Home made with music: Charles Neville and his son Khalif are just two of the stars in a family universe of musicians

Last modified: Monday, February 29, 2016
*Archive Article*
Out in the wilds of Huntington, saxophone lines wind around the bare trees of late fall. The reedy notes emanate from a yurt beside Charles Neville’s house. The small, round interior is lined with tie-dyed banners, which Neville got while touring with a Grateful Dead-style jam band. His son Khalif, 19, sits nearby at a keyboard, listening.

The yurt used to be where Neville taught music lessons and meditated. It’s been less-used while its doorway was under construction, but it’s one of two spots where music regularly happens at the Neville home. Walk in the front door of their stucco contemporary, and you’re greeted with a drum kit, a centerpiece of sorts in a wide space that also includes a dining table, a kitchen and a seating area. Near the drums, one of Neville’s saxophones sits on a stand, and behind that, there’s an upright piano.

In the yurt this day, the sax music is bluesy, then it turns fast, and a phrase ends with a sense of suspense, hanging on an unusual interval instead of an easy resolution.

After a few more phrases, Neville stops: “Was that a sharp 9?”

Khalif says something half-hearable in reply, but in the back and forth, it’s clear he’s at ease talking chord color with his father. It’s no wonder: He’s heir to a long tradition of family music-making.

Charles Neville, at 76, is the second eldest of New Orleans’ musical royalty the Neville Brothers, and Neville sister Athelgra sings with the Dixie Cups, of “Chapel of Love” and “Iko Iko” fame.

As the Neville Brothers, the siblings gained praise from the likes of the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards, who declared their “Fiyo on the Bayou” the best album of 1981. Since then, they’ve scored gold and platinum records in six countries. They’ve done so not on the strength of a big hit or two alone, but also on the strength of entire albums and a longstanding reputation as New Orleans’ first family of funk.

They were a fixture at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival before holding a farewell concert last May. They’ve had plenty of success on their own as well. The eldest, Art, formed the Meters, a seminal New Orleans band. Aaron, with his distinctive soft-touch falsetto, scored a number one hit in 1966 with “Tell It Like It Is,” and won Grammies in the 1990s with Linda Ronstadt for the duets “Don’t Know Much” and “All My Life.” The youngest, Cyril, in addition to successes with The Meters, founded New Orleans Musicians Organized (NOMO), which helps musicians in need of business advice.

And now, the next generation is stepping up.

Music all around

Khalif plays keyboards and raps, and his 13-year-old brother, Talyn, a student at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School in South Hadley, plays drums. “He’s gotten really good this past year,” Charles Neville says of Talyn. He’s been playing since he was 6 and already has participated in some intergenerational gigs with his father and brother.

Neville’s daughter from an earlier relationship, Charmaine, 59, sings in her own band in New Orleans. And their cousins, the offspring of the other Neville brothers, are busy with their own musical careers.

So, it’s no surprise that there is music all around at the Neville home, whether it’s just for fun or a more organized pre-gig rehearsal.

Kristin Neville, Charles’ wife and the boys’ mother, plays clarinet. The only non-musical family member is son Carlos, who works as a chef at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst: “He makes his music in the pots and pans,” says Neville.

Charles Neville possesses a calm demeanor behind his trademark moustache. When he picks up his instrument, notes fly out of his horn with a natural grace.

Khalif seems equally at ease behind his keyboard, but when he raps, he’s got a healthy dose of swagger and a smooth delivery that works well over the funky soundscapes of his group the Defenestrators. Khalif, who started playing piano at age 10, had his first gig in 2013 at Hinge in downtown Northampton. He’s newly graduated from the performing arts charter school, and his yellow mortarboard sits near the Nevilles’ dining table — atop it is a sign reading “Big Chief” (Khalif’s nickname) with a drawing of a microphone.

Both Charles and Khalif are regulars all over the Pioneer Valley, from the Full Moon Coffeehouse in Wendell to Gateway City Arts in Holyoke. Still, the pair play plenty of shows with others. The night before their recent yurt jam, Neville performed in New Haven, and Khalif in Worcester, each with his own band.

Khalif says his father and his uncles have had a large influence on him. “It’s not like I’ve studied their recordings or something, but having gone on tour with them and listened to them all my life, I think it’s ingrained in my musical subconscious. That’s definitely helped my playing and my style.”

A major part of that influence has nothing to do with any one genre, though the Neville Brothers often get labeled a funk band. If anything, they’re a reflection of their hometown, a blend of funk, jazz, rock, and everything else that’s gotten mixed into the mud of the Mississippi.

