Jazzfest: Big Boost for Battered New Orleans


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2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
New Orleans, Louisiana
April 26, April 27-29, May 4-6

Jazzfest is such a joyous occasion—a 10-day marathon reunion of friends and families from around the world who revel in the music, the food and the other pleasures of New Orleans—that it's hard to reconcile with the sobering realization of the devastation from Katrina and the despair of so many struggling to rebuild their homes and lives. I didn't get out to the Lower Ninth during this year's festival—been there, done that in 2006—but it's not news that 200,000 uprooted city dwellers are still extant, tangled in a web woven by tight-fisted insurers, government bureaucracy and the long-standing stagnation of New Orleans' economy.
None of this extramusical context seemed to sap the spirits of the 375,000 paying customers at the Fair Grounds, who made this the biggest Jazzfest since 2003. Most were drawn by superstars such as Van Morrison, Lucinda Williams, Rod Stewart, Norah Jones, Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, the Allman Brothers and John Legend. Not to mention Harry Connick Jr. It is, after all, JAZZfest.
Those of us who spent most of our daytime hours in the AT&T-WWOZ Jazz Tent were treated to sets by visiting celebs Arturo Sandoval, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Mose Allison, the World Saxophone Group, Danilo Perez and the Roy Hargrove big band.

Great music, for the most part.

But what really makes Jazzfest special is reconnecting with the immensely talented collection of local musicians, many of whom rarely tour. They're the ones who 90 percent of the audience—the out-of- towners—come to see. People like John Boutte, Leah Chase, Astral Project, Germaine Bazzle, Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, and any of the Marsalises are given heroes' welcomes before as much as a single note sounds.

Some of my most blissful memories:

  • Astral Project introduced a new tune by guitarist Steve Masakowski, "Once Lost," a slithery blues on which he and tenor player Tony Dagradi excelled. Then bassist Jim Singleton turned on his electronic magic on "Cowboy Bill," yanking booming notes while a bowed refrain echoed via Memorex.

  • Always-upbeat trumpeter/singer Kermit Ruffins, married recently onstage at the French Quarter Festival, was more ebullient than ever, though his set list hasn't changed much in a couple of years.

  • Irvin Mayfield continues to impress with his knock-out compositions and arrangements prepared for the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, a smoking big band. And his most recent suite, Water Rising, musical commentary on Katrina, is exceptionally powerful stuff.

  • Terence Blanchard's quintet played parts of the soundtrack he and others in the band composed for the Spike Lee documentary, When the Levees Broke. Alternately reflective and passionate, the music evoked strong emotions in the tent, earning a rare standing ovation in mid-set.

  • Arturo Sandoval's tour-de-force performance began with another demonstration of his renowned chops: a five-octave run on trumpet that started with tuba-deep blats and crested with his trademark stratospheric squeals. The Cuban native also exhibited prowess on keyboard and drums and scatted convincingly.

  • Stanton Moore conducted a clinic on the art of second-line drumming, playing behind the Gentilly Groovemasters on the strutting tune "Port of Call."

  • Ellis Marsalis led a quintet on John Lewis' classic but too infrequently performed "Django" and the more familiar "Bags Groove." The piano professor played with more oomph than I'd heard from him in a while, especially on a driving boppish blues.

  • John Boutte wasn't in great voice, and his mood was admittedly peevish, troubled by sound system problems and the scattering of his once close-knit family after Katrina. But his updated lyrics to the Randy Newman lament, "Louisiana 1927," and gospel-imbued versions of "City of New Orleans" and "Sisters" had the audience in his corner.

  • Over in Economy Hall, the venue for traditional jazz, Bob Wilber joined with fellow clarinetists/soprano saxophonist Dr. Michael White and Evan Christopher for a soaring, swooping salute to the Soprano Summit group Wilber and the recently deceased Kenny Davern co-led for years. Wonderful tunes by the likes of Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson and many others of their ilk led to a classic three-clarinet ensemble performance of Ellington's incandescent "Mood Indigo."

  • Maurice Brown was the wake-up call on the festival's final Sunday morning. The maturing young trumpeter played with more melody and less bombast than in the past but remains a way upbeat performer, with music to match.

  • First lady of jazz Germaine Bazzle jazzed up one of her favorite songs, "Secret Love," with a spicy double-time groove laid down by bassist George French that in the end morphed into the refrain from Coltrane's "A Love Supreme."

  • Piano Night was a nightlong celebration of the piano pioneering of Jelly Roll Morton, Professor Longhair, James Booker and the many other creators of the sound that makes jazz and rhythm and blues so special here.

  • The Ponderosa Stomp, also at the House of Blues, rounds up dozens of Southern swamp pop and rock semi-legends, but diversified this year with special sets from blues-and-boogie piano master Henry Gray, tender-voiced jazz vocalist Jimmy Scott and a big band led by the great R&B arranger Wardell Quezergue, featuring trumpeter Dave Bartholomew, the bandleader who collaborated with Fats Domino to put R&B atop the pop charts in the mid-1950s.

The festival ended on a bittersweet note. Alvin Batiste, 74, the clarinetist and longtime jazz educator, died that Sunday morning, the very day he'd been scheduled to be honored. He was to have played with students of his from the city high school for performing artists. After several moving eulogies, the tribute went ahead with Branford Marsalis on reeds and Harry Connick Jr. at the piano. These two superstars teamed up for an unaccompanied version of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" that had eyes glistening.

Connick then hustled over to the mammoth Acura stage for a Fest-closing run-through of his new big band and vocal CD, Oh My Nola. He's no kid anymore, but Connick remains a Crescent City favorite son, and his playful attitude, as well as his mastery of New Orleans music, shone brightly in his singing, playing and big band arrangements. As for that butt-shaking dance, let's hope is turns up on video.

Harry's been out front on the Re:New Orleans recovery effort. And he concluded his show with this vow: "Nothing in the rest of my professional career will ever be more important than making sure the world does not forget this dear city."

Amen to that.

Y'all come back was a kind of unspoken theme at this festival—a message aimed at the missing 200,000, and at the tourists. Spending time, and money, in New Orleans is a great way all of us can assist in its recovery, with tourism remaining by far the city's biggest industry. Some other ways to help:
  • Donate to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic or Habitat for Humanity's Musicians Village.

  • Support the city's touring musicians when they come to your town. Buy their CDs.

  • Finally, come election time, try to vote for leaders who truly are compassionate.

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