It’s safe to say that everyone who has performed, attended or even worked at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival over the last five decades remembers distinctly individual experiences. Especially during the “Jazz Fest season,” which begins with the first announcement of the line-up and carries through until the Fairgrounds’ gates close, a favorite topic among festgoers is the great sets of the past, funny predicaments along the way, bitter sweet moments of goodbye and, of course, the weather. Remember dancing in the pouring down rain to the magical musicianship of guitarist and Earl King?
Storms, downpours and mud are topics that pop up quite often among the artists who are interviewed here about Jazz Fest, many of whom performed at the very birth of the event, held at Congo Square and the Municipal Auditorium. Could anyone have conceived its eventual expansion? Back then, George Porter remembers thinking that that it would be “cool” if this “gig,” a festival focused on Louisiana artists, made it.
The nighttime concerts aboard the Riverboat President, often overlooked during these particular conversations, must also be mentioned. People would scramble for tickets for the early or late shows—or sometimes buy both—to cruise up the Mississippi, enjoying performances by some of the world’s most renowned artists. It’s almost impossible to believe that early on, fully-loaded ice chests were allowed to be brought onboard. An aim for many was to try to be on the top deck as the riverboat passed under the Mississippi River Bridge without missing a note of the shows.
A special personal moment onboard the President came for this writer when the entire crowd heading down the riverboat’s gangway following a spectacular set by the Sun Ra Arkestra chanted, “Space is the place! Space is the place!” So magical.
It was also somehow fascinating to observe that, when the oh-so-soulful vocalist Bobby “Blue” Bland and his great ensemble (which was often bookended by two guitarists, most notably Wayne Bennett and on occasion Clarence Hollimon) performed, the front three rows in the President’s concert area were filled with all women. Go get ’em Bobby!
Like all those interviewed, I’ve experienced numerous musically memorable moments withProfessor Longhair, Fats Domino, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, the World Saxophone Quartet, and the Leaders, to name only a few. One act definitely stands out as the most outrageous: guitarist/vocalist Ironing Board Sam performing in a Plexiglas tank filled with water. All day before his “dive,” we looked at that tank and laughed hysterically with a touch of fear mixed in with the giggles. “Man, I hope he doesn’t electrocute himself.” He didn’t, and he’s back to perform this year. This time, presumably, he’ll stay on terra firma.
So, what are some of the most memorable moments at Jazz Fest for the artists who’ve made major contributions to its success? Here’s how some of them remember the times.
Irma Thomas (vocalist)
“The one memory that’s kind of comical in a sense, was the year that Stevie Wonder played after the storm. I was out there, just as a fan going to see the festival, and I was sitting on the side of the stage. Someone told him that I was there, and Stevie called me on stage and we sang the song by him that I covered, ‘Shelter in the Rain.’ After I sang ‘Shelter in the Rain’ with him, I became a star to my grandchildren. All of a sudden I was somebody. Before that, I was just mama. I also once did ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ with Paul Simon.”
Thomas’ first appearance at the Fest was in 1974 when she did a walk-on with Tommy Ridgley’s band. The next year, she “officially” played with him at Jazz Fest. “When I moved back to city in 1976, I formed my own back-up band, and I’ve performed at Jazz Fest ever since. What I appreciate about the Jazz Fest, and what was important to many of us New Orleans and Louisiana artists, was that we were in our waning years, and by playing the festival it brought us out of the cobwebs. It brought us up front. It’s making the world aware of the arts of New Orleans. I hope Jazz Fest grows and continues to grow and grow. What I also appreciate about Jazz Fest is that it doesn’t matter if you’re performing in a wheelchair, on a stool, or if you’re standing; if you are a viable artist and you can do your thing, they will hire you. And that’s what’s important, to be wanted. They make all of the local people feel wanted.”
Cyril Neville (percussionist, vocalist and former member of the Meters and Neville Brothers)
“My fondest memory of the Jazz Fest was on the Fess Stage, with the Neville Brothers, Big Chief Jolly and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and Big Chief Pete of the Black Eagles. That was a magical day. That was the first time we [the brothers] played Jazz Fest, and at that point we weren’t even the Neville Brothers; that was the Wild Tchoupitoulas. That never happened before, and it never happened again. Any one of the closing shows that the Neville Brothers did though, every one of them was special.
“I first came to the Jazz and Heritage Festival with James Caroll Booker in a white Bentley. We got off of that track and drove through the crowd, passing reefers out of both windows as we drove up to the stage he was on. He was passing them out one window and I was passing them out the other. [When he got to the stage] he got out of the car, took a bow and played his set. At that point, me and him was just hangin’. He was my friend.”
