The Way-Back Machine

I was looking through George Wein’s autobiography Myself Among Others to see if I remember correctly that when he produced Newport Jazz Festivals, that they leaned on older jazz guys and tributes to older jazz guys in the 1960s when there was a lot new Newport was missing. The tributes at the upcoming Jazz Fest to Mahalia Jackson, Clifton Chenier, Kid Sheik, George Lewis, Earl Turbinton and Willie Tee, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole, jazz drummers, Alvin Batiste, Max Roach, the Hackberry Ramblers and Count Basie (admittedly, performed by some version of his orchestra) are unprecedented in my 20 years here. Some of those are natural – Turbinton, Willie Tee and Batiste died last year – and some special performances by single artists – Phillip Manuel sings Cole, Topsy Chapman sings Washington – but still, that’s a lot of looking back.

While skimming the book (and not finding the answer I was looking for yet), I ran across this line: “The obligation to present artists just because they are ‘new’ is not high on my list of priorities.” Clearly, Quint Davis and Jazz Fest bought into Wein’s philosophy, but there are some new, young acts this year – Brett Dennen and the Zac Brown Band, the latter sounding awfully linked to Jimmy Buffett based on Brown’s online hype. For years, I’ve been riding Jazz Fest for its oldness, and how ironic it is that headliners have to wait until they’re past the age when they made the songs everyone wants to hear to be invited to Jazz Fest. The models of musical greatness – the Beatles and Rolling Stones – made their defining records in their 20s and early 30s. As did Robert Plant, Sheryl Crow, Burning Spear, Billy Joel and Stevie Wonder (earlier in his case), but they’ve all had to wait until they no longer mattered (with the exception of Plant, based on Raising Sand to appear.

But my issue isn’t simply age. The other issue is the festival’s resolute retro-ness in its musical values, and it shuns post-modernism as much as possible. Admittedly, this year we do get the Raconteurs’ version of ’70s arena blues rock as Jack White continues to explore his musical past in public, and we get Plant and Alison Krauss doing their version of George and Tammy with T Bone Burnett as their Billy Sherrill. But Dennen and Zac Brown aren’t transpositions of older values into contemporary forms; they’re old wine in new bottles made to look like old bottles. If I want to hear group improvisation, I’ll hear far more of it at Rob Wagner, Hamid Drake and Nobu Ozaki than I will at Widespread Panic, who are closer in spirit to the Doobie Brothers than the Dead. If I want to hear a band jam on guitars, I’d rather hear Sonic Youth, where there is genuine group exploration.

I seem to be chewing hard on this year’s festival, perhaps because it’s being hyped as such a great lineup and it seems pretty same ol’, same ol’ to me. One last age-related thought, though. Evidently if you’re young, not even Grammy nominations can help you. Lost Bayou Ramblers still open the Fais Do-Do Stage one day and the Pine Leaf Boys still play second one day. The nomination might mean something out of town, but at Jazz Fest, experience always counts.

[A late addition: a note on Wein and the JVC Jazz Festival in New York.]

  • belyin

    I am somewhat proud to have had letters to Offbeat complaining about Jazz Fest programming excerpted in both the 10th and 15th anniversary issues of the magazine, but there is no need to rehash those critiques (mainly because I’m still capable of coming up with some new ones!) Your comment that J.F. “shuns post-modernism as much as possible” made me realize that I disagree completely–Jazz Fest is post-modern cultural practice in action and made plainly visible.

    “Post-moderism” is famously slippery to define, perhaps definitively so. For me, it is the cultural practices and strategies of post-industrial consumerist (hyper-)Capitalism. Putting . . .”old wine in new bottles made to look like old bottles,” is certainly one these strategies. Another is the creation and honing of free-floating signifiers; i.e., “brands.” jazz Fest can be seen as the process of creating and maintaining “Brand New Orleans” in the cultural arena (and what other arena can New Orleans hope to compete in?)–essential for the workings of the tourist industry, which is at worst second to advertising as the most important “industry” of the post-modern economy.

    The genius of Jazz Fest–the thing that has sustained it for so many years–is the alchemy by which the U.S.A.’s most rooted urban culture is cut loose from its social meaning structures while retaining the feeling of “meaning” to lend added value to all the cultural products on offer. Gospel singers hold church, brass bands and Indians second line–the performers remain committed to the transformative potential of their arts, but the context that sustains these traditions is opened up to be consumed by all present at the Fair Grounds simply by paying the tariff on the freight of a ticket. These artists are rudely compensated for their generosity while allowing almost anyone to profit from their offerings: from “folk artists” turning black cultural icons into fetish objects to Widespread Panic and their fans who both somehow seem to find deeper meaning in their music just by virtue of temporarily being in New Orleans despite no real connections to the New Orleans community(s).

    Twenty years ago is was still barely possible (perhaps only if one were overly sentimental?) to imagine that to attend Jazz Fest was to participate in the interwoven feedback loops of local cultural production. It has since been made too clear that the only participation appropriate to the audience is to consume. Do not think, do not question–just stuff your ears and your mouth and spend your money. In this Jazz Fest is just a reflection of the cultural decline of these United States. Art is not transformative, it is just for sale. No alternative is possible, as the free-marketers love to claim (all the way to the poor house, one suspects.) Jazz Fest is the essential engine of New Orleans’ tourist economy. It is image factory. And the imagery on offer is hardly one step up from the plantation. Can’t have Kidd Jordan at the Jazz Fest anymore–he’s too angry! He should be more like Irvin; buy into the system, get some corporate sponsorship, mouth pieties about democracy, challenge no one or nothing.

  • Alex Rawls

    I’d clarify more completely if I wasn’t on deadline, but I agree and disagree. Jazz Fest as practice and event – definitely post-modern, and the strange procession of cultural practices such as Indians and second lines going off hourly for tourists seems really Disney to me. The musical taste reflected in the booking – rarely post-modern (and I agree about the slippery nature post-modernism, even while I feel compelled to further pursue the thought). When in doubt, book more musicians who are “talented,” who have “soul,” who have “passion” as if any of those terms are more stable than “post-modern” in a musical context.

  • belyin

    “When in doubt, book more musicians who are “talented,” who have “soul,” who have “passion” as if any of those terms are more stable than “post-modern” in a musical context.” No argument here, but then again there are many people who would argue that Jimmy Buffet or Widespread Panic meet those criteria . . .