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So many horn and reed players filled the stage of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s Economy Hall Tent one Sunday in 2013 that some of them seemed about to spill off its sides. Past and present members of the Treme Brass Band had gathered to honor Lionel Batiste, the group’s bass drummer who had died at 81. “Uncle Lionel,” as everyone called him, was something of a mascot for the band’s namesake neighborhood, Tremé. He symbolized the deeply felt cultural traditions and familial warmth that characterize New Orleans — and the very qualities that distinguish the annual New Orleans “jazz fest,” as everyone calls it, from the many other large-scale live-music events that now dot the United States.
That Sunday, the Treme band played “Amazing Grace” as a dirge, and then segued into an up-tempo section. The musicians were performing a New Orleans jazz-funeral ritual rich with historical significance, and that held in-this-moment appeal for the crowd in the Economy Hall Tent. The night before, on jazz fest’s Acura Stage, where the pop acts play, Billy Joel engaged a different communal memory, digging into his old hits. During 1977’s “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant,” when Joel reached the lyric about “dropping a dime” in a jukebox to “play a song about New Orleans,” out came members of the Preservation Hall Band. A lyric’s detail became a cameo for hometown heroes while underscoring the city’s primacy across musical genres.
I attended those performances six years ago. Such moments, rich with joy and meaning, happen each year at jazz fest. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which mounted its 50th edition earlier this year, is immense, complex, lovingly crafted, far-reaching and indelibly tied to its native city. The first jazz fest was held in 1970, in Beauregard Square, then named for a Confederate general, but since 2011 known again by its original name, Congo Square, where enslaved Africans drummed on Sundays and seeded the beat of much of jazz fest’s music. At that 1970 edition, Duke Ellington was commissioned to write and perform a “New Orleans Suite.” Mahalia Jackson performed with the Eureka Brass Band. Nearly two dozen food vendors offered jambalaya, étouffée and other local specialties. Tickets were $3, but only about 300 people showed up, and the overstocked vendors ended up feeding children from a nearby orphanage. The event lost money.
This year some 500 bands performed on 14 stages at the Fair Grounds, the horse-racing track that has been transformed into a music venue each year since 1972 to host jazz fest. Through eight days, across two extended weekends in late April and early May, the 2019 edition hosted 475,000 fans and generated an estimated $350 million in revenue for the city. In between performances by major acts, at appointed hours, Social Aid & Pleasure Club second-liners in Sunday finery wound through the Fair Grounds following brass bands, and Mardi Gras Indians in feathered-and-beaded suits led processions accompanied by hand drummers. These mock parades make for great pictures and represent the culture from which much of the music radiates.
[caption id="attachment_22441" align="alignleft" width="1024"] George Wein: "Newport was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing,” Photo by David Kabot.[/caption]
Nothing adequately relates the feeling of being at jazz fest, wandering from stage to stage, grabbing a softshell crab po’ boy between sets or camping out near a stage — maybe in the Economy Hall Tent, where traditional New Orleans jazz rules, or the outdoor Fais Do-Do Stage, where Cajun, zydeco and other Louisiana folk musicians hold court. Still, Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — a five-CD boxed set containing more than 300 minutes of music drawn from live stage recordings and radio archives, along with a 136-page book — gives a sense of its breadth and backstory.
Released by Smithsonian/Folkways to commemorate jazz fest’s 50th anniversary, the set opens with a version of “Indian Red,” a sacred song for Mardi Gras Indians, as sung in 1994 by the Golden Eagles, a tribe led by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who, along with another chief, Bo Dollis, combined Mardi Gras tradition with R&B and funk. Disc Five ends with the Neville Brothers, segueing from the hymn “Amazing Grace” into Bob Marley’s “One Love” to close 2001’s jazz fest. (For many years, the festival’s closing spot was reserved for the Nevilles.) Among the many tracks in-between are the Zion Harmonizers 1976 version of “I Want to Be at That Meeting,” which conveys the joyous frenzy of jazz fest’s gospel tent; a 1990 performance pairing hit-making New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint with Champion Jack Dupree, a pioneer of boogie-woogie piano; and a version of “Hey Now, Baby,” composed by New Orleans piano legend Professor Longhair, as played in 1976 by one of the many local pianists to extend that legacy, Henry Butler, then just 28.
In a foreword to the boxed set’s book, George Wein, the impresario who founded jazz fest, reflects on entering “what was to me a strange world that has been part of my life ever since.” Wein had established his reputation with the Newport Jazz Festival, which he launched in 1954. “Newport was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing,” he said at a 1969 press conference. Wein recruited a small team of New Orleans locals to manage jazz fest, including Quint Davis, then “a kid who was working at the William Russell Hogan Jazz Archives on a part-time basis,” according to Wein, and who is now the festival’s CEO. “My first idea was to have the world’s biggest backyard barbecue,” Davis said, as quoted in another essay, by Keith Spera, a longtime local music critic.
