New Orleans Jazz Fest: Guilty Pleasures in a Surreal Setting


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There was a post-Katrina vibe--a sense that at least for these two weekends the beloved Crescent City would celebrate, survive and maybe even prosper again
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
New Orleans, Louisiana
April 28-30 & May 5-7, 2006

They said it couldn't be done.

After Hurricaine Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, many doubted the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest would go on this year as it has every April and May since 1970. Much of the city was in ruins, the racetrack site was wind-battered and under water, hotels were jammed with evacuees. Vendors, ticket takers, security personnel, cleanup crews - everyone who would be needed to put on Jazz Fest - were scattered across the country. So were the musicians.

But traditions die hard in this oldest of Southern cities. The organizers found new sponsors with deep pockets. Big-name artists knew they owed New Orleans, a wellspring for so much of America's music. Many offered to play at reduced rates. Homegrown talent decided to come back, even if only to just play Jazz Fest and it became a giant Big Easy musical reunion. And what a show they all put on.

This was my 19th Jazz Fest. A few years ago, I decided to stop writing about it, since there are only so many ways to gush over the food, the music, the laissez faire attitude that always set the city apart. But it didn't take long to realize that the 2006 event was something special—that there was a post-Katrina vibe; a sense that at least for these two weekends the beloved Crescent City would celebrate, survive and maybe even prosper again. This spirit was shared, even instigated, by what was presented on the big stage of the WWOZ Jazz Tent, where I spent most of my hours.

What struck me was how glad the performers seemed to be to be back, and how genuinely grateful they were that we listeners had come back too. As Irvin Mayfield, leade of the not-to-be-missed New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, told the crowd, "Don't be fooled by that Wall Street Journal article," (which said many musicians are happier and making a better living elsewhere). None of the 18 NOJO members are back living in New Orleans yet, "but they all want to be, and every one came back for this performance," Mayfield asserted. Their music made it clear where their hearts reside.

Herbie Hancock was the first weekend's biggest jazz name. Hancock called it a "privilege to play at the greatest jazz festival in the world.'' The crowd roared. So did his set.

Singer and chef Leah Chase has been living in a FEMA trailer since the storm while her home is repaired. She sang "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home," which a sideman quipped was all right to do if you've been hired to gut the house.

Another singer, Leigh "Lil Queenie' Harris, just back in town, dedicated "Every Time We Say Goodbye" to three musician friends who've died since Katrina and dabbed at tears. She felt strongly, too, about FEMA and the current administration and her rude gesture summed up the dim view many in New Orleans have of Washington.

Terence Blanchard's blistering set ended early, so I wandered over to the field where Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions band were thrilling tens of thousands. His "My City of Ruins," written about Asbury Park resonated with the New Orleans crowd, and "The Saints," treated as a lullaby, was a fitting finale.

In the four-day hiatus before the Fest resumed, I drove around the city marveling at the bustling Garden District and Uptown neighborhoods and the busy Magazine Street business district. I also toured the Lakefront area, much of it a ghost town where homes display the evidence of the hurricane's wrath. Grim hieroglyphics were painted on doors and outer walls, signs of what rescuers found after the flood.

Everywhere, utility poles were festooned with placards for roofers, drywall contractors, mold remediators, trash removers and more. Mountains of debris spilled over curbs, into streets. Once-submerged cars jammed the impound lots beneath the elevated interstate.

Uglesich's, where oysters were prepared a dozen mouthwatering ways, appeared to be shut for good, after 82 years (though I've since been informed it wasn't Katrina's fault - the owners had been vowing to retire for years now). That really brought the tragedy home for me.

But many of the city's delights survived. Elizabeth's in the Bywater, formerly a breakfast-lunch standby, was now serving dinner five nights a week. We were lucky enough to catch traveling troubadours David and Rosalyn and their daughter Arlee Leonard, serenading diners with ballads and blues.

The Louisiana Music Factory, a record store, boasted a full lineup of in-store performances. Piano Night was relocated to the House of Blues: a seven-hour Monday night extravaganza of mainly rhythm-and-blues in the mold of the late great Professor Longhair. "If this gets any better," a friend told me halfway through, "I'm going to explode." It did, but happily he didn't.

More feel-good music and Katrina survival stories were shared in weekend two. The Brooks Family showed off their new instruments that replaced ones lost in the flood, and introduced a founder of the Katrina Piano Fund, whose mission is to help bereft musicians get new tools of their trade.

Johnny Vidacovich, the charismatic drummer for Astral Project, made about the 23rd "thank you, audience, for helping get our city back on its feet" speech I had heard witnessed, but broke things up with: "And you're brave people... I don't see anyone wearing a life preserver!"

Pianist Eddie Palmieri's incendiary playing backing saxophonists Donald "Big Chief" Harrison Jr. and George Coleman reveled in a quintessential New Orleans happening, as Big Chief summoned a tribe of Mardi Gras Indians to dance on stage while he sang. Two of the dancing Indians were adorned in yards and yards of feathers and beads. The soulful singer John Boutte covered Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927," about the great flood that brought President Coolidge down for an inspection visit. He updated it with some lyrics about President Bush and the "great job" FEMA did. But Boutte did it too upbeat to dwell too long on the negative.

"The people all around the world showed us such love, it's incredible," he said of post-Katrina relief. "The people did," he stressed.

An unfortunate auto accident kept trumpeter Nicholas Payton from his scheduled festival-closing set in the Jazz Tent. Instead, Dirty Dozen Brass Band leader Gregory Davis pulled together an ever-growing cast of locals for an old-fashioned jam session that quickly became a rowdy, raucous party. The message clearly was: "New Orleans is back, we're ready to party, so go home and tell people to come on down," said trumpeter James Andrews.

So to pass on their message, see y'all next year, if not sooner.

Photo Credit
Skip Bolen

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