Johnny Vidacovich (drummer)
“I remember one time, me, [James] Singleton, and David Torkanowsky were hired to back up Snooks Eaglin. There was a wooden stage with bleachers on both sides, and a big puddle of mud in the middle. We were waiting for David T. Snooks didn’t bring a guitar chord or a case or anything. He kept asking, “Where’s David? Where’s David?” So it’s downbeat time, ‘Ladies and gentlemen…’ All of a sudden I looked out through the crowd, and I could see across this big giant mud puddle, David running towards the stage. So, he hits the mud puddle, man, and he falls in, but he jumps up keeps running, and comes up with one shoe on and jumps up on the stage.
“We’d go out there all day. We’d park the car behind the stage and you’d pull your drums out, pull your beer out, pull your girl out. I remember playing solo drums in 1977 and I had to follow James Black! I remember playing with Earl Tubinton, with me and [drummer] Brian Blade. That’s when the tent was over on the other side [in the infield].
“My oldest memories are when I was really young and I had long hair and a beard, back around 1973. I played with Willie Tee and the Souls, with Earl Turbinton and George Davis. I had my eyes closed and we were playin’ hardcore hometown funk. All of a sudden the microphones fall, the stands fall. I opened my eyes and I was surrounded by feathers, and there were about 10 Indians dancing and beating on cowbells and tambourines. The whole thing turned chaotic. It was like I opened my eyes and I was in a kaleidoscope.”
George Porter (bassist, vocals, leader of the Runnin’ Pardners and original member or the Meters)
“I have at least 50 memories. Probably one of the most amazing things that I was involved in was two maybe three years ago on the Acura Stage. It was a horribly rainy day and we, the Runnin’ Pardners band, went on stage and the rain came back when we were performing. The stage manager told me, ‘Man you can quit any time.’ I remember looking out into the audience and seeing these people standing out there in the mud and the rain with their little plastic hats and stuff on. I told the guy, ‘As long as they’re standing out there, I’m going to stay up here.’
“At my very first Fair Grounds performance, Stevie Wonder came out and played with the original Meters. We closed out that stage and Fess [pianist/vocalist Professor Longhair] was playing at another stage—we had like a 15-minute window. Zig [drummer Zigaboo Modeliste] and I went and played with Fess—it was the first time I played with Fess in public.”
Porter remembers viewing the early incarnations of Jazz Fest as being like an experiment: “The idea of growing this into a real event, it was like a test if that could happen. I think we all, as players, thought, ‘Wow if this gig did happen it would be cool.’”
Kermit Ruffins (trumpeter, singer and leader of the Barbeque Swingers)
“I would have to say, my first festival was in 1985, playin’ the parade with the Rebirth [Brass Band]. I was maybe 20 years old. I remember sitting in the grass in the open field—it was a picnic kind of feel—and I was layin’ on the tuba, and there were all these freaking photographers. The whole band brought their families, theirmamas and aunties. It was a big deal. We we’re playing the freakin’ Jazz Fest! The parade was super special. We knew the members of the social aid and pleasure club in the parade, and that added to the fun and the whole party. Before that, I might have been to the festival with my school one year, but not an experience like that. I can remember the feeling of that parade, the vibe that we had. It was life-changing.
“One year, I was lucky enough to have [bassist] Walter Payton hire me with his band. I was a fan of “The Young and the Restless,” and they had this girl in the show, a superstar, Victoria Rowell. When I got off the stage, [Rowell] ran up to me and said, “You were great! Great!” I said, “I’m playin’ tonight at Joe’s Cozy Corner with Walter Payton,” and she came and hung in the hood with us for like three days.
“I had the time of my life last year too, going for the first time to every day of the Jazz Fest. I never did that because it’s always too hot and too hectic. I saw Lionel Richie and Anita Baker. I went every day because I got a Brass Pass forhelpin’ out WWOZ.”
James Rivers (saxophonist, singer, bagpipe player)
“The first couple of years I played with Deacon John’s band, the Ivories. When I left [his group] in 1971, I started my band and I’ve been doing it ever since. I love playing at the Jazz Fest—Jazz Fest could be once a week. When it first started, it was like a regular gig. My first year at the Fair Grounds, I was leading the James Rivers Trio:me, [keyboardist/ organist and gospel great] Sammy Berfect, and drummer/singer John Wright, and then it became the James Rivers Quartet when I added a guitar. The reason I called it [the larger ensemble] the Movement was because of the variety of music I played.” Rivers then mentions being a bagpipe player since the mid-1970s.
“People were amazed, seeing this black guy playing bagpipes, and playing jazz and blues at that. Rufus Harley, he’s the president of bagpipes, and I’m the vice president. I don’t wear no kilt. You’re not going to put a dress on James Rivers. You’d have to pay me a whole lot of money.”
Deacon John (singer, guitarist bandleader of the Ivories)
“The one memory that fixes in my head was when Stevie Wonder jammed with the Meters. Everybody remembers that.
