Lots of empty seats in the shade right next to an intimate garden stage. Nobody in line for beer at the air- conditioned concession stand. Sprawling leisurely in the hay in front of some eclectic band that was still rehearsing songs on the drive over.
Sound like anybody else's weekend at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival? Possibly not, but it's there for the festival-goer willing to look for it.
Festival officials estimated attendance for the two three-day weekends at 375,000 spectators, up from 325,000 to 350,000 in 2006, saying it has resurged not just to pre-Katrina levels but to those before September 11. The 30,000 available hotel rooms, twice the capacity of last year, were more than 90 percent booked. Most people talked about the vast improvement in logisticsif not emotion and energyfrom last year's event. Singers heavy on protest/political lyrics were ranting more against the war in Iraq than the mishaps surrounding Katrina's recovery.
Great as it is to see the city rocking despite the incomprehensible lingering damage, after 90 minutes of waiting in the heat and humidity for shuttle buses and admission there's something unappealing about standing with 10,000 others 500 yards from some allegedly famous person belting the blues.
In fact, like Montreux and a large number of other mega-festivals, jazz gives up a lot of space at the 10 large stages and tents in exchange for more lucrative blues, cajun and rock stars (hence the "And Heritage part of the name).
So between catching jazz headliners like Terence Blanchard and Branford Marsalis, seeing the struggling, novel and young is one of the festival's rewards for spectators willing to expand their horizons.
"I always get there early and do the center field first, said Lynda Hargroder, an employee at a local charity hospital who's been going to the festival for more than 30 years. "A lot of times for me the best artists are the ones who aren't getting the biggest billing. I know Norah Jones.
Years ago as a kid, Hargroder said, she heard a stellar unknown young pianist/vocalist tucked away in an obscure corner. It was Harry Connick Jr., who this year grabbed headlines not just for headlining the festival and serving as featured performer for a blow-out finale, but for working with R&B star John Legend and dozens of others who volunteered to paint, wash clothes and provide other help in recovering areas during the festival.
"It's a bittersweet thing for everyone closing down the Jazz Fest," Connick told The Associated Press. It became even more so when clarinetist Alvin Batiste died of an apparent heart attack hours before he was scheduled to appear with Connick and Marsalis, both of whom were former students. Batiste, born in 1932, played extensively with legends such as Cannonball Adderly and Ornette Coleman, and was a longtime teacher in Louisiana to a roster of prominent players.
The show paying tribute to Batiste easily seemed the most personal of the big-stage moments as Connick, Marsalis and other former students joined members of the clarinetist's family. Connick got high praise for leaving his 18-piece orchestra behind on a percussion-heavy solo encore during which he slapped one hand, then both, on top of the piano. But it was the group moments that were the most moving, and Nicholas Pisano, of Albuquerque, N.M., summarizes it best (scroll to middle):
"Baptiste's niece, Stephanie Jordan, teamed with her trumpeter brother, Marlon Jordan, for an emotional performance of 'Here's to Life' that matched poignant moments from previous festivals such as Shirley Horne's own rendition of this same song in 2005 just weeks before her own death and John Boutte's updated rendition of 'Louisiana 1927' last year during the first post-Katrina Jazzfest. Breaking down in tears, Ms. Jordan was led from the stage by her brother.
About here it's worth noting that, in my quest to find the calm amidst the storm, I was nowhere near the stage during the performance. I was only able to attend the first weekend of the festival, watching many of the second weekend of concerts from an air-conditioned four-star hotel room in Las Vegas on live broadcasts streamed by AT&T.
Obviously the virtual tour can't possibly replace being there, but it's a free and easy way to get a faint taste from afar, and there's several ways people can still receive an education approximating that of those in attendance. AT&T says highlights will be available soon in their archive. Shows from this and past years are being sold online, both as CDs and downloadable high-quality (256Ktwice the usual bit rate) MP3s. For those pinching pennies, recordings of the shows are starting to show up at various sites easily found by Googling "bittorrent and "New Orleans Jazz Festival.
The Sophomore Surge
Nothing can be said about the devastation here that hasn't already been written.