During the spring, festivals are a way of life here. Locals bop from festival to festival celebrating everything from the strawberry harvest to Cajun music to New Orleans culture. For some reason (I guess it’s because we’re just a partying kind of place), this city and state is estimated to have the largest number of festivals in the country. And most of them seem to be in April and May.
The French Quarter Festival will be celebrated on the April 7-9 weekend in the Vieux Carre, and it’s a “don’t miss” event.
The essence of the French Quarter Festival is best summarized by a “happening” at the 1984 festival, the first, where on a sunny Friday afternoon, in front of God and everybody, mammoth blues singer Luther Kent was dancing with (and holding, mind you) Ruthie The Duck Lady, one of the French Quarter’s better known “characters.” No, this is not an aberration of the mind; somewhere I have a grainy black & white, out-of-focus picture of this beauty and the beast (and you can personalize those descriptions, dear reader, in whatever way turns you on). Nevertheless, that vignette typifies what to this writer and to much of the general public is the musical event of the spring.
Too often I hear, “The Jazz & Heritage Festival has gotten too big and commercial.” If it wasn’t, and no tourists came, there’d be no Jazz and Heritage Festival. The French Quarter Festival was envisioned by former mayor Dutch Morial as a local showcase, mainly to exhibit the improvements to the streets in the Vieux Carre prior to the 1984 Louisiana World’s Exposition.
Therefore, tourists are encouraged and are most welcome, but it’s mainly for “us locals” in its origin, and, for the most part, features homegrown and reared and living in the City talent (with occasional stars added from across the Lake). Moreover, all the music is for free! What does it feature?
There’s jazz from Bunk (Johnson) to (Thelonious) Monk and beyond, with lots of music that covers a wide spectrum from classical to rhythm and blues coexisting, coalescing and in instances, combining on the plethora of stages throughout the French Quarter. (That’s another distinguishing feature: all stages are in easy walking distance and are all located in a concentrated area, surrounded by the charm of the Vieux Carre—not a dusty racetrack).
There’s dancing—both the participatory and the spectator kind. There are dramatic fireworks over the Mississippi. There are marching bands, parades, a talent show, and for those who strut to a different drummer, historic patios to tour. For those serious Ranger-Airborne-Nike-fitness types, there’s a 5K race and the mental toughness required to guess the weight of the world’s largest praline, as well as (for those who are really in shape) children’s activities, such as pony rides, puppet theatre, jazz for kids and a juggling clinic. More jaded tastes can be tempted by creating a festival canvas, sniffing scents of perfume and potpourri. For those real macho types, there are tug-of-war contests, skydivers and a bartender’s competition.
And food, food, food! The World’s Largest Jazz Brunch is celebrated on Saturday and Sunday—and you can charge the $1-3 samplings to Visa, Mastercard, or American Express! (There’s another distinctive feature about this festival: it’s the only fair I’m aware of where you can pig out on credit!) Cajun and Creole dishes from forty of the City’s finest restaurants are available. From Tujague’s to Lucky Dogs…Mr. B’s to Trey Yuen…The Gumbo Shop and Alex Patout’s Louisiana Restaurant, you’re sure to find your favorite.
Mainly, however, to focus on the music, it’s jazz, contemporary, New Orleans traditional jazz, rhythm and blues, with some be-bop, and it’s all from New Orleans. Here is a sampling of some of the fine local groups that will be heard over this festival weekend that are really worthy of your attention.
On Friday, April 7th, all the jazz players form a marching band and parade from Bourbon Street to Jackson Square, with celebrities and “just us folks” second linin’ behind. Sandy Cash leads her Big Easy Jazz Band (a traditional ensemble with some fine Connie Jones arrangements) on the Jackson Square stage after the parage. Later on that stage are the U.S. Navy Steel Band and Tulane’s Naval ROTC Band. The parade is set for 11:30 a.m. and Sandy starts just about that time, too.