“In New Orleans,” says Neville, “if you were a musician, you weren’t a blues, jazz or funk musician, you were just a musician; you might get called on to play a jazz funeral, a country-Western gig, a dance hall, or a bebop gig. You had to do it all.”

Khalif seems to have taken that approach in stride. The music he writes is mostly hip-hop, but he’s no stranger to other styles — particularly jazz. “When I look for people to play with, I look for people who can play jazz — you have to have a certain level of skill to get by. It’s a lot easier to go from jazz to hip-hop than the other way around,” he says.

Deep roots

Charles Neville had a remarkable life, growing up on New Orleans’ poverty-stricken Valence Street, then in a housing project in another ward of the city. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Neville says, Valence Street and the projects have been torn down and reconfigured.

His parents both sang, and music was a constant in his family as far back as he can remember.

“When we were 8, 9, 10, 11, we started a doo-wop group,” he said of his brothers. A few years later, he did stints on both instruments in a drum and bugle corps. And not long after that, he discovered the saxophone. He knew he’d found his instrument.

He put it to work right away, joining the house band at New Orleans’ Dew Drop Inn, where big-name blues players filled the roster. That gig led him to playing and/or touring with folks like Jimmy Reed, Big Maybelle, James Brown, B.B. King, Bobby Bland and Ray Charles. He also backed New Orleans names like Allen Toussaint and Ernie K-Doe.

Neville played with his brother, Art, too, in a band called Turquoise. Eventually, he and Art left New Orleans in search of adventure beyond their hometown, enlisting in the Navy. To Neville’s surprise, that took him not to parts unknown, but to a post in Memphis, where he ended up befriending B.B. King and playing in that town’s blues-filled Beale Street clubs.

In the Navy, Neville also discovered drugs, and ended up with a heroin addiction that lasted years. But it was a minor offense — possession of two marijuana joints — that got him sentenced to five years in Lousiana’s infamous Angola prison. After that, he headed for New York to play music, eventually joining forces with his brothers.

By then, he had played with a long list of people in several genres. “But I found that playing with family was easier,” he says. “I’d play (recording) sessions with other musicians in New York, and we’d have four or five rehearsals.”

But when the Neville Brothers recorded their first album, “The Wild Tchoupitoulas,” he says with smile, “We had no rehearsals. And it came out great.”

When the band started putting tunes together, he adds, “We never wrote out anything. We’d arrange it, and assign the parts to it, and we’d all just figure out a way to fit in.”

Neville believes there’s something about family that makes that work. “I think there’s some kind of connection that allows us to feel each other more easily.”

Passing it on

That connection, Khalif says, has other advantages. “He got me into playing at a young age. It was a lot easier for me to learn from him than from other teachers.”

“I gave him books and DVDs, and I started talking to him about theory,” says Charles Neville. “I got him listening to great piano players. And, of course, we practiced a lot together.”

Impromptu sessions happen regularly.

“We play for fun, just to try things,” says Neville.

But more formal rehearsals are easier with family, too, he says. “It feels like work playing with other people. With family, it’s less judgmental. There’s less stress. And they’re your family, so they’re not going to fire you.”

In the late 1990s, Neville moved to western Massachusetts with Kristin, a Valley native he married in 1995. The two met at the famed New Orleans music club Tipitina’s in the late 1980s, when, Neville says, he spotted her near the front of the crowd and got her number when the band took a break.

Though he’s lived in Memphis, Mobile, Brooklyn and even Rhode Island and Vermont, Neville prefers it here.

“It’s totally different from New Orleans, but I really like it. Here you’re out in the woods. You don’t have to worry about people stopping by, and you don’t have to worry about bullets coming in your windows from drive-bys,” he says. “You just have to watch out for the bears and coyotes and porcupines. I know people who grew up in New Orleans who’ve never seen a porcupine or raccoon.”

Kristin Neville may not be out playing gigs like her husband and children, but she’s made a mark on the music scene as well: She produces the annual Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival. And in 2014, that festival saw another familial high point when Charles was joined by his daughter, Charmaine, and her son, Damion, a rapper, onstage.

There’s now a northerly branch of the New Orleans dynasty beginning to grow. Referring particularly to his sons, Neville says, “Wherever we go, I’ve been talking to promoters about bringing in the New England Neville Brothers.”

In the end, music has proven to be more than a family business, he says. “It keeps a spiritual connection between us.”

Charles Neville plays in Greenfield with Roger Salloom at the Arts Block at 7 p.m. and Sunday in Ashfield with Peter J. Newland and RadioXile at 7 p.m. at the Ashfield Community Hall, 521 Main St..

James Heflin can be reached at: