free, he noted.

DeVito, of Shutesbury, who’s played with many musicians over the years including Charles Neville, said he didn’t know what to expect when he first did a gig with him, given that he was such a huge figure in the jazz and R&B worlds.

“He turned out to be a dream to work with,” he said. “Charles is such a gentle, warm and giving person. He’ll play with anyone, and he has such a great sense of calm — he puts you at ease.”

“It’s really an honor for me to be asked to play this show,” DeVito added.

Coming together

Homstead said he and his partner, artist Casandra Holden, have known the Nevilles for some time and have become close to the family. He first met Charles Neville in the 1990s when he was working sound at the Iron Horse in Northampton, and in more recent years he has worked with Kristin Neville to help produce the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, where Charles Neville has also played.

When he learned last fall that Charles Neville had fallen ill, Homstead said, “I saw a need to help out, and I thought we could do an event that would really be kind of about civic pride, too, a celebration of [Neville’s] music and what he’s brought to the Valley.”

Chakour, of Amherst, also boasts a long musical resume — he was once Joe Cocker’s music director, keyboardist and vocalist and has played with The J. Geils Band, Chuck Berry, Bonnie Raitt and, of course, Charles Neville. He said he has always been struck by Neville’s combination of calmness and his passion for music.

“He’s such a sweet, gentle guy,” he said. “He’s kind of got this aura around him of calm. But he’s still got that fire in him, too, and you see it, you hear it, when he plays.”

And, Chakour said, Neville’s got the mark “that all the great musicians have — when they solo, it’s like they’re singing. He’s just got a unique sound and groove.”

“I’m humbled to be part of this show,” said Chakour, who added that his son, Alex, also a seasoned musician who has played with Aaron Neville, will join Saturday’s concert as a bassist.

Homstead notes that the concert will honor not just Neville’s music but his commitment to younger musicians in the region, such as the teaching he has done for free at the Springfield Community Music Center. “He’s mentored a lot of young players,” he said.

Over the past 10 years or so, Neville has also has given talks at schools and other settings about his experiences playing music in the Jim Crow South. In an interview with the Gazette in 2015, he said he liked sharing those stories as one way to show how race relations had improved over the years, with music serving as an important means for overcoming barriers. 

Charles Neville won’t be at the show, which at press time was sold out; he’s being treated for cancer in a hospital in Boston. But Homstead said Saturday’s show will be recorded and videotaped so that the sax legend can have a record of the performance. 

Homstead said the concert has been generously supported by volunteers and organizations such as New England Public Radio and Klondike Sound, which will be assisting with sound engineering at the show. And, he said, you can still make a donation to the Neville family through the event’s website, celebratingcharles.org, even if you can’t make it to the show.

“It truly is a community event,” he said.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Celebrating Charles” takes place Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Academy of Music in Northampton. A pre-show reception for certain donors starts at 7 p.m. with refreshments and an opportunity to meet the guest artists. For information about making a donation to the Neville family, visit celebratingcharles.org.