Amadee Castenell brings musical riches from New Orleans to Massachusetts

Amadee Castenell displays his trademark sense of joy in performance during a GimmeLive show at Gloucester Stage Company last month.

There is a telling scene in the landmark television series “Treme” in which Elvis Costello and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint are in the studio control room listening to a brass section record its part for the stars’ collaborative album, “The River in Reverse.” A few bars in, Toussaint brings it to a halt to call trumpeter Joe Foxx’s attention to a riff. “You know what you were doing right there? Don’t do it,” Toussaint says firmly. “At that point, all we want to hear is the sweet reediness of Amadee.”
With that exchange in the HBO original series about the musical and cultural reclamation of post-Katrina New Orleans, Toussaint is alluding to his saxophonist Amadee Castenell, a Crescent City legend in his own right, having played every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since 1972, and been featured in a painting that served as the 1985 JazzFest poster.
Toussaint is far from alone in his desire to hear “the sweet reediness of Amadee,” who has been a musical staple in New Orleans for 50 years, even as he’s called Massachusetts home for half that time. Castenell’s move to Wakefield in 1994 was sparked by a love interest, and a growing sense of desolation in his hometown. “All of the guys that were heroes of mine were either dead or had stopped touring, leaving me alone in the desert,” Castenell said last week.
In Massachusetts, anyone who hears him falls for that “sweet reediness,” and Castenell’s even sweeter demeanor. That love interest became his wife of 27 years, and the avid support of the local music community matches or exceeds that he received in New Orleans. Everyone wants to play with Amadee Castenell, so the 69-year-old master is back to where he was in his heyday as a youngster when — as young as 19 — he was in such high demand he was playing gigs six or seven nights a week.
Perhaps there is no greater tribute to the love felt for Castenell in these parts than the genesis of his new album, the Black Rose Records release “Amadee and His Driving Force.” Every person involved — from executive producer, studio owner and recording engineer Bill Smith to the 12 fellow musicians — did it for no compensation other than the fun and privilege of working with the Grammy Award winner. (See accompanying review.)
“That’s why I call them my ‘Driving Force,’” Castenell said. “It is a blessing and a dream come true because I could never afford to pay for the recordings. But the players, they believe in me, and they care enough about me to record one or two nights in the studio with me at no charge. And Bill doesn’t charge me. It’s a gift.”

Musical education

To appreciate how Castenell immersed and established himself in the music of his native New Orleans, only to depart it a decade before Hurricane Katrina forced out so many others, you have to understand how storm warnings sounded for him much earlier.
Born the son of New Orleans artisan plasterer Amadee Castenell Sr., young Amadee immersed himself in the rich musical tradition of his hometown, first playing clarinet and then trumpet, until a collision in a high school football game altered his future path.
“I got hit in the face and had both my front teeth knocked out. They kind of wired them back in, but I couldn’t play trumpet with them like that,” he said, explaining he then picked up his younger brother’s saxophone and started playing that instead.
“I guess it worked out all right,” he added with a laugh.
Soon thereafter Castenell was chosen for a high school project,  recording at famed Cosimo Studios in the heart of the French Quarter, where he got his introduction to Toussaint, a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and the man who would become one of the biggest boosters of his career.
“We got done recording and were listening to the playback, and then this guy came walking in, almost like silk, so smooth, dressed to the max, and he sat behind the baby grand and started playing all kinds of stuff,” Castenell said of Toussaint, the awe still fresh in his voice. “We were sitting there with our mouths open. … We were too scared to say anything to him because it sounded so good.”
Castenell went on to get a music education degree at Dillard University, but said he got his real education from Toussaint and another New Orleans legend, trumpeter and bandleader  Dave Bartholomew, with whom Castenell also played and toured for years.
“I like to say I got my degree from Dillard but I got my PhD from Allen and Dave,” Castenell said. “They taught me so much.”
When Castenell, at 22, became the music director for one of the city’s most enduring R&B bands, Chocolate Milk, signing a deal with RCA, Toussaint came aboard to produce the band’s third album, beginning a relationship that would span nearly 40 years and endure until the pianist’s death in 2015. Even though that 1976 album, “Coming,” climbed the Billboard R&B charts and made inroads on the pop charts, Castenell soon got his first taste of the negative side of the business. Rev. Jesse Jackson targeted the album for its risqué lyrics and themes (“You got me coming for your love …”), urging boycotts that undid the momentum. Five years and three releases later, RCA, then seven albums into the 10-record deal with the band, piled on. 
“The album ‘Blue Jeans’ came out in 1981, the beginning of the MTV era, so we told RCA we wanted to make a video,” Castenell said. “RCA came back with, ‘We don’t know about that. Kids don’t want to see old people in a video.’ I was 32 years old at the time! Most of us were around 30, and they were telling us we were too old?
“When you hear that you know you’re on your way out, and I told the guys that.”

