New Orleans lives for its music, never more dramatically than the two weekends of sustained merrymaking that constitute the New OrIeans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Spring is full swing, magnolias perfuming the air, and that means it’s time for the Crescent City’s celebration its indigenous music and the place it takes as a fulcrum for the vast wealth of America’s musical culture, which is on opulent display. No matter how many times you visit the Festival there’s always a new musical experience lurking on the Fair Grounds infield somewhere during the. event.
In a presentation of roots, folk and esoteric music that casts as wide a net as Jazzfest does, there is often a sense that the music keeps reinventing itself as it goes along. So does the audience, which has grown over the years from a predominantly local following into what is unquestionably the most important international festival of its kind.
The festival achieved a kind of critical mass at its 20th anniversary in 1989, which coincided with the 35th anniversary of the Neville Brothers‘ amazing contributions to the city’s musical history.
During the 10 days of Jazzfest you could hear the Neville’s, or one of their offshoot bands, playing every night. Two songs from the band’s then-current album, Yellow Moon, became unofficial Jazzfest rhemes. A number of groups covered their anti-apartheid anthem, “My Blood,” and local radio stations constantly aired “Sister Rosa,” Cyril Neville’s stirring tribute to Rosa Parks.
The whole city seemed to be celebrating the outside world’s discovery of one of its most precious commodities. After all, Neville Brothers music has been at the heart of the New Orleans scene since 1954 and oldest brother Art Neville’s hit with the Hawkettes, “Mardi Gras Mambo,” is still a selection on almost every jukebox in town.
Another prominent New Orleans family enjoyed a momentous Jazzfest memory that year when Wynton Marsalis premiered material from his forthcoming Majesty of the Blues album, a stirring tribute to the musical history of New Orleans. Marsalis had been praised for his technique but criticized as lacking soul earlier in his career; but soul is what he showed that Tuesday night in the River Tent, playing a stirring set that had the 4,000 people on hand standing in the aisles, waving handkerchiefs and shouting for joy.
The suite “New Orleans Function” reached across generations to encompass the spirit of a city whose children are never weaned from music. The music wafted out into the audience on faint, musty Mississippi River breezes. Marsalis seemed to glide through those breezes with his trumpet playing, alternating full-throated, loping cries with somber phrases from his muted horn.
The piece opened with the dirge-like cadence of the funeral march as the venerable Danny Barker played a banjo passage that evoked countless processions from the past and eventually progressed into a second-line celebration. By the final movement, “Happy Feet Blues,” the entire audience was on its feet and dancing. “This music is not a trend,” Marsalis told the crowd. “It does not have to keep up with anything.”
By the final movement, “Happy Feet Blues,” the entire audience was on its feet and dancing. “This music is not a trend,” Marsalis told the crowd. “It does not have to keep up with anything.”
Miles Davis followed, and the audience applauded politely, but his set of amplified funk was clearly no match for the charged revival-meeting atmosphere that Marsalis’ acoustic New Orleans music evoked.
Marsalis, and the music of New Orleans, had won the day. Through the 1990s the Neville and Marsalis families dominated the Jazzfest lineups, every year bringing a new variation on the old favorites.
Jazzfest celebrated its 25th anniversary against the grim, surreal backdrop of the crazily twisted, carbonized black steel girders of the Fair Grounds grandstand, which burned to the dirt on December 17, 1993. But the joy of the event overwhelmed this symbol of destruction from the moment the Kennedy High School marching band, decked out in bright blue-and-gold uniforms, paraded down the racetrack homestretch to one of the 10 stages dotting the infield.
A few minutes later Chicago Al and the Back Burners powered to a spirited blues set highlighted by Al’s vocals, guitar playing and harmonica work. As AI played a Jimmy Reed-style harp solo, the pungent odor of burning charcoal from a blacksmith’s pit wafted across the crowd. Right next door was Congo Square, where the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans offered a prayer to Legba, the road-opener and crossroads guardian of Yoruban myth, while the seven members of the Voodoo Macumba Dance Ensemble played hypnotic trance music on a variety of hand drums.
Across the field the Humble Travelers started things off at the Gospel Tent while Christian rappers The Elect chanted “Time To Make a Change” on the Ray Ban Stage.