At 1:30, Willie Humphrey’s clarinet student, Brian O’Connell, leads a band for two hours in the 200 block of Bourbon. His traditional jazz clarinet sounds are followed on that stage by Chuck Credo, another clarinet ace. A block down the street, co-existing with O’Connell, is clarinetist Robert Gable and the Decatur Street Jazz Band, where they play a traditional jazz head, but with such modern stars as Rusty Gilder and David Lee, modern solos abound. Another clarinetist, (we seem to grow good ones here; Frank Assunto said it was ’cause of the water—and the bourbon in it) Tim Laughlin, Pete Fountain’s protege, follows Gable.
A block further down Bourbon finds drummer Milton Rich leading an aggregation at that opening 1:30 time slot. Banjoist-singer-raconteur Neil Unterseher and his renowned Razzberrie Ragtimers follow with a good time to be had by all.
Warren Clark (whose trumpet tastes run from Armstrong to Eldridge and I’ve heard him play bop) leads a traditional jazz band in the opening slot at Bourbon and Toulouse Streets, and Frank Frederico and his jazz veterans—a most highly entertaining musical all-star group—follow at 3:30 p.m. Further down Bourbon at Orleans Jacques Gauthe—clarinetist extraordinaire from France—has his authentic Creole Rice Yerba Buena Jazz Band to open in a most traditional bent, followed by the riverboat rambling banjo player Vic Tooker and his band. Over on Royal Street, Johnny Vindigni, remembered by locals from his days with the rockin’ Jackson Brewery Company, keeps the tempo hopping with his band. A fund-raising gala at Storyville Jazz Club—traditionally a great blast—features trumpet player Bobby Ohler and his band.
On Saturday, there’s a host of activities other than jazz, but catch trumpeter Wes Mix and Jazz Essence at Canal Place from 12:00 p.m.-2:00 p.m. He’s the most versatile jazz brass player in town, and can play Bunk and Monk with equal aplomb. A great battle of the bands at Bourbon and Orleans happens at 6:30 p.m. with cornetist George Finola (who draws his inspiration from Bix, Bunny, Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff), trombonist Joe Prejean (who’s one of the few jazzmen to work with Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and The Dukes of Dixieland) and Roy Liberto (who is a George Girard and Harry James fan) leading their varied bands in one of the highlights of the Festival. For daytime listening, hear Cajun balladeer John DuBois at noon at Chartres and Wilkinson Streets, and the Cajun ladies called Evangeline at 3:00 p.m. at that same venue.
The Delgado Community College Jazz Ensemble plays at noon at the Royal Street stage of the Wildlife & Fisheries Building on Royal Street for more modern sounds, and New Orleans Symphony players are heard in the 700 block of Royal at the same time. The James Campbell Strings followed by New Orleans Symphony violinist Russell Bobrowski’s Sting Quartet continue that mood that afternoon in the 500 block of Royal.
On Bourbon Street, it’s all traditional jazz and Dixieland: (200 block) trumpeter Eddie Dowling and his jazz band followed at 3:00 p.m. by banjoist Bruce O’Neil and his New Orleans Hot Potatoes; (400 block) legendary raconteur and guitarist (and banjo player) Danny Barker and his Jazz Hounds precede the latest star in a fine jazz family, Joe Lastie and His Homegrown Jazz Band, a real punchin’ crew; (Bourbon at Toulouse) ex-U.K. resident Clive Wilson, a fine trumpet player, and the Original Camellia Jazz Band; Butch Gomez and the Regal Jazz Band; (Bourbon at Orleans) the real, pure sound of early New Orleans as represented by trumpet player Eddie Bayard and the New Orleans Classic Jazz Band is heard at 1:00 p.m.; and followed by Pud Brown, who’s played with all the greatest jazz players in the world, and whose clarinet sound is one of the warmest ever, and the Delta Kings.
