Geraldine Wyckoff has immersed herself in the music and culture of New Orleans ever since she moved to the city. A music journalist who is well-respected by both musicians and publications alike, Wyckoff’s column in Gambit, “Percussions,” ran from 1985 through 2001; she also contributed to the publication as the anonymous “Count Basin”; and helped to create the Big Easy Awards with then-editor Errol Laborde.
She contributed to New Orleans Magazine for 20 years and was the author of the annual series “New Orleans Jazz All-Stars” (one dozen per year, six traditional and six modern players). Wyckoff was also a regular contributor to JazzTimes Magazine for 20 years. She has written a weekly column for The Louisiana Weekly since 2007.
We are proud to say that Ms. Wyckoff has written for OffBeat for over 26 years, longer than for any other magazine. We are grateful and honored that she has contributed her in-depth knowledge of our music and culture as well as her love for the city to OffBeat.
I is a pronoun that rarely makes it into my writings. So it was befuddling for me to know how to approach an article about celebrating my 40th anniversary of attending Jazz Fest that OffBeat asked me to do. I’m totally used to interviewing others so I thought about what I would ask myself if the tables were turned. Thus the following Q&A was, well yeah, kind of unusually, conducted and replied to by me.
I understand you missed one day of the Fest in 40 years. What happened?
I started getting chills at the festival and flagged down Allison Miner [Miner along with Quint Davis launched and for a time helped run Jazz Fest] who was driving a golf cart on the track and asked her to take me to a cab stand. The next day, when from my sick bed, I heard the bells of St. Louis Cathedral announce each hour, I cried because I knew just who I was missing.
How did you end up coming to Jazz Fest for the first time?
I came to New Orleans during Mardi Gras to visit a friend who had been a neighbor in Lagunitas, California. She had moved to New Orleans and I had headed to Wolf Creek, Oregon. Pretty much on my arrival everyone realized how far into the music I was—I was hip to Fess, Lee Dorsey, Snooks, Johnny Adams, Earl King, K-Doe, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, modern jazz cats, Clifton Chenier—because of an extensive record collection housed in my little log cabin. ‘You have to stay for Jazz Fest,’ everyone exclaimed. In between Carnival and Jazz Fest, I made my first of many trips to Belize, another place I dearly love.
What are some of your most vivid memories and perceptions of the Fest?
A story I like to tell because it typifies the Fest is that one year a good friend, music lover and percussionist came down from New York. Our musical tastes were pretty much in sync so we spent a whole day moving around together from tent to tent, stage to stage. Being a vet, I admit I probably did a bit of the steering though it didn’t take much persuasion for her to follow my lead. We parted company when she headed to see Stevie Ray Vaughan and I went to the Jazz Tent to hear the David Murray Octet. After the shows, we met at our usual spot on the grassy area next to the Gospel Tent both in a state of absolute euphoria. That’s Jazz Fest for ya.
I dug meeting musicians I might not have otherwise caught up with like Champion Jack Dupree (see photo of us chatting at the Fair Grounds). We talked a bit about the Mardi Gras Indians—he was born in New Orleans to a mother who was of mixed heritage, African American and Cherokee. The colorful decorations on his shoes were reminiscent of designs used by the Mardi Gras Indians.
I had the privilege of doing two phoners with saxophone legend Wayne Shorter. Man, but to hang out with him in his trailer behind the Jazz Tent was too much. James Singleton and I, along with others, stayed and stayed until Fest organizers kicked us out. Shorter, by the way, is hilarious.
Your long time motto has always been “When in doubt, go to the Gospel Tent.” Why is that?
Oh, man if you have to ask that question, you’ve never experienced the harmonies of the Electrifying Crown Seekers. There are few better moments than when falsetto master Gregory Sanders goes up for the high notes on ‘Walk Around Heaven.’ Every time, year after year, it never fails to give me goose pimples.
Even at Jazz Fest, sometimes the musicians seem to be going through the motions or just aiming to please the crowd. There’s none of that in the Gospel Tent that swings hard with sincerity. Praise to Sherman Washington for putting all of it together.
Okay, what are your Jazz Fest highlights?