Soon the infield was a bubbling gumbo’ of exoric sound incorporating the burning salsa of Paky Saavedra’s Bandido, traditional New Orleans jazz played by some of the city’s oldest musicians, Frank Federico and the Medicare Madcaps, and modern jazz played by some of the city’s youngest, the New Orleans High School All City Jazz Band and the Jazz Ensemble from the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts.
The Mardi Gras Indians, clad in their feathered carnival suits, were represented by the bodacious White Cloud Hunters. By the time the Neville Brothers and the Radiators closed the festival, the final Sunday of Jazzfest 25 made its mark as one of the best ever.
“Teach your children that we’re one family, one race-the human race,” Cyrille Neville told the crowd after the band finished with a version of Bob Marley’s “One Love.”
Aretha Franklin drew the largest crowd at the event to her stage to hear Lady Soul belt out a series of her timeless hits, including “Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think” and “Respect” in front of a crack big band.
Wynton Marsalis followed his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, in another display of the city’s musical family tradition. Wynton’s band drew an overflow crowd to the Jazz Tent to hear a spectacular program of Ellingtofila and solo pieces.
One of the most uplifting moments of the festival occurred when Ali Farke Toure, the master guitarist from Mali, was joined onstage by guitar legend Ry Cooder. The two concocted a heady blend of eastern modalities and dazzling improvisations that had the audience transfixed.
By 1996 visitors arriving at New Orleans airport were greeted by a huge image of Aaron Neville, whose muscular frame adorned a Hollywood-style billboard advertising his newest album, The Tattooed Heart. Neville had come a long way from the days when he and his brothers were hounded by local police. Now promoted as “the heart of New Orleans,” Aaron once did a stretch in the parish prison. His ascent from the stories to the status as one of the city’s revered musical treasures mirrors the sense of identity that Jazzfest has imposed on New Orleans.
Where other New Orleans parties lure rowdy crowds to brawl and booze, Jazzfest celebrates the music and the culture of the. people and draws visitors who eagerly and peacefully worship both.
Not all of those newcomers are welcomed with the same enthusiasm. The last half of the 1990s has seen the influx of jam-oriented rock bands that bring their own enthusiastic and peaceful but decidedly un-New Orleans vibe to Jazzfest. Some of these groups, particularly the Allman Brothers Band and Widespread Panic, are an excellent and logical extension of the Jazzfest aesthetic.
Others are not such a perfect fit, particularly Phish, who really overwhelm their surroundings and are rhythmically one-dimensional, a Jazzfest heresy. Nevertheless, even the Phish experience was ultimately positive due to the musical generosity of guitarist Trey Anastasio, whose jams with Sunpie Barnes and Michael Ray & the Cosmic Krewe were inspired. Ray, a trumpeter in the late jazz visionary Sun Ra’s band, has carried the otherworldly sounds of Ra into his own direction with a talented lineup of players. For this special
Jazzfest performance he was joined by two members of Phish, Anastasio and drummer John Fishman, swelling Ray’s lineup to a formidable group featuring two drummers, three percussionists, guitar, keyboards and a three-piece horn section of trombone, saxophone and Ray’s trumpet. Ray also added keyboards and handled the vocals. Ray’s debts to Sun Ra were paid early and often as he started with the familiar Ra chant “Saturn is the planet of discipline,” building a swirling funk pattern that climaxed with the band urging the audience in a call-and-response that went : “Take a trip/to Saturn/ One way/or round trip.” They careened out of the chant into the Sun Ra classic “Rocket No.9.” Ray, dressed in scintillating space gear, told the audience, “There’s one rule we have, that everybody should be carefree.” Then the band launched imo another interstellar vamp. At the end of this ear-opening extravaganza Ray recalled the Sun Ra band that played on the same stage in 1990, finishing with the admonition Ra gave to the crowd back then: “You’re on the spaceship Earth, but you haven’t met the captain yet.”
Jazzfest 27 featured the newest star of zydeco, Rosie Ledet. The “Princess of Zydeco” showed her credentials with a spirited set that featured her husband, Morris, on bass, her father-in-law, Lanis Ledet, on washboard and her nephew Corey Ledet on drums. Rosie works the squeezebox and sings in an earthy R&B delivery.
Other highlights included Sonny Rollins blowing away the Jazz Tent with a transcendem version of “St. Thomas,” Abbey Lincoln entrancing an audience at the same stage with a performance recalling the emotional impact of Billie Holiday, and Dr. John’s all-star New Orleans band tearing the place apart on opening day.
