A cornucopia is a horn of plenty, and would make an apt emblem for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. There are horns a-plenty in the vast pool of local talent, and an unbelievably rich musical legacy, and the annual festival offers the world an opportunity to enjoy it all.
From April 23 to May 2, Jazzfest marked its 35th anniversary, and there were story lines galore.
Musicians, dancers, artists and craftspeople from South Africa were there as special guests to celebrate the 10th year of apartheid's end, highlighted by longtime civil rights leader Hugh Masekela's magnetic set in the WWOZ Jazz Tent.
New Orleans musicians are constantly reprising or recycling the past, as illustrated iin the Economy Hall tent, where six days were filled with the sounds of music heard in the Teens and Twenties and audiences regularly strutted about twirling frilly umbrellas they call it second-lining. In this anniversary year, the calling up of ghosts of the Jazz Age seemed more prevalent than ever.
Musical archaeologists Tom McDermott on piano and Evan Christopher on clarinet led a quartet, Danza, that explores the connections between the early music of Brazil, the Caribbean and New Orleans. Compositions by Sidney Bechet, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and r&b legend James Booker received elegant treatments.
Irvin Mayfield, playing the role of a Wynton Marsalis who stayed home, conducted the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a new big band that blends established veterans and educators with promising young talent. Like Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, this band played the classics Ellington excerpts and parts of the "Strange Fruit" suite that Mayfield is composing. The suite is full of polyphonic passages harking back to early jazz and swing. Bravo!
John Boutte has become a Jazzfest favorite in recent years, his animated and heartfelt gospel-infused singing and the tunes he writes about the Big Easy making his sets among the most upbeat. "Down in the Treme" is about his neighborhood, "At the Foot of Canal Street" about the cemeteries where his forebears lie. "Build a Better World," the late Earl King's appeal for peace, love and brotherhood, came after Boutte's own pitch to the crowd: "Listen folks, war is b-a-a-a-d, peace is g-o-o-o-d. Got it?" The crowd did, and most cheered.
Discovering new talent is always fun, and singer Patrick DeSanto was my find of 2004. He's a Cape Verde islander who sings appealingly in Portuguese, specializing in the samba and bossa nova rhythms of Brazil, in a voice that soars effortlessly into falsetto.
Another inescapable aspect of Jazzfest XXXV was the weather. Ordinarily, it's hot and humid at this time of year, and bikini'd and shirtless sunbathers add visual appeal. But this was the year of the deluge. Lightning and a downpour rang down the curtain a half-hour early one day, and that was just a preamble to the torrential rains of a few days later; they washed out the festival on Friday, April 30, the first folding of the tents here since 1989. Even when the sun shone, it was often cool, and the final overcast Sunday was sweater weather.
A rainy day at Jazzfest is opportunity in disguise. A second lunch at Oyster Meister Uglesich's shabby-chic restaurant. A one-man play recalling the many high notes and occasional low ones of Louis Armstrong's life. A trip out to Sweet Lorraine, a swanky jazz club, where four young saxophonists did battle.
Back at the festival, the music was undampened. Those of us Jazz Tent regulars enjoyed the superb singer Germaine Bazzle, the triumphant returns of favorite sons Branford Marsalis and Victor Goines, hot local bands Astral Project and Los Hombres Caliente, and, venturing outdoors, the jazz-rock bluster of the five-trombone band, Bonerama.
Jazzfest isn't only a showcase for locals. Invited guests included Dianne Reeves, Christian McBride, Poncho Sanchez and his powerhouse Latin band, and local products Donald Harrison and Terence Blanchard.
Dave Brubeck's Quartet got the loudest ovation of all, befitting his status as a modern-jazz pioneer. The 83-year-old elder statesman is frail in appearance and strained of voice, but at the piano he plays with authority and great exuberance.
The quartet worked the crowd into a frenzy on a long, languorous blues, with Brubeck building a metronomic solo, chord after slightly altered chord marching along for several minutes before exploding into a typically bombastic climax. This was the set that gave me goosebumps just as had thrilling music and tumultuous applause in years past for Lionel Hampton, Herbie Mann, Betty Carter, Jay McShann and so many other immortals.
Jazzfest is much more than long days of music at the historic Fair Grounds racetrack. For me, it's a family reunion, touching base with friends made over the years, visits to favorite restaurants and clubs and exploring new ones, hanging out at the record stores that offer live music on festival off-days. It's a stroll along the Mississippi, a trolley ride on the new Canal Street line, an evening lull watching the moon's reflection dance on the bayou while frogs and alligators call out to mates. It's 10 days to absorb as much of the wonderful vibe that is ever-thrumming in this magical place.
It's Piano Night, with Mac Rebennack, Eddie Bo, Marcia Ball et al, reaching ecstatic heights, capping off a marathon of keyboard wizardry. It's the Ponderosa Stomp, two nights of r&b by lost legends jamming at the Rock'n'Bowl. It's serendipity, as in a tow truck driver letting me ""off the hook'' when I unwittingly parked illegally and telling me, "This is your lucky day, pal." Or as in the strangers at a nearby table insisting that we all join them in a tequila toast to wish someone a happy birthday.
Jazzfest is jazz in its birthplace, New Orleans, the best place on the planet to be come late April-early May.