Museum Exhibit Recounts The Life Of Music Legend And Western Mass. Transplant, Charles Neville
“Horn Man: The life and musical legacy of Charles Neville,” which opened earlier this summer at the Springfield Museums, pays tribute to the Grammy-winning saxophonist who died of cancer in April 2018 at age 79.
By the time of his death, Neville had traversed a global journey few of us could ever imagine. The exhibit at the Wood Museum of Springfield History chronicles that journey in a visual and sonic exhibit, from his early days growing up in New Orleans — a paradox of a city both culturally rich and diverse yet deeply segregated — to a decades-long international career touring with his siblings, as The Neville Brothers, and to his presence on the New England music scene, mentoring aspiring musicians.
Maggie Humberston, curator of library and archives at the Wood Museum, said Neville’s personal photographs, instruments, illustrations and other mementoes laid out through the exhibit were contributed by his wife Kristin, who he first met and married in the early 1990s. Humberston said music is prominently featured as well, with sound stations designed to provide visitors a soundtrack reflecting various phases of Neville’s life.
“We have five of these sound stations situated throughout the exhibit, pretty much one with each panel,” Humberston said. “And that as you read the panel you can also experience the music that Charles was listening to and that was influencing him as he was growing up and then, later in the show, some of his own music and The Neville Brothers’ music.”
Humberston said the exhibit also offers a candid look into the challenges Neville faced and the struggles to overcome them, notably a long-standing heroin addiction.
“He tried to break that [addiction] by going into rehab a number of times,” Humberston said. “Kristin has been very open about sharing that part of his life. He kept some journals in the 1980s which he illustrated, and she shared those with us and we’ve made those part of the exhibit. And it’s just so poignant, but there’s an optimism that runs through his story.”
That story includes his embrace of African and Eastern spiritual practices. Voodoo deities that permeate New Orleans culture are invoked to help overcome his three-decade long addiction, a habit he was first introduced to while serving in the U.S. Navy. Kristin Neville said tai chi, the martial arts-based exercise for meditation and health, would become a daily practice for her husband.
“It was this wonderful discovery for him to help connect his mind and body and spirit. He’d wake up at 5 a.m., do his stretches, tai chi and qi gong for a couple of hours every morning,” she said. “And when he’d go out on the road, that was the thing he did to keep him centered and grounded.”
Neville’s ever-present tai chi shoes are among the personal items in the collection. Another is a tie-dyed T-shirt, which would become a fixture in his attire. Kristin Neville said it symbolized a transition in the 1960s. He’d served a three-year jail stint at Louisiana’s notorious Angola state penitentiary for possessing two marijuana joints. She said he then went to New York City.
“It was a huge shift in life experience from this really oppressive, dangerous situation in a prison that was reflective of slavery to the summer of love, hippies and just being embraced by white people, having come from a very different situation in the South,” she said. “And later on in the early ‘80s, when the brothers formed as a band and connected with [promoter, manager and rock impresario] Bill Graham, he put them on tours with the Grateful Dead, with their fans with lots of tie-dyes who were really digging their music.”
After Charles Neville moved to Huntington, Massachusetts, in the 1990s, he continued touring with his brothers, and — eventually — his sons – Khalif and Talyn, who grew up in western Massachusetts. A video produced and edited by Khalif Neville, featuring interviews with some of his father’s musical colleagues, is also in the exhibit.
The elder Neville became a presence on the local music scene as well, from mentoring young musicians at the Community Music School of Springfield to co-founding the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival.
Humberston said she never got to know Neville personally. But she said she hopes visitors, be they fans or new to Neville’s story, will come away with a new appreciation for the man affectionately called Horn Man.
“I think, for me, it was his just continual resilience, which is a word that everybody bandies about and everybody has a certain amount of personal resilience. But his guy always rose out of it. Angola didn’t take him out, drug addiction didn’t take him out. Whatever he faced, he always found a way to rise above it,” Humberston said.
“Horn Man: The life and musical legacy of Charles Neville” is on exhibit at the Wood Museum of Springfield History through the end of November.
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