By Mark Saluke (Photos by John Larson )
While the sun attempted to scorch the fans, it only fueled the vibes at the 2002 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Regardless of the record-high temperatures, this year’s Jazz Fest once again delivered an eclectic mix of music ranging from jazz, reggae, gospel and funk to Cajun, zydeco, bluegrass and much, much more.
More than 500,000 people crowded into the Crescent City for the 33rd annual seven day festival that celebrates New Orleans music and culture. Taking place on April 26-28 and May 2-5, the festival also overflowed with an array of mouthwatering local cuisine featuring items like jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish tails, and oyster po-boys.
Also, centuries of history packed into a variety of traditional arts and crafts that offer glimpses into other cultures and traditions, not to mention the expanded Native American Village and the Kids Cultural Village complete with a huge mural for youngsters to paint.
And then there’s the book tent, with several scheduled book signings from local authors. So there is a lot to experience at Jazz Fest, but it’s the music that started this celebration, and this years line-up featured a list of performers long enough to satisfy even the hungriest musical souls.
The second weekend looked promising with names like Karl Denson, Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers and Henry Butler all slated for gigs, Actually, May 2-5 was full of great jazz talent, which makes perfect sense in a city that hails itself as the birthplace of jazz and prides itself on the local talent.
New Orleans definitely has a certain vibe about it, an aura that seems to surround the city during Jazz Fest. Maybe it goes unnoticed at first, but eventually it’s there—in the streets, in the venues and clubs, in the faces and movements of tourists and locals making their way down Canal Street, it begins to manifest everywhere.
There are 12 stages at the fairgrounds, so while there’s certainly no shortage of music, it might be a good idea to keep some space free for a new musical adventure or two, because a big part of the Jazz Fest experience is about finding new music.
An early highlight of Thursday included just such a performance when New Orleans based Los Sagitarios performed on the Congo Square stage. This Latin Dance band put on a good performance that was fresh and full of energy, which was apparent from the audiences reaction and energy.
Stumbling onto the Lagniappe Stage in the enormous grandstand turned out to be a great find. The stage is enclosed in a courtyard area, which is surrounded on all sides by the grandstand seating, creating a bit of a wind tunnel that provided a much needed breeze, not to mention that the area was mostly shaded with an upper balcony and plenty of seats.
Micaela y Fiesta Flamenca finished a performance driven by the artful dance movements of the female members as they moved across the stage.
The remainder of the day was spent in the WWOZ Jazz Tent awaiting the Charles Mingus 80th Birthday Tribute Orchestra, which turned out to feature the Mingus Big Band and some added instruments. The tribute featured songs including “Blue Sea” and “Tonight at Noon,” also the title of Sue Mingus’ new book.
Thursday’s main highlight actually happened earlier that day when New Orleans own Storyville Stompers Brass Band performed in one of many parades that took place over the course of Jazz Fest.
This was a great opportunity to experience first hand the depth and range of the Brass Bands that have played such an important part in New Orleans history and culture. The band was founded in 1981, and they are led by sousaphonist Woody Penouilh, Jr.
In the tradition of many of the second line marching bands that are deeply rooted in New Orleans culture and history, the Storyville Stompers, who were an important part of the brass-band revival of the ‘80s, didn’t need a stage for their performance. They paraded past the grandstand, pausing in a few different spots before proceeding directly through the fairgrounds, and as spectators joined the tail of the line, dancing and grooving behind them, it was a picture perfect example of the spontaneity and improvisation on which so much of the New Orleans brass-band history is based.
On Friday, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band took a break from their 11 consecutive late night shows with DJ Logic to perform on the Sprint PCS Mobile Phone Stage. The band currently consists of nine players, four of which are founding members. The name Dirty Dozen stems from the Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club, where the band originated in 1977.