Jackson Square rocks with trumpeter Tommy Yetta at 11 a.m.; then Wanda Rouzan and A Taste of New Orleans takes us “out the box” from 12:15 for two soulful and swingin’ hours. The popular Banu Gibson and the New Orleans Hot Jazz Orchestra (and I still get calls asking where that Grammy-nominated vocalist is featured) will fulfill the next hour’s spotlight, where Sandy Cash will follow. Then an import, Ronnie Kole, the great pianist from across the water (Lake Pontchartrain, that is—that’s a joke, son) has his annual good time get together featuring vocalist Leif Pederson and his vocal group,
Swing, Crewcut John Perkins, vocalist Lillian Boutte, and the Coach himself, modern jazz all-star great alto saxophonist Al Belletto! What a lineup; that’s a don’t miss!
Sunday is more of the same and thank goodness! Brass bands will march around the French Market on both Saturday and Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m., and there’s a real nighttime extravaganza at Jackson Square and Decatur beginning at 6:30 p.m. Harry Mayronne Jr.’s “Creole Capers” features Wanda Rouzan (who does a better Tina Turner than Tina Turner), Juanita Brooks and Sadie Blake—all top-notch stage and song stylists who promise to make the show a winner.
The following 21-gun salute comes from a “New Orleans Rhythm and Blues Review” featuring Frankie (Sea Cruise) Ford, Ronnie Kole, Ernie (Mother-In-Law) K-Doe, Oliver “Who Shot the La-La” Morgan and the Dixie Cups. Dig and enjoy!
During the day, there are a variety of gospel groups at Chartres and Wilkinson from noon to dusk. Bourbon Street has a variety of interesting groups, not all traditional jazz: Noon begins in the 200 block with versatile jazz trumpet player Wes Mix and his West End Jazz Band, a more traditional group than his Jazz Essence; and drummer Paul Perrara and his new group (which I’ve not heard) D’Avanti follow. In the 300 block of Bourbon, the fine arranger-conductor-trombonist Jim Duggan, off the riverboats after a long tour, leads a jazz band from 3 to 5 p.m.; it’ll be a real treat to hear him play in a real jazz setting. In Bourbon’s 400 block, peripatetic trombonist Scotty Hill and his Gypsies, and the French Market Jazz Band raise the cause of Street Music at noon with Andrew Hall and his Society Jazz Band closing.
At Bourbon and Toulouse Street, there are two contrasting trumpet players: ex- Basie player Wallace Davenport’s fiery horn and his N.O. Jazz Band, and the laid-back lyricism of Plato Smith and the. Band from Dixieland wrap it up. At the corner of Bourbon and Orleans are pianist Steve Pistorius, a jazz band pianist in the Jelly Roll Morton tradition, and his Mahogany Hall Stompers from noon till 2 p.m.; then Hal Smith and the Frisco Syncopators grab what’s left till 4 p.m.; string groups grace the 700 block Royal Stage for the afternoon, and the 500 block of Royal opens at noon with pianist-vocalist-trombonist Janice Medlock (she’s a kick), with Jack Gardner’s Quintet and the husband-wife reeders, Frank and Cindy Mayes, woodwind duet, closing.
Dancing at dusk to Jimmy Maxwell and his Orchestra are featured at the Royal Street Wildlife & Fisheries stage from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
The Jackson Square stage on Sunday kicks off at noon with the Storyville Stompers, and continues from 12:15 to 2 p.m. with trumpet star Murphy Campo and the Jazz Saints. The husband-wife team of vocalist Lillian Boutte and clarinetist/alto saxophonist Thomas L’Etienne and the New Orleans Jazz Ensemble are heard from the next hour and a quarter, followed by the modem jazz of the Loyola University Jazz Band.
At 5:15 p.m., Charmaine Neville closes the show with friends Amasa Miller and Reggie Houston. This fine singer is a fitting finale to the New Orleanians’ Festival—the local’s Celebration—the French Quarter Festival!