During Neese’s 25-year NYC career, he tooted his trumpet with the likes of Charlie Parker, Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean and Kenny Dorham. He witnessed the charisma and talent of Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and fellow North Carolinian Thelonious Monk. When Neese returned to Greensboro in 1975, he brought with him tales of the club life and an authority on the hard-bop era.
“Charlie Parker used to come down [to the Open Door jazz club],” Neese, now 81 years old, recalls. “He was quite a character. I heard him play one time and it was like standing on the edge of the world. For those guys, I’m still excited about just knowing them. I learned from them and played their music, and I write myself.”
In the ‘70s, however, Neese made as much of an impression on another Greensboro native: Scott Adair, a Berklee graduate and touring saxophonist with the Four Tops and The Temptations. He also once performed as part of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. “It’s interesting: Alan and I graduated from the same high school,” Adair informs. “I graduated in 1969, and by that time they’d changed the name to Grimsley High School. But Alan graduated in  and it was Greensboro High School.”
The men, despite the two-decade age difference, both studied under Greensboro’s legendary Herbert Hazelman, the director of bands for the school system for 40 years.
“When I came home from Berklee, I was involved with some of my contemporaries,” Adair details. “We had a jazz group that did a lot of original material called ‘In Time.’ We happened to be at one of the outdoor festivals in town, and Alan was with a jazz group. I was just knocked out by the style of music he played and the arrangement they had.”
While Neese was in New York with his wife, Shirley, he soaked up the jazz transition from bebop to hard bop, which incorporated more R&B, gospel and blues stylings. The rhythms rolled more as jazz took on a funkier tone.
“That was a classic era of music, because the bebop music was really the beginning of modern jazz,” Adair tells. “It started in the early to mid-’40s, and it peaked by the early ‘50s. So when Alan came to New York, there was—some people refer to it as the post-bop era—hard bop. There was also the cool jazz of the time, so this was a real creative period with a new direction in modern jazz.”
As Neese jokes of the good ol’ days, that time in jazz history was a bit of an artful party. “Back in those days, everybody drank a little, smoked a little,” he quips.
“He and Shirley lived all those crazy years in New York with musicians coming and going all different times of the night,” Adair says of Neese’s experience. “In fact, he has so many stories that are just wonderful to listen to. The [title] ‘father of modern jazz’ has been attributed to Charlie Parker. Before Parker died, he was a frequent guest at Alan’s house because he liked Shirley’s fried chicken and coleslaw. I guess it reminded him of his home, Kansas City.”
By the late ‘70s, jazz began to take a turn toward fusion with rock ‘n’ roll. Thus, Neese thrived during the true heyday of hard bop. “When I heard Alan play with his group, I was just enamored with the authenticity of the music and the arrangements,” Adair iterates.
Following the outdoor festival, Adair and Neese became close friends. They formed a group called The Cookery in the 1980s utilizing Neese’s library. “Of course, he’s always transcribing things and arranging things and bringing new material to the table,” Adair muses.
The Cookery played together for four or five years. In 2007, Adair gave Neese a call again. “I said, ‘Hey, none of us are getting any younger. Why don’t we knock the dust off of this and give it one more whirl? It’s too precious a thing not to do so,’” he remembers.
The pair returned with a new line-up, rehearsing in a little storage space behind an auto garage. Today they are known as the Al Neese Jazz Project.
“‘The Book,’ as we call it—we must have 200 arrangements in our book that are just priceless,” Adair explains. “So the mission of this group is to somehow keep this music alive and to do it authentically. A lot of times musicians will play off of a lead sheet, which just gives you the melody and the chords. But these are arrangements that have introductions, shout choruses, harmony parts. It’s the real deal, and as far as I know, we’re the only people in our entire area who are doing this as a dedicated project.”
The sextet, rounded out by Charles Gambetta (bass), Turner Battle (piano/keys), Jay McCracken (drums) and Jud Franklin (guitar), now rehearses weekly in a music room at Greensboro College. They perform monthly at a downtown bar called The Flatiron.
“This is a true labor of love,” Adair confirms. “We get paid a couple of beers a man and tips. It’s funny because this music is so important to everybody; it really is our therapy. A lot of things come and go—you might go out and play a corporate function and make big money—but this is something we really sink our teeth in, and it has real meaning to us.”
The Al Neese Jazz Project will perform credible New York-style post-bop at Bellamy Mansion on Thursday, August 29th, as part of the Cape Fear Jazz Society’s summer music series. “I grew up in the swing-band era,” Neese, who has been playing horns since 4th grade, shares. “Back in those days it was all big bands—there was no rock ‘n’ roll. I love this kind of music, and there are still people around who want to hear it.”
Guests at the mansion can expect to hear music from all of the hard-bop greats Neese knew, including Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter, as well as a handful of original pieces from Neese himself. It is all a focus on preserving the history of hard bop, sharing it with others, to ensure the legacy is not lost. “I think we’re doing it with more dedication and more purpose than ever before,” Adair affirms. “Alan’s not going to be with us forever, and who knows what’s going to happen to any of us.”
Tickets for the outdoor event, available at the door, are $5 for students with valid ID, $10 for members of the Bellamy Mansion or the Cape Fear Jazz Society, and $12 for general public. Attendees are encouraged to bring lawn chairs and picnics. The show will kick off at 6:30 p.m., and it will be the final concert of the summer series.
Al Neese Jazz Project
Thursday, August 29th
Bellamy Mansion, 503 Market St.