Seeking Quiet and Peace at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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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 logistics—if not emotion and energy—from 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 (256K—twice 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.

Much of the city still seems normal, so when one enters the flooded areas, any given block merely resembles the boarded-up slums of any city. But the mind boggles at the realization of how it goes on—block after block, mile after mile—without end.

Conflicting themes of rebuilding and destruction are rampant. There's something bizarre about men mowing the lawns in front of condemned homes with inevitable "for sale signs (not to make light, but nice grass isn't going to be a strong selling point). Hand-printed signs are a mix of communal ("Free Meal Center ) and anger ("CNA Insurance sucks ). The city's population is up 14 percent since July of 2006, but the school's superintendent just resigned after a frustrating—some said impossible—effort to navigate bureaucratic obstacles to reopen classrooms.

Locals outside the festival said they are mostly encouraged by the event's resurgence and the spotlight it brings. There were complaints about whether media portrayals were playing up the disaster too much (argument: outsiders shouldn't just be thinking of it as a flooded city) or too little (argument: many don't know how much help is still desperately needed). It's worth noting that on a day when local headlines focused on the Bush administration turning down or rejecting nearly all of the Katrina aid offered from foreign countries, national headlines focused on something much less substantial—the Rev. Jesse Jackson leading a publicity march in the Ninth Ward.

As for the festival itself, some residents said they felt it isn't as accessible to locals as it once was.

"I think going from $13 to $45 (tickets) is a big jump, said David Comeger, 27, a lifelong resident of New Orleans, who said he was a festival regular until prices got out of reach. "I could see it if there was nobody (living) here, but there are people coming back and it ought to be easier for them.

Still, scanning coverage by others covering the festival, it was obvious that for plenty of regional attendees the festival is a chance to forget about the devastation (not to mention the beginning of another hurricane season next month).

"If you live in one of those little FEMA trailers for a year, you deserve a good time," Betty Lagarde, whose St. Bernard Parish home was washed away, told The Associated Press. "I wish it didn't have to end."

Jay Mazza, a columnist for The Louisiana Weekly, wrote the spirit of this year's festival was captured by the Mahogany Brass Band, whose "band's leader Brice Miller was barely able to perform without tears. His family, like so many others, lost their home and was exiled to Mississippi. In 2006, he channeled all that pain into a standout performance that was his first back in the city of his birth. This year, the emotion was still palpable, but the pain was gone. Towards the end of his set, which was packed with old friends and new fans, he announced to the crowd that the previous night was his first back in his home with his family.

Where The Crowds Aren't

Wandering the fairgrounds at large, it seldom seems like one is at a jazz festival.

Southern-tinged popular music dominates the main stages, interrupted by diversions of competitive volume, like the admittedly captivating entertainments of Congo Square. I originally dismissed this air of distraction as a fault of my misperceptions and expectations. But Pisano, in his summary of the festival, offers a harsh assessment of the declining role of jazz at the festival and how the disaster is contributing to the fall-off.

"The jazz tent this year, as if in acknowledgment of the periphery to which the music has now been relegated at the city that gave it its birth and the festival to which it lends its name, was situated in a far corner of the fairgrounds, the Gospel Tent now taking its previously centralized location, he wrote. "One also saw few minority faces in the jazz tent this year, a further indication, I think, of the African-American neighborhoods that are now for all intents and purposes gone.

Such an observation from a third party lessened the guilt for spending most of my time seeking the remote, quieter locations, which also almost always happened to be cooler and a chance to talk to whoever might be on stage or manning a table.

A few others expressed a similar preference. Steve Daub, a New York disc jockey who's been coming the festival since 1996, said he avoids bigger stages because many of the area musicians he likes frequently play elsewhere in the state.

"I try to see my friends, but I also try to go see bands I haven't seen before, he said. "I'm always looking for something new for the radio.

Inside the main fairgrounds building, located along the sidelines of the main action, the posters were for things not likely to appease die-hard music fans—like an art exhibit and cooking stage. But in addition to air conditioning, the hall of the art exhibit had wait-free lines for concessions, plus the occasional musician drop-in like Wesley Phillips, a New Orleans drummer willing to spend a few minutes playing and discussing technique, or to jam with passersby.

"I'm not sure people know what's in here, he said.

Sitting at a table that ironically was under a poster detailing the history of jazz funerals, Phillips said he was spending part of the festival working with various drummers to overcome their struggles with different musical styles, saying much of it is actually common dialogue.

"The technical part is what's hard—to get the drummers to come in with it he said, noting they'll often know a few styles, but there's a lack of overlap in a group. Drumming is based on languages. I'm trying to get them speaking to each other.

