James Black (February 1, 1940 – August 30, 1988) was an American drummer who established his career working on a wide range of projects. Well, he may be a little known outside New Orleans and never had a record on his name, but he is a legend. He was a drummer for Crescent City, with the energy to perform a wide range of music styles. The drummer had a huge talent with his instruments, which allowed him to work on complex modernist jazz grooves and the gritty funk, among other techniques, with ease.
James Black was not only an excellent drummer but an accomplished composer too. His reputation as a wonderful bandleader made him a favorite for many bands across New Orleans. The drummer’s personality was just as intimidating as his skills. He combined them well to become one of the most sought-after drummers.
He was born in New Orleans, which soaked him in the “second line” rhythms since he was a little boy. Hence, he was exposed early to the right environment for his career. By the early 60s, when he was only starting his teenage years, James was already a session drummer for greats like Fats Domino. His ability to adapt helped him learn different styles and work flawlessly with a wide range of artists.
James was always fascinated with jazz music, and that is where he started. He came to play with a band with young Ellis Marsabis, a pianist and saxophonist Nat Perrilliat. In 1962, Nat Adderley and his brother Cannonball used the three in a session. James contributed two compositions, and it was one of his greatest turning points.
In ’63, Marsalis created an album of modern jazz that was titled “Monkey Puzzle.” Black worked on four of the seven compositions. He started with the intriguing 5/4 song called Magnolia Triangle, which became one of his greatest pieces.
James Black always aimed for the best. In the mid-1960s, they worked on several pieces with Yusuf Lateef and Lionel Hampton. This project was interrupted by a sting in Angola State Penitentiary, but he continued playing in the prison band. Blues pianist James Booker sax player Charles Neville was part of this team.
As the 60s came to a close, James did RnB gigs around New Orleans, landing a major one at the Scram label as their drummer. He continued playing with many other artists, including work with Eddie Bo’s “Hook and Sling.” He was part of the team that crafted the great New Orleans funk singles. He was soon sailing with Smokey Johnson and Meter’s Ziggy Models and the best local drummers.
James became a leader in the James Black Ensemble, a group he had created. He tried to record a full-length album severally, but it never went far. He kept performing in New Orleans through the 80s, alongside Marsalis. Apart from that, he served in the 1982 Marsalis Family Album called Fathers and Sons. James succumbed to a drug overdose on August 30, 1988. The Night Train label put together many of his tracks he had not yet released.