“Years ago, when they used to have the River Tent shows, Etta James invited me to sit in, and we were singing a song, and I sat on Etta James’ lap, yeah! I think it was on, ‘When Something Is Wrong with My Baby.’ Oh, this is a good memory too! They had the River Tent, and I had the perfect song, because my signature song was, ‘Many Rivers to Cross.’ So, this was when they’d just come out with wireless microphones. I made my entrance through the audience with the cordless microphone, and I was shakin’ people’s hands, and everyone was lookin’ around like, ‘Where’s Deac? Where’s Deac? I hear him but I don’t see him.’”
Ellis Marsalis (pianist, composer, educator)
Marsalis’s involvement with the Jazz Fest began when jazz historian/Hogan Jazz Archive curator, Dick Allen, asked him to work with fest founder/producer, George Wein, to identify local musicians to play the festival. “So I wouldn’t get in the middle of nothing,I said to the musicians, ‘You give me your best price, and I’m gonna give it to George.’
“Everybody who played at the Municipal Auditorium got 45 minutes, and there was 15 minutes for set up. I remember Willie Tee was singing and the audience liked what he was doing, and then the curtain just closed. Willie said, ‘Man, I was just getting’ to my stuff.’ I said [sarcastically], ‘Welcome to New York; nobody don’t know nothin’ about that.’
“One year, it was really hot out there, so I bought a white straw hat. I call it my Jazz Fest hat. The only time I ever wear it is at the festival.”
CJ Chenier (accordionist, vocalist, composer, and leader of the Red Hot Louisiana Band)
“The main thing I remember was my very first time performing at Jazz Fest with my dad [the late, great Clifton Chenier]. I didn’t know what the festival was all about. We pulled up on the grounds with the van and trailer, and he would set up his own PA system because he didn’t trust the festival’s PA system. It was just incredible to look out at that audience—he played on the main stage—and see all those people having a good time. That was just amazing to me at the age of 21 years old, to see all of that happening.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know how I was going to feel being on the stage with my dad and my uncle [rubboard master Cleveland Chenier], because I was the baby of the band. But it was all-natural, because Cleveland was so friendly, and my father knew I didn’t know anything. So they all had patience with me, and that made me feel comfortable.
“Jazz festival is one of the most incredible places. I’ve played there every year except when it was rained out.
“Another good time recently, was when we did a tribute to Buckwheat [meaning zydeco great, Buckwheat Zydeco] after he had passed. Before that, I’d sat in with Buckwheat when the festival did a tribute to him.”
Andrew Jackson Sr. (leader of the Rocks of Harmony)
“I like the improvements at the Gospel Tent,” says Jackson, the leader of the Rocks of Harmony group, which has been praising for over 60 years, and boasts 10 original members. “At first, we didn’t have a place to change clothes at the festival; only the out-of-town groups had [dressing rooms]. There used to be water up under the tent, and we’d be out there in the mud while we sang. It’s so beautiful now, you don’t have no kind of problems like that.
“[Gospel Tent coordinator] Sherman Washington was the prime reason that we were out there; he was like a brother to us. Every time we go [to Jazz Fest], we get a first-class reception. I think the audience likes the upbeat songs we do. We’ve met beautiful people at the festival and have been offered to go overseas. Now we’re known as the Legendary Rocks of Harmony.”
Rev. Louis Dejan (gospel matriarch of the Johnson Extension)
Dejan led the Gospel Inspirations, which was populated with students from McDonogh 35 High School, which, at the time, was right down the street from Congo Square, where the festival was initially held. Dejan’s daughter, Pamela Landrieu, pulled it all together and formed the group. “First it was a struggle, because not many people knew about the festival,” says Dejan, who leads the Johnson Extension, which currently boasts four generations of her family. “Matter of fact, they brought a band all through the Treme and brought the neighborhood people in to see what was going on. But we were there ’cause all the kids knew us from school, so they came out anyway. There was a small wooden stage with a piano on it in a tent. I started contacting other schools and got them on the festival. It’s been a wonderful experience for me.
“When we go to the Jazz Fest, we go to inspire people we don’t just go to have people clap and dance. There’s a message to our music. If there’s no message, there’s no reason for us to come.”
Lars Edegran (pianist, bandleader of the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra)
“One exciting memory was when I got to perform with [legendary pianist and composer] Eubie Blake. He came to hear us at Preservation Hall, and then he came to perform with us [Ragtime Orchestra] and we played some of his compositions. I was honored to meet him. Also, I met George Wein at the first festival and he offered us to play at [Newport Jazz Festival], which we did in 1971. The first Jazz Fest was small, so you knew everybody in the audience. Then there were artists like Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, and Kid Ory. I got to meet and play with many musicians.
“I thought the jazz festival was a great idea. I got to hear people that you wouldn’t normally hear, like Professor Longhair and [guitarist] Snooks Eaglin. In the early years, when there were kind of a lot of unique blues artists—I’m very much into blues—like Big Joe Williams and Roosevelt Sykes, I was able to hear them. I also heard a lot of great Cajun music. It’s been an amazing run.”