Life Lessons with Charlie Gabriel

At eighty-nine, the New Orleans jazz icon celebrates a debut album—and more milestones

Photo: Danny Clinch

Charlie Gabriel.

There’s an easy-going peace to Charlie Gabriel. The long-tenured member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has a warmth and a smile that only bears describing as infectious. He’s a fabulous storyteller, slow and careful with his descriptions of a place, willing to wander in memory but never straying too far from present company.

He’s attentive: to the people around him; to his deep spirituality. If you ask Gabriel the first thing he does in the morning, he replies, “I talk to God and give him thanks, of course.” And if you ask any real jazz fan, anywhere in the world, if they’ve heard of Charlie Gabriel, you’ll get a resounding, yes.

photo: Courtesy of Charlie Gabriel
A vintage photograph of Gabriel.

A fourth-generation musician, Gabriel plays clarinet, saxophone, and flute. He’s been wowing audiences since his first shows at the age of 11, when he was hired on for gigs with the Eureka Brass Band. Decades later, he worked with Lionel Hampton, whose band then included Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, and a young Aretha Franklin, and he played for and with the late King of Thailand in Bangkok on several occasions.

Gabriel can now be found many-a-night playing in New Orleans’ most sacred space for jazz—he’s been a member since 2006, and acts as the Preservation Hall Foundation’s musical director. And that’s all at the age of eighty-nine, a milestone he celebrated earlier this year with the release of a new, deeply personal, debut album called 89.

photo: Danny Clinch
Gabriel playing the clarinet.

He recorded the album, which includes two original songs alongside his interpretations of six jazz standards, during the worst of the pandemic and in the wave of grief that followed losing Leonard—his last living sibling—to Covid-19. Produced by Matt Aguiluz, with Gabriel sitting twenty feet from his cocreators, Joshua Starkman and Ben Jaffe, 89 is a testament to a storied and important career; a loving tribute to family and friends; and a ray of light born from a dark time.

I arrived on a brilliant spring day last week to interview him. The weather absolutely catered to a screen porch, so we sat on one—the very same where Gabriel recorded the album. Dapper as always, with a pressed shirt and a tailored, navy suit, Gabriel got down to business, discussing New Orleans in the 1940s, Louis Armstrong’s wonderful sense of humor, and what 89 means to him—both the age and the album.

Why is New Orleans home?

I was born here for one thing. I was born at Charity Hospital, and I like to say I came into this world for free. There’s no place in the universe like New Orleans. I find it to be so hospitable. The people here will do anything for you. The food is so special. I’ve been around this environment all my life, and there’s no place I’d rather be.

You grew up in the Sixth Ward. Do you have a favorite memory of those times, in the 1940s and ’50s?

When I was smaller, we used to go across the railroad on Basin Street. They had a train station on Canal and Basin way back then, and we would go up there and run down the railroad tracks. We would throw the football and kick the can. There was this stop where one of the trains would offload bananas. We would wait there and catch the falling bananas. Some were rotten, but some were ripe. I must have been about seven around then.

photo: Courtesy of Charlie Gabriel
A vintage image of young Gabriel.

That was right around the age when you began playing music, right?

Yeah, I have five brothers, and my father taught all of us. He was a very good musician—a drummer. He got rheumatism and couldn’t play. So he asked my mother, “Emily, show me the skills on the saxophone.” He became a saxophone and a clarinet player. When I was little, my brothers were all playing trumpet. I wanted to learn, but my dad said, “No, there are already too many trumpet players in this house!” The first instrument he gave me was a clarinet; a C clarinet, not a B-flat. By me having a C, I had to play a lot of violin parts. It was very interesting for me to learn like that. Then, I had a C melody saxophone. Man, my dad kept me in C for a long time.

89 is named for the birthday you are celebrating this July. Is there one track on it that’s a favorite?

There are two originals (“Yellow Moon” and “The Darker It Gets”) and the others are jazz standards. “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You)”—I heard Louis Armstrong sing that. That’s my favorite on the album.

You met Louis Armstrong?

He came to town from Chicago with his band. He and my dad were friends. Dad took me down there, and I played my clarinet for Louis. He looked at me and rubbed my head and said, “I’m gonna take this boy on the road.” You know, I believed him! I still laugh about that. I was about eleven or twelve, and here I really thought he was going to take me out with him. Then, I met him again when I was seventeen. I never got to play with him, but he was a lot of fun to talk to. He had a great sense of humor. It never took much to make Louis laugh.

Any wisdom at eight-nine that you’d tell yourself at twenty-nine?

Not being funny, I would tell myself to keep my mouth closed at twenty-nine. Surround yourself with older people, and they will teach you things. I grew up very sheltered by a lot of older musicians, who treated me like a son. If my father couldn’t play a show, he would say, “Take the kid.” I had the opportunity to learn from these older musicians, in their fifties and sixties, from a very early age. Even during conversations they were having with each other in the car, I was learning all the time.

What’s 89 mean to you as an album?

It’s the gift that I never could have dreamed of. I have to thank Ben and Joshua and Matt for it. This album really expresses who we are as musicians. We had to be separated, because of the pandemic, but we could still hear each other. We had to figure it out. And some days, we just sat and drank coffee. The music wasn’t there. Other days, we played all day. We really lived through all those hard days together.

We hear you are quite the formidable opponent in a game of chess. Where’d you learn?

August Gabriel, my brother. He called me up one day and said, “Man, let me teach you this game.” I said, “I ain’t got no time to play a game. I’m out here making money.” But he sat me down and taught me how to play. At that time, his daughters were eleven or twelve, and they already knew how to play. They would whoop me. Those kids are now sixty-five.

* * *

Just like that, Charlie turns to Ben Jaffe and moves a single piece on the board. I take the cue to pack up my things. “He’s being humble if he tells you he’s just okay,” Jaffe offers, studying the board. “Charlie is a master. I’ve never seen anyone beat him, unless he makes a mistake. He’s not going to be bested. He’s only ever going to slip up and accidentally let you win.”

Gabriel’s album is now available on Spotify and Amazon, or, for a presale copy of 89 on vinyl, head here.