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Sax player Charles Neville dies at 79, gains 'spot in the heavenly band'

Associated Press

Charles Neville's serene stage presence and soulful saxophone mastery earned him the affectionate title of "the horn man" while playing with his siblings in The Neville Brothers, one of New Orleans' most influential bands known for their rollicking blend of funk, jazz and rhythm and blues.

Neville died Thursday after a months-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 79.

Neville's career dated to the 1950s when he performed with B.B. King and other musical greats. Yet he was best known for decades of performing with his brothers Aaron, Art and Cyril as the Grammy-winning Neville Brothers band. The band, which formed in the 1970s, gained fans with high-energy performances featuring a distinctive fusion of funk, jazz and New Orleans rhythm and blues.

Charles Neville often performed in a tie-died shirt and his haunting sax wraps through the band's song "Healing Chant," which won a Grammy for best pop instrumental performance.

In a statement Thursday, Charles' older brother Art mourned his brother's passing.

"Today the world lost Charles "The Horn Man" Neville, I lost my lil' brother and his passing leaves a big o' hole in our entire family and our hearts. Let's celebrate his life, knowing the heavenly band has a new member," he said.

Another brother, Aaron, posted a lengthy tribute to his brother on Facebook.

"I know you have a spot in the heavenly band next to James Booker, James Black, Herbert Hardesty, Fats Domino, Johnny Adams all the jazz bebop players who you turned me on to," Aaron Neville wrote. "Dizzy, Charlie Parker, Miles and the list goes on."

Fellow musicians and music fans expressed their sorrow at Charles Neville's passing.

"We go back a long way, charles - thank you for the love and kindness... i'll miss you," wrote Harry Connick Jr. on Twitter.

Charles Neville, who lived in Massachusetts in recent years, had announced in January that he had pancreatic cancer.

His life and music are sure to be remembered during the 49th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival which kicks off Friday, one day after his death.

The Neville Brothers were a fixture on closing day of the festival for years. And members of the family continue to be a part of the event. Aaron is scheduled for a May 4 performance. Charles' daughter, singer Charmaine Neville, is scheduled for a May 5 performance, the same day Aaron's son Ivan performs with his band Dumpstaphunk.

Charles' Neville's life included a stint at Louisiana's state prison in the early 1960s. He told an interviewer that he was sentenced to five years for possession of two marijuana cigarettes. The prison was notoriously dangerous but Neville said on the public radio program "Music Inside Out" that the time there sharpened his musicianship.

He explained that he worked in the prison music room. "I stayed in the music room practicing all day," he said. He also had access to books on music, and, at times, exposure to other imprisoned musicians. "James Booker was there," he said, referring to a celebrated New Orleans pianist.

The New Orleans Advocate reports that he struggled with addiction for two decades, going through cycles of heroin and methadone until 1986 when he underwent an intensive program in Eugene, Oregon. The newspaper reported that Neville was a strict vegetarian and followed various Eastern spiritual philosophies; he once told WWNO-FM interviewer Gwen Thompkins, host of "Music Inside Out," that he brought a "calming, centering energy" to the Neville Brothers, the newspaper reported.

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