‘My horn is my voice’

Castenell continues to play festival dates with Chocolate Milk, but the loss of the RCA deal and his growing reputation as a master on saxophone and flute, opened the door for more performances with Toussaint and Bartholomew, in addition to more studio work — his first love. In the three-plus decades since, he has recorded with a veritable Who’s Who of New Orleans music, including Toussaint, Bartholomew, the Neville Brothers, Jon Cleary, Johnny Adams, Fats Domino, Terrance Simien and Dr. John, with whom he won a Grammy.
“I got to be one of the regular calls on the telephone for session work because I could read [music], and I could play in tune, and I had a concept about soloing that a lot of guys don’t have — in other words, keeping your solo within the character of the song,” Castenell said of earning his first-call status in New Orleans. “Like ‘Yakety Sax.’ You can’t play like Charlie Parker on ‘Yakety Sax.’”
Even to the untrained listener, that “concept about soloing” is as clear to the ear as Castenell’s pinpoint perfection. It makes sense when he explains the approach that puts him in service to the song rather than vice versa.
“When I’m playing, I’m thinking more like a vocalist and less instrumentalist. I’m thinking Chaka Khan, and people who can sing.” he said. “I can’t [sing] but my horn can, so I’m singing. … My horn is my voice, and it is even another language that I can’t even explain.”
Castenell acknowledges that he sometimes can’t understand where it comes from, suggesting some spiritual influence in the out-of-body experience he often feels in the studio.
“I hear the playback and I say, ‘I don’t know how I did that. Maybe somebody else is in there with me.’ I just close my eyes sometimes and I think they take me over and grab my horn from me and play all kinds of good things,” he said with a chuckle in trademark modesty. “I come back in [the control room] and listen and say, ‘I played this? Whoa! I don’t remember playing this. How did I do that?’”

‘The Big Hustle’