Though I’d love to elaborate, I’m forced to mostly list them. After all, I’m a journalist so I know about space limitations and word count—oh, the quotes and stories I’ve had to edit out and the performances I haven’t included. Sorry y’all. In no particular order here are some of the chosen few.
A major highlight was the Sun Ra Arkestra on the Riverboat President with many of the vital players—saxophonists John Gilmore and Marshall Allen and vocalist June Tyson. The audience exited the boat passionately singing, ‘Space is the place.’ To see the pianist in a trio setting, a rarity for me, at the Fair Grounds was illuminating. I was also able to interview Sun Ra at a workshop at Marie Couvent Elementary School one day when the Fest was called off because of storm damage to tents and stages.
My brother watched a security guard on the Riverboat President watch me as Fats Domino bumped his baby grand piano across the stage. I guess the guard was concerned about the wild-eyed look on my face.
I was astonished to see Lee Dorsey singing his hits like ‘Working in the Coal Mine’ from a wheelchair with both (apparently broken) legs in casts. The show must go on…
It was pouring down rain when Earl King put on a (another) great show on the Gentilly Stage. Who cares? Dance, dance, dance when it’s Earl.
You could physically feel the tension in the Jazz Tent prior to what unknowingly was to be saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s last performance there. Those anticipating the show realized they were about to experience genius.
Then there was the night show with a double-bill of trumpeters Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. As Miles has a wont to do, he opened and played a very, very long set. By the time Wynton came on people were either half asleep or were leaving. Did Miles do that on purpose? Who’s to say? The trumpeters’ relationship was, well, always a little antagonistic.
I can and will go on to mention reggae icons like Jimmy Cliff and Toots & the Maytals—the roots—plus go-go pioneer guitarist/vocalist Chuck Brown. I felt kind of stupid having not dug further into his shit more before his passing.
There was only one place to be at the end of the day during Jazz Fest’s early years. That was right next to the stage where you could watch Professor Longhair’s hands and observe his demeanor create magic at the rightfully declared Fess Stage.
I was invited on stage three times in the last 40 years though that’s not a complaint, just a fact. I was privileged to introduce the World Saxophone Quartet as, seemingly, nobody else knew who the members were. I did. I pulled it off okay, I guess.
The Fais Do-Do Stage was always welcoming and I never missed the King of Zydeco, accordionist/vocalist Clifton Chenier mixing it up with his brother, rubboard man, Cleveland Chenier. The musicians and stage guys knew I dug zydeco so for the tribute to the siblings that featured numerous accordionists and others from the zydeco world, Terrance Simien and C.J. Chenier encouraged me to come on up and join them. I just danced and smiled from stage left.
Again, the friendly Fais Do-Do crew saw me standing in the pouring rain enjoying the one-of-a kind keyboardist/vocalist Eddie Bo. They must have figured I’d have even more fun with a canopy over my head and less mud on my shoes. I did.
What are the most significant changes, for you, at the Fest?
The loss of the Riverboat President was traumatic. As long-time Fest goer and photographer Pat Jolly would say, ‘Boo hoo.’ The other was when the Gospel, Blues and Jazz tents were moved out of the infield. It made sense, however it somewhat isolated these venues and their musical styles from the general population. So folks stridently heading to the ‘big name’ acts weren’t as likely to hesitate when they heard the strains of the Zion Harmonizers, Sammy Berfect or Raymond Myles emanating from the Gospel Tent. All of whom, as Jessie Hill would sing, ‘create a disturbance in your mind.’ Also to isolate jazz, an art form of intelligent passion, in its birthplace was sorrowful.
On a lighter note, there was a time that you could not only bring beer and cold drinks to the festival grounds but also onto the Riverboat President. You know that couldn’t last forever.
To put many of the brass bands and Mardi Indians on the relatively new Jazz & Heritage Stage where they could really be heard and seen, instead of marching in parades, was a smart move.
What might people find surprising about you in reference to Jazz Fest?
When I’m getting ready to go to the Fest in the morning—I always arrive when the gates open—my hands literally shake in anticipation. I’m still that excited by it after all these years. On the final day, when I pull out the last ticket in my envelope, I’m truly saddened that there only is only one day left.
I know other people have probably attended Jazz Fest more often than I have. I say, ‘Good for them and good for us.’