As ever, the music didn’t stop at the Fair Grounds gates. The Nevilles lit up the House of Blues with three consecutive sold-out performances. Boozoo Chavis defended his tide as “King of Zydeco” against Beau Jocque in the dramatic setting of Rock ‘n’ Bowl at the Mid-City Lanes, where the music was so hot they were literally bouncing on the polished hardwood. Jocque, a giant of a man who violently squeezes his bulky keyboard accordion as if it were made of paper, pumps out a ferocious vocal to match.
He whipped his band into faster and faster funk vamps while barking and shouting encouragement in a musical gumbo he himself described as “a little bit of Carlos Santana, a little Stevie Ray Vaughan, some funk from Sly and the Family Stone, blues licks from a few different artists, plus my own style.” The dancers were crushed into one undulating mass in front of Jocque, who held them spellbound with his ability to mix traditional zydeco with funk dance grooves, unusual melodic variations and even a taste of War’s “Low Rider.”
Chavis, a zydeco originator, matched Jocque with dervish-like intensity and pulled a few tricks from his own bag. Boozoo played a magic set of stomping grooves peppered with such genre-defining cunes as “Paper In My Shoe” and “Leona’s Party,” where “everybody got drunk.” The audience did its best to hold up its end of that bargain. Chavis was escorted off the stage on a throne, waving his hat in triumph and reaching down to touch his devoted followers.
Torrential rainfall and the threat of tornadoes could not keep music fans away from the 28th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which opened its 10-day run under threatening skies and left the Fair Grounds site a sea of mud at the end of the first weekend, but still drew 118,000 people.
A Mayan shaman introduced the exotic drummers of Bamboula 2000 on opening day with a chant to keep off the rain. “We can make a deal to postpone the rain until Monday,” he promised. The deal worked for Bamboula 2000 but by the end of the day Dr. John was boogieing through “Quitters Never Win” to a laughing, rain-splashed crowd. High winds and steady rain forced delays and kept several acts from performing Saturday, but Santana closed the show to the sudden appearance of late afternoon sun.
The grounds were a quagmire by Sunday, which was good news for the zydeco players from Louisiana’s swamp country. “We’re playing swamp music ’cause we’re in the swamp,” said Nathan, leader of the Zydeco Cha Chas. “Take off your shoes and romp in the mud, that’s how We do it back home.” More than a few took him to heart as the mudpit in front of the stage became a mud-sliding zone for the Jazzfest’s answer to the mud people of Woodstock 94.
New Orleans legend Fats Domino topped the lineup during the second weekend, coming out of semi-retirement to play his seemingly endless string of hits. Domino received a hero’s welcomes from the crowd.
As usual, Eddie Bo was a stone delight. The rhythm and blues great led his band through a keyboard-driven rendition of his dance-craze hit, “Check Mr. Popeye,” and led a second-line march through the crowd for good measure.
Widespread Panic showed why they belonged at Jazzfest with a tremendous rendition of the Pop Staples classic “Hope In A Hopeless World.”
The Dirty Dozen continued its infusion of new material. and styles into this oldest of New Orleans forms, expanding into an avant-funk mode and bringing its audience along for the ride.
The clown princes of New Orleans rock, Dash Rip Rock, outdid themselves on the big stage with a wacky set that included a Spinal Tap cover, a nude drum solo and a tambourine solo on the band’s version of “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme performed by an audience member pulled onstage for the occasion.
Trumpeter Nicholas Payton played to an overflow crowd at the Jazz Tent Payton led his quartet through selections from his epochal Gumbo Nouveau album, bringing the audience to its feet with his solo on Louis Armstrong’s “Wild Man Blues,” and previewed a selection from his upcoming album, Paytons Place, a dedication to former Meters drummer Ziggy Modeliste,
“Zigaboogaloo.” “There are a lot of jazz festivals all over the world,” said Payton, “But this is the one!”
Just when it seems that Jazzfest could not get any bigger without losing its identity the event evolves once more. As crowds got larger and larger through the 1990s the FairGrounds site no longer felt as capacious as it once had been. Yet Jazzfest continued to attract more people in 1998, bucking the industry-wide slump in live ticket sales to break its own attendance record by selling more than 440,000 tickets to the event.