Among those stopping for a few minutes was Troy Johnson, 11, whose impromptu drumming circle with his cousin, Dominique, 9, and Phillips could have passed for one of the child-prodigy performances scattered elsewhere during the festival.

"I've been playing for a while, Johnson said, including some appearances with local performers.

Speaking of which, the children's tent can be worth a visit, even without kids in tow, since it's both a chance to literally stretch out while hearing some acclaimed performers—including some aforementioned youths with actual talent.

A few adult couples who were sprawled on the straw in front of the stage had ample space while listening to Latin, folk and world performers emphasizing unusual instruments. Among those on stage at one point were a couple of kids (no clue about their names) who didn't look even 10, doing a washboard/vocal Zydeco thing. True, it wasn't Buckwheat Zydeco or The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars with their various accordion madnesses, but the minimalist density was a lot easier to appreciate if you were up close and personal.

Others in the crowd were listening to family and friends doing shows for audiences small enough to be a cozy hometown bar gig, including Martha and Bart Chamberlain, watching their son, Burgin Sund, and his finance, Sherry Branch, perform with the Basin Street Sheiks.

There's not much family resemblance between the leisurely dressed Chamberlains, who moved from New Orleans to Key West, Florida., ten years ago, and their long-haired, clad-in-black son singing and playing a washboard, to say nothing of his fiancee, a professional clown dressed head-to-toe in pink.

"We saw their demo (video) tape earlier this week, said Bart Chamberlain. "It kind of freaked us out.

Their set, while obviously aimed at being simple enough for younger ears, also featured novel soloing on things like plastic bottles during songs with names like "Jug Band With Glockenspiel (described in the lyrics as "nothing less than total pain ).

"They made this song up two nights ago, Bart Chamberlain said. "We gave the glockenspiel player a ride over and he was still practicing on the way.

Of course, one person's discovery is another's longtime favorite. One online poster called Nicholas Payton "the future of jazz ; others at chat boards mentioned Tab Benoit as their favorite "find. But perhaps the most popular pick (and new to me) was Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, a guy still in his early 20s whose bio says he's been a bandleader since age 6. He plays brass band and mainstream jazz, but at the festival his attire was modern hip-hop and his repertoire funky ("standards in this setting was funkified remixes of "Back In Black ).

Andrews' recording of this year's set hasn't been released, but his shows from recent festivals are available. There's also a couple free MP3s floating around, but a more substantial freebie is a 2004 CD release party with The Bluebrass Project at the Internet Archive.

Those not needing to hear music all the time—or looking to gain insight when they did—could hear various discussions and interviews from featured musicians and historical experts. One of the more picturesque settings was covered seating and garden in front of the small Allison Miner Music Heritage/ Lagniappe Stage, where events included a tribute to Dick Allen, a festival co-founder and jazz historian who died in April at the age of 80 but not before recording decades of interviews with jazz legends.

In addition to hearing about his work—described as a blend of humorous and in-depth moments—and comments from audience members about memorable festival moments inspired by him, there were the stories that become lore among insiders. Among them was how, a few days before Mardi Gras, somebody apparently needed a place to keep a goat for a few days and Allen's temporarily vacant apartment was the chosen location.

"By the time Dick got in, the goat was eating books and generally causing a mess, said Joel Gardner, an oral historian who was part of the panel. Allen immediately put the goat on his balcony while trying to figure out what was happening, only to get arrested for housing an illegal animal when it defecated on a pedestrian below.

Trying to sneak a close encounter with bigger names occasionally led to letdowns. About half of maybe a dozen people left when Dr. Lonnie Smith cancelled a smaller planned discussion-demonstration two hours before his scheduled concert. Those remaining did get to see longtime Louisiana guitarist/bluesman Kenny Bill Stinson at a funky red Baldwin piano while discussing the works of Jerry Lee Lewis.

Meeting name artists was also possible during signings at the CD tent, but it was predictably packed and didn't seem like the place to do much more than buy the artist's CD, get a signature and get out. Next door at the book tent, however, there were few people by comparison and plenty of opportunities to chat with longtime festival workers and participants (even if impulse purchases there were a bear to lug around all day).

The nerdish instincts aren't just mine. Amanda Anderson, who with a couple of others did a bang-up job of covering the festival in-depth at Blogging New Orleans, writes "the book tent is one of the most-neglected spots on the Jazzfest grounds, but it's cool in there, and one of the best places to learn about what's really going on in our fair city.

A different sort of fondness for the academic was expressed by Angie Jacques, a Hartfield, Connecticut resident attending her third festival and among the few to say she goes out of her way to listen to some of the student and other amateur bands scheduled.

"They just put a lot of effort into it and they're not getting paid for it, she said.

Still, Jacques added, " I did have to check out Rod Stewart.

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