DDBB are credited for the ‘70s revitalization of brass-bands in much the same way the Storyville Stompers did in the ‘80s. While the Storyville Stompers are a great example of the more traditional New Orleans brass-bands, the Dirty Dozen offer a more contemporary and experimental form of today’s modern brass-band.
DDBB reeled off around an hour of tunes, opening the set with “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Party,” a brass heavy hit from their new album, “Medicated Magic.” Norah Jones, Dr. John, DJ Logic and Robert Randolph are a few of the performers appearing on the album, which in part celebrated the bands 25th anniversary. Trombonist Sammie Williams was especially vibrant on stage, having a lot of fun while moving to the music with his movements while founding saxophonist Roger Lewis showed he can still carry a melody a long way.
Other acts on Friday at the Sprint Stage included a performance by former Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli, and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Memorable moments from Denson’s fairgrounds show included talented flute solo and “Check Your Mind.” Denson worked with Lenny Kravitz early in his career before going out on his own and starting KDTU. It was the long awaited fairgrounds inaugural debut for KDTU, even though he and his band have been playing nighttime venues for years.
The Big Easy boasts an awesome nightlife year-round, and it kicks into overdrive during Jazz Fest. There are countless clubs and venues scattered throughout the city, a large concentration of these located in the French Quarter.
Plenty of local talent roams the streets and fills the bars in the French Quarter, and Jackson Square is a great place to check out. Jackson Square is at the southern end of the French Quarter and it’s fairly to find since it’s also the location of the St. Louis Cathedral, which looms high above many of the other buildings in the area. It’s a pretty safe bet on any given afternoon if you’re searching for a socially diverse crowd of tourists, magicians, peddlers of all sorts and plenty of spectators watching a pick-up band, which there are plenty of in the French Quarter. A few of the more renown clubs in the area include Tipitina’s French Quarter and the House of Blues, which is also the home of The Parish at the House of Blues, which offers a more intimate setting. A few more choice venues, Tipitina's Uptown and the Howlin Wolf, are located in the nearby Business District.
Many clubs and theaters line the side streets, and the true size of large venues like the Saenger Theater or the State Palace Theater, are deceiving to the eye, appearing much smaller from the outside.
The Saenger is the nicer and larger of the two, but on Saturday night, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe blew the roof off of the State Palace Theater at the best show of Jazz Fest. Karl knows how to get the crowd involved. Whether it be conversing with the audience between songs, or playing one of his renown dominating sax solos, or an all-star line up of guests including Robert Randolph, DJ Logic, or fellow saxophonist Skerik, Karl Denson gets the job done.
Some highlights from the show include the funky booty shaker “Front Money,” and “Good for me (And You),” not to mention the Jimi Hendrix covers of “Fire” and “Spanish Castle Magic.”
This all happens over a monstrous two set concert with two hours and thirty minutes of actual stage time for Denson. There’s still the House of Blues after this, for a late show with Yonder Mountain String Band, and they are a good band, but it just doesn’t matter anymore.
And back at that book tent, back at the fairgrounds, where the authors are signing books, that’s where local author C.W. Cannon is, signing his new book. He was born and raised in New Orleans, and now, after being gone for several years, he’s been back for a few years now. He knows about the aura.
“The music is more ever present here than other places,” he says later on. “It’s in the streets. It’s everywhere. It’s something about the aura, and all these different stages and this huge vibe, and you’ve got this feeling of social harmony going on amid all the different walks of life.”
While Karl Denson drains the crowd down, drawing the very last note out of his encore as long as he can, but it’s what he did a couple minutes ago that has still got you pumped, when he and two of his band mates are playing their respective parts, and everyone stops playing except for them. They step back from the mikes and step to the front of the stage, and they play to a suddenly hushed crowd. It’s a long, drawn out solo, and it’s one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever heard, everything you ever thought music would be. You feel like you really understand what it means to be here in New Orleans, the ultimate Mecca of jazz and every branch of music that is an offshoot.
You’ve caught the aura.