Sax and clarinet player Charlie Gabriel’s roots are in New Orleans traditional jazz, but he made a name for himself playing with Lionel Hampton and Aretha Franklin. Charlie learned how to play saxophone and clarinet from his father in the Crescent City, and he began playing in local bands at age 11. As a teen, his family moved to Detroit, where he lived for almost 60 years before returning home to New Orleans to play with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Charlie Gabriel: When I went to France with Aretha Franklin back in 1969, I got off the band stand, a guy walked up and he said to me, said, “You’re from New Orleans.” I said, “No, I’m not from New Orleans, man,” I say, “I’m from Detroit.” And I wasn’t denying New Orleans but I felt that I was in Detroit since ’48 and this is 1969, I’m with Aretha Franklin, and he got very angry. He shook his head at me and he said, “You’re from New Orleans because it’s in your music.” I didn’t know who I was until that man told me.
CG: My great grandfather was named Narcesse Gabriel and he hailed from Santo Domingo. They moved into New Orleans around 1856.
NS: He's a musician.
CG: Yeah that’s right, he was a bass player. They were doing operas and things in the 1800s. And then my grandfather started playing trumpet with the National Jazz Band back in 1902. My dad was a drummer, and my mother played saxophone. And I played saxophone and clarinet. We had all the ingredients down here to nurse this music. We had all the different nationalities because New Orleans was one of the largest seaports in the country, and all the slaves and everybody came to New Orleans. That’s why they say it’s the Gumbo State, it’s gumbo, because everybody, all them different cultures is New Orleans. Now it’s a national treasure they call American jazz.
NS: What is it that led your family and you to leave when you were 14 and go to Detroit?
CG: You know my younger brothers and sister had decided to give my mother a better lifestyle and take her to California for a better lifestyle.
NS: A lot of New Orleans’ people went there.
CG: Yeah and they were looking for a better lifestyle to get out of segregation and all of that, being segregated at that time. Well by them being young in the early 20s, they decided to take the long route, go through Chicago and all that. They were young people, 23 and 24 years old. But when they got to Detroit they broke down, so they had to go to work to fix the automobile, and they had my mother come to Detroit. But my father told my mother, he said, “Y’all can go to Detroit but you can’t take Charles. He can stay here because I’m teaching him.” I used to get so angry with him, I told him, I said, “Gosh darn it, Daddy, they’ve got good musicians all over the world, why do you have to bring me back to New Orleans?” He said, “Boy, you’re wet behind the ear.” But I realized what he meant by that. The musicians in New Orleans, they are very, very special musicians. They play with so much feeling.
CG: I always had said, I want to go back home, when I close my eyes. I’m going to go back home. I’m going to be on my own turf. And I’m so thankful God gave me that blessing to be at home. I love New Orleans. I never did leave New Orleans mentally.
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