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Jazzfest XXXIII is now in the books down in New Orleans. For me, it was number XV, so I've been there, done that, and can't wait to do it all again. Anyone who doesn't have a ball at this annual celebration of the music, the food and the people of this joyful city needs to check his pulse. Now it's true, Jazzfest has its detractors. Jazz purists sniff at the big-name rock and pop acts that take over the biggest of the 12 stages, drawing crowds of up to 100,000 a day that swarm all over the Fairgrounds racetrack like ants at a picnic. But there's plenty of jazz of both the traditional New Orleans and modern varieties, in the relative comfort depending on the breeze of two massive tents. This year, the fest added a blues tent, bringing that music in from the broiling sun. Yes, and it is hot. Ninety degrees on several days this late April, early May, and swampy to boot. There are long lines for food, drink, and most frustratingly, restrooms. Hotel rates are high, French Quarter restaurants are all booked up, and airlines sell out the cheap seats months in advance. And your car might get towed if you inadvertently violate the byzantine street parking rules.
And yet, this is indubitably one of the world's great parties, one that extends far beyond the festival site, reaching into clubs and concert venues, world class restaurants and backyard crab boils, gladdening the hearts of visitors from all over the world who, like me, are addicted to this beloved Big Easy.
Here in diary form are some impressions, observations and recollections of the 10-day festival:
April 25 (Jazzfest Eve): The irrepressible trumpeter/singer/embodiment of fun Kermit Ruffins and the unstoppable singer
ianist Henry Butler will be all over town for the Fest, beginning with a set apiece at the Howlin' Wolf club. Ruffins previewed his next CD, a highlight being "Skokiaan," an old African melody. Butler applied his bullhorn voice and jackhammer piano style to tunes from his latest, "The Game Has Just Begun," showing a funkier side. And "Great Balls of Fire," what he did with that Jerry Lee Lewis oldie.
April 26: Bonerama. It's a new band featuring five trombones, a tuba, guitar and drums. Yep, it's blustery, boisterous, just what you'd expect from eight guys well schooled in the city's classic blend of brassy jazz and bubbling r&b. The band wah-wowed us in the Jazz Tent, so we drove across the river to Algiers (big mistake: take the ferry instead) to the Old Point Bar for their only nighttime appearance.
Leader Mark Mullins a native of New Brunswick, N.J. takes plunger-mute tricks a step or two further, plugging his horn into a guitar amp now and then for a wonderful hybrid sound, then wak-wakking Donald Duck style, but it's the robust harmonies in the band's sharp arrangements that stamp Bonerama as special. Just listen (they've got a great CD out) to the old Basie chart, "Li'l Darlin,'‚" the horns stating the elegant melody while the guitar ching-chings along street-beat style; the tune winds up with some wonderfully swaggering interplay, some horns veering off freestyle while the rest keep the hinted-at chaos just under control.
More opening day memories were supplied by the sublimely intertwining clarinet virtuosos, Jack Maheu and Tim Laughlin, in Economy Hall.
April 27: Matt Lemmler's big band arrangements of Stevie Wonder tunes were intriguing, with George French and Leah Chase brewing up good chemistry on the vocals. Most of the Jazz Tent schedule was too avant-garde for my taste, so I checked out the new Blues Tent, thrilling to the slide guitar wizardry and piercing vocals of Roy Rogers and staying for Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown's fiery fiddling and guitar picking.
April 28: Patti Austin, on the surface a soul singer, revealed her jazz heart in a touching tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that she and the Count Basie Orchestra have put out on a new CD. Austin sang sweetly, scatted effortlessly and chatted knowledgeably about Ella.
April 29: Not officially part of Jazzfest, Piano Night has nonetheless become a fixture on the Monday night between the two festival weekends. For the first time, there were two stages, the big one devoted to rollicking keyboard and band sets in the tradition of the great Professor Longhair, the smaller room more intimate, with jazz and cabaret predominating.
Eddie Bo, singer, pianist and cutup who came up in the heyday of rhythm and blues the real r&b, not the artificial fluff that's hijacked that moniker nowadays is traditionally the closing performer on Piano Night. He had Dr. John as a guest organist, plus a half-dozen veteran sidemen and they waxed ecstatic till long past the midnight hour.
April 30: Brunch at Uglesich's, oysters, oysters, fried green tomatoes and a bloody Mary. Dinner at Drago's. Barbecued oysters, oysters alfredo. There was music in between at the Decatur Street record stores, but the food stole the show.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.