The studio session work became a lifeline for him in New Orleans, even as the sense of being “alone in the desert” crept in.
“I thank God I was the No. 1 studio guy in the city for almost 30 years, so I was basically staying around for sessions, like when somebody big would come through town — Solomon Burke or somebody — I would get the call. So I was basically sticking around and waiting for those calls, and gigging back on Bourbon Street again.
“But the Big Easy is not easy as people think it is. The pace is just the opposite. It’s easy and carefree looking from the outside but when you get in it, it ain’t easy. It’s the opposite. It’s the ‘Big Hustle.’ … There are a lot of snakes down there.”
Castenell said he was feeling resentment for finding himself forced back to Bourbon Street 20 years after gigging there as a teen-ager. “The saying is that Bourbon Street is where musicians go to die,” he said. “And in a way it’s true because everybody passes through but nobody stays. Ain’t nobody calls you for work.”
That’s when the French Quarter’s tourist-laden main street presented a life-changing moment.
“I met a young lady on Bourbon Street, and she was from [Massachusetts],” Castenell said of his future wife Priscilla. “She invited me to come to her house for Thanksgiving [in 1992], and as soon as I got here I felt a tremendous relief — like the weight of the world had been lifted from me.”
Castenell still wasn’t sure what his future held after his first Thanksgiving in Massachusetts. He knew only that he had to return to New Orleans to finalize his divorce, if nothing else.
Just over a year later, as he had begun entertaining thoughts of leaving his hometown, he arrived at another intersection with fate. Priscilla and he maintained their friendship, and she made plans to travel to New Orleans for New Year’s Eve to usher in 1994.
What Castenell didn’t know is that Priscilla was bringing him a Christmas gift of a new saxophone to replace his worn and faltering Mark VI tenor, which she kiddingly called the “Green Hornet” for its time-heavy patina.
“When I went to pick her up at the hotel she gave it to me — it’s the Yamaha I’m using now,” he said. “I had no idea.”
Twenty-four hours later, Castenell had an idea on the spur of the moment.
Said Castenell: “When I brought [Priscilla] to the airport the next day in her rental car, before I returned it, I asked her, ‘Do you have enough money to fly me, too?’ Priscilla said, ‘One way?’ And I said, ‘Yes, one way.’ … 
“I had just the clothes on my back and my horn, and I never looked back.”

Taking it to the bridge

Castenell never had any regrets about leaving New Orleans on such a whim, even though he had no concrete plans but to take a needed respite. 
“I was having problems at the time with alcohol, which in turn brings about problems in a marriage,” he said. “It was time to leave and make a change. And leaving was the best thing I could’ve done.
“Originally, when I came up here, I didn’t come to move or to live. I thought maybe I’d stay a year and try to get myself together like Sonny Rollins did at the [Williamsburg] Bridge. I didn’t think I knew anybody up here, so I didn’t think I’d be playing any time soon.”
Shortly after arriving in Wakefield, Castenell reached out to his friend Paul Shaffer, then-bandleader for “Late Night with David Letterman.” He said he called planning to ask Shaffer about places to play in and around Boston, and to feel Shaffer out about possibly joining the Letterman band.
“Paul told me they had a new club called the House of Blues, and told me to go check it out,” Castenell said of the original franchise venue in Harvard Square. 
When he learned the House of Blues was staging a tribute show to the recently deceased Albert King, with whom he’d frequently performed, Castenell set out for Harvard Square that chilly winter night.
“It was like 2° outside and I was waiting in line with my horn. I finally went up to the door and gave the guy my card, and then went back in line,” he said. “But I got too cold and had to leave, only to find out they came looking for me a few minutes later. As it turns out, [Mighty] Sam McLain was upstairs, and when he heard I was outside, McLain told them, ‘Oh, damn! Y’all better get this motherfucker. Go outside and bring him up here right now!’”
Early the next morning, Castenell got a call from the House of Blues talent buyer inviting him to join the “Blue Monday” showcase. It became not only a steady gig but his calling card in Boston. 
Soon everyone knew Amadee Castenell and his phone was ringing as much as it had in New Orleans. He knew he had found a home — and love. He got married to Priscilla, and started playing with multiple bands while still returning to his hometown often for recording sessions, JazzFests and other big shows. 