Jazz fest has authored its share of memorable moments, some that helped launch or revive careers. Professor Longhair had recorded singles for Atlantic Records and other labels in the 1940s and ’50s, but was sweeping floors at the One Stop Record Shop on South Rampart Street when Davis booked him for 1971’s jazz fest. Longhair’s performance there reignited his career and helped establish him as the undisputed hero of mid-20th-century New Orleans piano. In 1990, during a performance by guitarist Bo Diddley, hundreds of hands passed a then-4-year-old Troy Andrews (now better known as Trombone Shorty) overhead until he arrived onstage, clutching his trombone, to join in the performance, thus creating the jazz fest debut for the artist who now closes the Acura stage each year.
[caption id="attachment_22442" align="alignleft" width="1024"] Quint Davis: “We knew that if we put this big soul-generating battery on and, for two weekends, people could plug in, it’ll mean something,” Photo by Burt Steel.[/caption]
After the 2005 flood that resulted from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, jazz fest was one early and mighty symbol of recovery. “We knew that if we put this big soul-generating battery on and, for two weekends, people could plug in, it’ll mean something,” Quint Davis told me when I visited his office in early 2006. “Planning really began,” Davis said, “with the ‘Big Finding’ — tracking down all the artists involved, who were scattered to the wind, literally.” Few who attended that year’s festival will forget singer John Boutté, a local favorite, transforming Annie Lennox’s “Why” from a lover’s inquisition to a cry for social justice, and pouring his pain and frustration into Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927,” a song about an earlier flood, changing the end of the line “six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline,” to comment on the “Lower Nine,” the city’s devastated Lower Ninth Ward. Bruce Springsteen’s 2006 Acura Stage performance has achieved legendary status. When he repurposed his own “City of Ruins,” originally written for his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, New Jersey, in dedication to New Orleans, his question — “How do I begin again?” — hit hard and his refrain — “Rise up!” — brought tears and cheers.
Nothing in New Orleans is not about race. The boxed set’s book recalls how, when the city first approached Wein about a jazz festival, in 1962, the proposition was unworkable. Major hotels would not accept black guests, integrated concert audiences were not permitted and city ordinances prohibited black and white musicians from sharing a bandstand. The fact that Wein was married to an African-American woman also killed the deal for a while. In 1979, after the festival had achieved some success, many in the city’s black community felt that although the festival was rooted in African-American traditions, it didn’t honor African traditions or promote black artisans. An Afro-centric festival-within-the-festival named Koindu (a West African term for “a place for sharing or exchange”) was established, and has evolved into the present-day Congo Square Stage.
Jazz fest itself has sometimes stirred controversy. Ever since 2004, when jazz fest partnered with the entertainment-industry giant AEG Live and began booking mainstream pop stars with no obvious connections to Louisiana heritage — Foo Fighters in 2012, Aerosmith in 2018, Katy Perry this year — some locals have cried foul. The event has also been the backdrop to protest. In 2008, while the Neville Brothers played the Acura stage, a plane circled above the Fair Grounds towing a banner, calling out the event’s main sponsor: “Shell, Hear the Music. Fix the Coast You Broke.” Jazz fest has also reflected the ironies surrounding the very “heritage” it celebrates. In 2005, three days before the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club performed a mock second-line parade through jazz fest’s Fair Grounds, they were part of a consortium of clubs suing the city in federal court for quadrupling police security fees for their actual Sunday parades. This year, even as brass bands led mock second-line parades between the stages of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, members of the Hundreds Brass Band were told by police to stop playing outside, on a nearby street corner.
Jazz fest means many things to many people. To me, at its best, beyond the world-class backyard barbecue, it honors those who create and perpetuate New Orleans traditions. It’s a place for them to get an early showcase, to shine in their primes, to get a late-career boost, or even to find their way home once they’re gone. Tucked away from most of jazz fest’s hoopla, a small field, Ancestors Village, is dotted with hand-painted and irregularly shaped wooden monuments dedicated to celebrated musicians, such as “Uncle” Lionel Batiste and banjoist Danny Barker, and non-musicians, including Bruce Brice, who designed the first jazz fest poster, and Ed Bradley, the CBS correspondent who helped champion the event to a wider audience.
This year, on a cloudy Saturday, banners with images of pianist Henry Butler, who died last July, were hoisted high. A brass band played. Men, women and children — some in parade finery — shimmied. At Ancestors Village, pianist Davell Crawford played Butler’s “Orleans Inspiration” and then the hymn “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Butler, who left New Orleans after the flood, first for Colorado and then New York City, and who several years ago composed a song titled “A New Orleanian in Exile,” was now planted back in his hometown, his marker right between Allen Toussaint and Fats Domino. - Larry Blumenfeld
Featured photo by John Messina.