The organizers unveiled a new setup that allowed the largest single-day crowd in the 29 year history of the event–93,00 on the final Saturday-to move comfortably around the grounds. The Gospel Tent and Jazz Tent were moved from infield to the grandstand apron, while the grandstand itself was converted into a multipurpose theater, museum, crafts Center and concert hall. Many fans took refuge from the blistering sun inside the grandstand, where they listened to the Hackberry Ramblers and interviews with local musicians in air-conditioned comfort.
The paddock was also turned into a concert site, highlighted by a raucous performance by Ironing Board Sam, who hopped off the stage and ran through the crowd during his set-closing blues “Looking for My Woman.” The Gospel Tent was packed the entire weekend. One of the festival’s finest moments came when Aaron Neville sang with the Zion Harmonizers only a few minutes before he was slated to perform on one of the big stages as part of the Neville Brothers. They sang “One More River To Cross,” then brought up the great New Orleans vocalist Johnny Adams, who was .suffering from an advanced case of cancer. The fact that Adams knew this would be his last Jazzfest brought a spine-chilling power to the words of “Never Alone.”
The stunned crowd, some 30 deep overflowing the Gospel Tent, erupted in applause responding to this incredibly emotional and uplifting moment, then a sense of profound joy replaced their tears as Adams, Neville and the Harmonizers continued on with “Amazing Grace” and “Down By the Riverside. “The Jazz Tent featured terrific performances by local heroes Ellis Marsalis, Terence Blanchard and Alvin Batiste, and visiting dignirtaries Betty Carter, Billy Taylor and Danilo Perez. No one delighting to the glorious vocal improvisations of Ms. Carter realized that she too would pass before another Jazzfest came to be.
Traditional jazz was also well represented at the Economy Hall Tent, where the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band and the Young Tuxedo band both performed, as did the Dukes of Dixieland, the Treme Brass Band, Michael White, George French and the Preservation Hall Band. Two of the most interesting traditional sets came from the New Leviathan Foxtrot Orchestra, which played early and pre-jazz arrangements, and Don Vappie & His Creole Jazz Serenaders, who performed rare material by jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton. One of the final weekend’s most exciting performances came from the Dave Bartholomew Big Band, a 19-piece unit with a seven-saxophone front line that carried its stomping sound across the packed infield like a Lincoln Continental roaring down the highway.
Bartholomew, who led the Fats Domino band in its heyday and is one of the key figures in the history of New Orleans music, belted our good-time vocals and played trumper. “We’re gonna jump and shout, let the good times roll, that’s what it’s all about,” sang Bartholomew on “Jazzfest in New Orleans,” a number from his just-released album, New Orleans Big Beat that appeared destined to become an anthem for future renewals of the event.
Though New Orleans is known for its jazz, blues and R&B, it has also been a wellspring for great rock and roll, and the 1998 festival featured a terrific selection of local rock bands, including Tiny Town, Royal Fingerbowl, Dash Rip Rock and Better Than Ezra, all of whom performed at the Fest. The rock band that created the biggest buzz was Thousand $ Car, who got the Saturday crowd rolling with an awesome set.
This talented young group had the crowd shouting and waving its arms in the air to such instant classics as “What A Way To Live,” “Eyes Up,” “Security Guard,” “Cut Out Romeo,” “Take a Little For Yourself” and a tribute to New Orleans cuisine, “Big Fat Po’ Boy.” The Radiators reaffirmed their status as New Orleans’ greatest rock band by closing out the festival with a memorable set. The Rads have been playing Jazzfest for most of their 20-year existence. Over time the band has matured, becoming deeper and more complex like a great vintage wine.
Where it once took three sets for the group to peak out, these seasoned pros can now lock into their best moments within the limits of a concert ser. Keyboardist Ed Volker-with his distinctive goatee, Panama hat and white suit-set the tone with such gems as “Nail Your Heart To Mine,” “Late For Us Losers,”
“Drums On the Mississippi” and “Wild and Free,” while guitarist Dave Malone keyed the rave ups “Tongues of Fire,” “Like Dreamers Do” and the set closing cover of the Rolling Stones classic “Sympathy for the Devil.” The crowd sang the backup vocals wild swoops of “whoo, whoo” -then filed out into the tropical evening, sated for another year.