Heart-stopping moments

When Castenell discusses life-changing events, he singles out one as most profound: the heart attack he suffered at home in 2008.
He was resting on the couch and watching TV when it struck without warning. “The best thing I can relate it to is it feels like you’re standing there and somebody hits you in the back with a harpoon and it comes out the other side,” he said. “It’s a Charlie horse in your chest but you can’t rub it out.”
Though it was debilitating, leaving him too weak to even get off the couch, Castenell tried to dismiss it as a passing pain. He didn’t even tell Priscilla until the next day.
She urged with him to go to the hospital but he declined for another day. Still weakened by it, Castenell finally listened to the pleading of longtime local collaborator Parker Wheeler and checked himself into the hospital.”
“The doctor told me that if I’d waited 10 more hours, I’d have been dead,” he said. “The main artery, the one they call ‘The Widow Maker,’ was 99 percent blocked.”
Castenell required quadruple bypass surgery, and an abrupt change of perspective.
“It was a pivotal thing in my life, because I had died. When you die and come back, you realize you got a second chance at things,” Castenell said. “It made me change a lot more than I expected to. It made me change my habits. [Now] I try not to do anything that can hurt you. …
“And it gave me more joy in playing, and in life, period. It makes you appreciate things that you almost lost. I never forget that.”
Castenell didn’t need a refresher course, but he got one last year when, on the way to a gig at Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen in the South End, he suffered cardiac arrest driving on Melnea Cass Boulevard, and struck a utility pole, totaling his car. He shockingly walked away without a scratch.
There was evidence of the cardiac arrest, but no other signs of damage or cause despite extensive testing. One doctor told Castenell the impact with the pole may have restarted his heart, saving his life yet again.
“I do believe it was a miracle,” he said. “Now, I don’t go to church. … I cut out the middleman and go straight to God. Somebody not only saved me but they saved my career to walk away without any injury from a totally demolished car.”
Given the rarity of two “second chances,” Castenell now  embraces the joy in the moment and the music more than ever before. “It really is a blessing,” he said. “I appreciate everything more now. I find greater pleasure in everything.” 

Sharing the love 

The joy in performing has always been evident in Castenell. On stage, he celebrates and elevates his fellow players. Now, it flows as naturally as the notes from his horn and his flute. He will reach across stage to high-five bandmates. He shouts in glee, and grins the second his instruments leave his lips.
Eddie Scheer, another longtime local collaborator and an artist with a similar joie de vivre in performing, loves that unrivaled enthusiasm in his bandmate.
“Amadee brings a tremendous amount of joy to every situation. He’s incredibly positive and supportive of all the musicians around him,” Scheer said. “Both musically and personally, he’s just a great pleasure to be with. I often say ‘Nobody has more fun than Amadee Castenell!’”
Wheeler concurs. Castenell has been a regular partner in the bandleader’s Sunday Blues Party at The Grog in Newburyport for 18 years, and Parker said Castenell’s musicianship and attitude have rubbed off on him, while also giving him a basis in the jazz stylings he loved as a young listener at Connolly’s Stardust Room and The Big M.
Said Wheeler: “I have learned to be a better musician and man and am blessed that, in my own way, I get to play in a style and setting I admired from off stage when I was young.”
As with anything, Castenell humbly shrugs off the attention. Asked why he is so enthusiastic and supportive of his fellow performers, stellar musician that he is, Castenell does not miss a beat.
“That’s because we’re a team,” he said. “It takes a team to win. It’s not about the individual. It’s about the team.”
That notion brought a smile to Castenell’s face. He pointed back to one of the chief things he’s loved about relocating to Massachusetts — the stark difference in the way musicians in Boston and New Orleans interact.
“I am blown away  by how much support we give each other here,” said Castenell, who now lives in Andover. “If someone gets sick, needs help or is looking for work, we are all here for each other.
“Like I said [about New Orleans], there are a lot of snakes there, musicians included. I’ve had club owners tell me, ‘You think that guy is your friend? He just tried to take your gig.’
“Doesn’t happen here. Just the opposite.”
As for the love Toussaint gave him in that “sweet reediness” remark in “Treme,” Castenell has a funny aside as relates to Joe Foxx, the trumpeter Toussaint asks to stand down in the unscripted moment.
“Joe is a high school music teacher,” Castenell said, “and the day after that [episode] aired, he walked into class and all the kids are pointing and laughing, ‘Ha ha, ha, Mr. Smith!’ — that’s his real name — ‘Mr. Toussaint told you to shut up!’”
With his saxophone as his exquisite voice, that is something no one ever tells Amadee Castenell.

Read review of new album “Amadee and His Driving Force” here: