Maynard Chatters: A Definitive Biography By Holly Hobbs
Maynard Timothy Chatters is a trombonist, vocalist and music teacher from New Orleans. With a dynamic musical sound not constrained by genre, his playing is forceful, ornamented and precise. As the patriarch of a legendary New Orleans musical family, Chatters has dedicated his long career to the continuation of traditional New Orleans music, the maintenance of cultural identity, and the education of generations of young New Orleans musicians.
Maynard Chatters was born on July 10, 1939 in the house his father built, located at 2425 Delachaise Street near Louisiana Avenue in uptown New Orleans. The family had 16 children––11 sisters and four brothers––all born in the house except one, and all of whom were trained in music by their parents from an early age. His mother played piano and stayed at home to raise the children; his father was a postman and played violin. When Maynard was small, his father performed in an eight-piece orchestra, and Maynard remembers them coming to the house to rehearse. Members of the famed Dolliole family and the Handy family would stop by to play. The legendary Humphrey Brothers lived close by. “Those were the times that you heard brass bands everywhere,” Chatters says. “Those were some of my earliest memories of music.”
Chatters’ first instrument was the violin, which he began around eight years of age. But it was the trumpet that he wanted to play, not the violin. His sister Shirley, who taught music at a local school, brought a trombone home for Maynard around the age of 10. He wasn’t immediately drawn to the trombone, either, but he wanted to play in school band so he set about to learn the instrument. The trombone’s relationship to the human voice was intriguing to Maynard from the beginning, and he found that the slide was very similar to the aesthetics of string instruments, including the string bass, which he would later learn to play.
Early on, the Chatters Family, led by Maynard’s father, performed as an orchestral group playing classical repertoire, and Maynard remembers performances at Dillard University and other schools and functions in the area. Maynard joined his first school band in sixth grade at McDonogh #6 elementary school, and would spend both his junior high years at Green and his high school years at Cohen performing in the band and learning from a series of teachers, including Solomon Spencer, who gave the young Chatters specialized direction on trombone.
After high school, Chatters attended Southern University, where he studied under Mr. Craig and Mr. Davis, followed by two summers of study with Mr. Harriman at the Capital University Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio. The mid-1960s found Maynard Chatters back in New Orleans playing in rhythm-n-blues bands at venues like the Mustache Club, performing with artists “Sugar Boy” Crawford, Deacon John, and Sammy and Tommy Ridgley. At the same time, he played in jazz bands with Teddy Riley and Michael White, swing/big bands bands with Clyde Kerr, Sr., Johnny Fernandez, Sigmund Walker and William Houston, and in a variety of brass bands. Like so many other New Orleans musicians, Chatters has a fluid approach to genre, and shifts seamlessly between blues, gospel, rhythm-n-blues, jazz and brass.
In 1968, Chatters began as a music instructor at Carver Junior High School, where he taught for two years. Dr. Frederick Hall, a composer and choir director, ran the music department at Southern University at the time; when Hall left Southern to take a teaching position at Dillard, he asked Chatters to join the Dillard faculty. Over the long course of his teaching career that followed, Chatters would go on to educate generations of young New Orleans musicians not only at Dillard, but at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), Xavier University, the University of Northern Iowa, and the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp in New Orleans.
Maynard Chatters had heard brass bands from the time he was first aware of music in the small house on Delachaise Street. He had heard the Humphrey Brothers perform for years, but it wouldn’t be until the early 1970s, when Chatters first began performing at Preservation Hall, that he would have a chance to play with them. During this time, Chatters also played with the famed Your Father’s Mustache band with musicians like Bunu Gibson, Neil Kidwell, Barry Foulon, Neil Untersieur and Les Musscutt. The band was banjo-based, featuring two banjos, tuba, and trombone as the lead instrument. The repertoire was extensive, including medleys, sing-alongs, and more obscure banjo-driven tunes.
Chatters’ trombone playing had always had a smooth, powerful and fluid sound that paid particular attention to dynamics, using the horn as an extension of the human voice. Chatters approaches his singing similarly, and while hymns and popular standards like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” remain among his favorite songs to perform, traditional jazz continues to be at the center of his musicality. “Jazz gives you the freedom to be yourself,” Maynard says. “I appreciate what other trombone players do, but I’ve always wanted to develop a style of my own. That’s what jazz will do for you.”
Maynard Chatters and his wife, Ursula Balthazar Chatters, have six children of their own––three boys and three girls––all of whom are musicians themselves. Their son, Mark, now plays at Preservation Hall alongside his father. Their daughter teaches special needs children, and Chatters now tutors them weekly. “Teaching children is our most important duty,” says Chatters. “It’s been a life-long honor to be able to teach music to the children of New Orleans.” The preservation and continuation of traditional repertoire has always been of central importance to Chatters, as has been music education in all forms, including sharing his wealth of knowledge before nightly shows at Preservation Hall, where he continues on as one of the venue’s countless stars.
“My greatest joy is helping others. That’s where my joy comes from. There’s no person that didn’t get some help along the way. I think of one song that sums it all up: no man is an island. No man stands alone. Each man’s joy is joy to me, and each man’s grief is my own. We need one another and so I do defend each man as my brother, each man as my friend.”