New Orleans Jazz Fest draws 400,000+
“ There was much else to love at Jazz Fest, which sold a post-Katrina record 400,000-plus tickets during its seven-day run at the city's historic racetrack. ”
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
New Orleans, LA
April 22-May 4, 2009
There are hundreds of good reasons for jazz lovers to join the crowds at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Reasons with names like Marsalis and Jordan, Batiste and Bouttefamilies whose musical heritage in the Birthplace of Jazz spans several generations.
(Other reasons: grilled oysters, shrimp creole, crawfish and gumbo, served up by renowned restaurants both at the Fair Grounds and around the city. But that's a whole 'nother story).
So it seems almost sacrilegious to report that my most memorable musical moments during a 12-day visit to Jazz Fest April 22-May 4 were spent listening to two bands from New York.
Of course, these were pretty special bands: The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and drummer Jimmy Cobb's So What? sextet revisiting Miles Davis/classic Kind of Blue album on its 50th anniversary.
J@LC, led by New Orleans-bred Wynton Marsalis, played Duke Ellington' "New Orleans Suite," which had premiered back in 1970 at the very first Jazz Fest. It had been commissioned by festival founder George Wein, who was in the WWOZ Jazz Tent for this concert, one of many special treats rolled out for the 40th annual festival.
The suite begins with a gospel-infused blues and ends in a fervent second line. In between are Duke's "portraits" of two of his longtime sidemen, clarinetist Barney Bigard and bassist Wellman Braud, both from the Big Easy. There are other movements dedicated to Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Mahalia Jackson.
The band's ensemble work was peerless, as usual, and matched by the parade of soloists, especially Marcus Printup in the Armstrong salute, Carlos Henriquez (Braud) and Sherman Irby (Bechet).
Marsalis' brief introductions of each movement were enlightening, and listeners laughed when the trumpeter/conductor recounted how Ellington recruited New Orleans musicians when he was hired to play at the Cotton Club in New York in 1926 because he knew he needed more "hot" players. Said Marsalis: "Duke knew people here have a streak of unruliness."
More Ellingtonia: Bass clarinetist Joe Temperley held the crowd spellbound with his tender treatment of "Single Petal of a Rose" from the Queen's Suite, and the band finished with the razzle-dazzle of "Braggin' in Brass."
After a standing ovation, listeners began heading out, but stopped in their tracks when Marsalis alone with his rhythm section struck up a vamp and blew the blues for 10 more minutes. It's what they call lagniappe down yonder.
Kind of Blue is the Holy Grail of jazz recordings, and Cobb's band played this elegant and groundbreaking music with reverence and passion. Wallace Roney's cool and precise tones on trumpet, vibrato-free, mirrored the plaintive sounds Miles Davis achieved, and saxophonists Javon Jackson and Vincent Herring lived up to the high standards set by Coltrane and Adderley during that magical 1959 session.
There was much else to love at Jazz Fest, which sold a post-Katrina record 400,000-plus tickets during its seven-day run at the city's historic racetrack. Most came for the megastars like Bon Jovi, Neil Young, Dave Matthews, James Taylor and Joe Cocker, but jazz, blues and gospel music fans had plenty to cheer about as well. Roy Haynes, Terence Blanchard, Hugh Masekela, Nicholas Payton, the Wein-led Newport All-Stars, Esperanza Spalding, Poncho Sanchez and Kurt Elling were among the name artists in the jazz tent. The traditional jazz-leaning Economy Hall tent presented an array of local bands.
Some other memorable moments:
- Leslie Smith wiping away a tear as she sang "God Bless the Child." Her father, longtime festival photographer Michael P. Smith, passed away recently.
- John Boutte, a personal favorite, singing his message-filled blend of jazz, soul and gospel and expressing thanks to everyone for coming down and helping rebuild the still-suffering city. Boutte is a Jazz Journalists Association nominee as best male vocalist, a rarity for performers not often seen in the major metropolises.
- A gospel tent tribute to Mahalia Jackson, with headliners Mavis Staples and Irma Thomas; the less-heralded Pamela Landrum's operatic-quality voice was a revelation.
- Two sets led by pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist Evan Christopher. One was billed "Clarinet Woodshed," with Tim Laughlin and Gregory Agid helping demonstrate the vital role their underappreciated instrument has played in New Orleans jazz. The other set was by the quartet Danza, playing early jazz, ragtime, pre-samba Brazilian choros and works by the city's first composer of note, Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
- Two adventurous collaborations between American and African musicians. Marsalis unveiled new music for J@LC to play with a 10-piece drum group. Traditional clarinetist Dr. Michael White and several colleagues joined with four more percussionists on a set that included music from both sides of the Atlantic.
- An old-fashioned blowing session open to all has become a tradition to help close out the Jazz Tent's final day, and "Blodie's Jazz Jam" was again a highlight. With eight or nine horn players out front led by Gregory "Blodie" Davis, a leader of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and a rotating cast of keyboardists and percussionists, the jam consisted of lengthy improvisations on just three wildly swinging tunes.
- Finally, the notoriously fickle spring weather in Louisiana was nearly picture perfectsunny, low- to mid-80s, only one day of tornado alerts that amounted to nothing more than a nice breeze. It didn't rain until the tail end of the final Sunday, when a half-hour downpour sent some scurrying for the tents or the exits.
"Now, it's officially Jazz Fest," quipped one spectator near me.