Though he's little known outside of New Orleans and never recorded an album under his own name, drummer James Black was a Crescent City legend capable of performing everything from complex modernist jazz to gritty funk. An accomplished composer as well, Black had a reputation for being an irascible bandleader, intimidating with his personality just as much as his skill. Born in New Orleans on February 1, 1940, Black soaked up the city's trademark "second line" rhythms from a young age, and by the early '60s was already doing session work for the likes of Fats Domino. His main interest was jazz, however, and he played in a group with the young Ellis Marsalis on piano and Nat Perrilliat on sax. Nat Adderley (along with brother Cannonball) used all three on his 1962 session In the Bag, to which Black contributed two compositions. The following year, Marsalis cut an underrated album of modern jazz called Monkey Puzzle; this time out Black handled four of the seven compositions, including the intricate 5/4 piece "Magnolia Triangle," which ranks as perhaps his greatest work. Black went on to play with Yusef Lateef and Lionel Hampton in the mid-'60s, although his career was interrupted by a stint in the Angola State Penitentiary (during which time he actually played in a prison band with blues pianist James Booker and saxophonist Charles Neville).
In the late '60s, Black paid the bills with R&B gigs around New Orleans, and in 1968 caught on at the Scram label as a house drummer. He played on Eddie Bo's "Hook and Sling," helping to make it one of the great New Orleans funk singles, and soon took his place alongside Smokey Johnson and the Meters' Ziggy Modeliste as one of the city's top funky drummers. Meanwhile, he continued to play jazz on the side as part of Ellis Marsalis' band ELM Music Company; they took up residency at Lu and Charlie's beginning in 1972 and became local favorites. During the '70s, Black also led his own group, the James Black Ensemble, which often featured his longtime girlfriend "Sister Mary" Bonette on vocals. He attempted several times to record a full-length album, including once for the Sound of New Orleans label and another time at Allen Toussaint's studio, but the sessions never progressed beyond a few tracks. Black continued performing in New Orleans into the '80s, still playing with Ellis Marsalis (as well as Marsalis' then-teenage pupil, Harry Connick Jr.); he also served as the drummer for the 1982 Marsalis Family album Fathers and Sons. Black died of a drug overdose on August 30, 1988.
In 2002, the Night Train label assembled a compilation of mostly unreleased tracks, many from Black's aborted LP sessions; I Need Altitude: Rare and Unreleased New Orleans Jazz and Funk, 1968-1978 ran the gamut from heavy funk and psychedelic soul to soul-jazz, and featured several of the drummer's own vocals. In the spring of 2003, Ellis and Wynton Marsalis presented a program of Black compositions as part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center series.