I haven’t been to New Orleans in five years. This year I had to go to Jazz Fest. On my show, The Roadhouse (Wed 6-9 pm), I talk a lot about New Orleans, and demonstrate with music as to why it’s such a significant place and why it matters to all music fans – particularly for those who recognize its incredible sense of history and cultural identity. I had to go. And whenever I do go to New Orleans, I soak in the living history, eat red beans, and go to Jazz Fest for all the music I can’t get in Seattle – or anywhere else for that matter. (Oh ya, I go for the soft-shell crab po’ boys too – see pic below) But this year, of course, Hurricane Katrina would change my routine and idyllic vision of going down yonder. The Hurricane changed things in New Orleans – we all know. It’s not the same town without all it’s people. But Katrina was also the reason I had to go this year. To support and check-up on the city I romanticise. To be a part of making something in New Orleans normal again. I think a lot of other people felt the way I do. They had to be there this year too.
Jazz Fest, Families, and The Flood
New Orleans is such a solid, thick root of American music. It’s the birthplace, the source, the mother-well, an amalgamation of so much. So much that is uniquely American. I like to say that New Orleans is the Most American, and Least American city at the same time.
It’s the place of Congo Square – the only place in the United States that 19th-century slaves could congregate and play music (home of the blues). It’s the beginning of jazz. It’s where the brothels of Storyville produced a long line of piano professors. It’s where Little Richard cut his early and best sides, (like Tutti Fruit ti in 1955). Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, and everyone at Cossimo’s studio created the beginnings of rock n roll. It’s the only place that has Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, jazz funerals, and a street parade for no reason. Teenagers aspire to be in brass bands in New Orleans.
When you go there, you feel all this. The music and its history are all around you. You can still see century-old traditions like Mardi Gras Indians in home-made beaded and feather suits, second-lines, and old-time jazz players wearing white shirts in the thick Southern-night air.
But it’s the families of the New Orleans’ scene that keeps the traditions alive. Every time I go to New Orleans, I see examples of how multigenerational the city’s music scene is. Last time in town I saw the latest Marsalis’ brother, Jason. This year I saw the latest Batiste, Jonathan, a 20 year-old a jazz piano player (and sophomore at NYC’s Juilliard, who came home to play Snug Harbor on Saturday 4/29 – on his second number, he spontaneously rocked a tambourine with the famed “tambourine lady”, dueling tambourines, in mid-tune. Now that’s New Orleans jazz! It was great.) Earlier that night I saw an older (uncle?) Batiste, hanging out in a fedora and tweed jacket at The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen St. There are musical families like the Barbarin’s, Lastie’s, Nevilles’ all over this town’s legacy. And to this day, whenever I visit New Orleans, I see really great, really young players. And it’s the thing that holds it all together, the continuation of a tradition, the common thread that goes back more than a century.
Which makes The Flood such a deeper tragedy; more than what we even know. Families have been displaced and are scattered outside of New Orleans. Will they come back? That’s what people talk about. And it’s the one thing, among many things, that is the great uncertain about the New Orleans situation. Will the families of the 9th Ward – a black working-class, working musician neighborhood – come back? Will the continuum of New Orleans music, the tradition, be disrupted? It’s hard to quantify. Most locals have doubts about things ever being the same. Last week, 8 months after Katrina, there’s little progress in the damaged areas. Not everything is open, and only half the population is there. But from my perspective, an outsider during Jazz Fest, I saw a lot of music and it seems like New Orleans will be back. How much it will be back depends on the return of the families and working musicians who belong in New Orleans.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the ultimate roots music festival, and an ideal combination of music, weather, and food – simultaneously! There is so much music at the Fairgrounds over two consecutive weekends, stuff you can’t see much outside of Louisiana: the Cajun-country music of DL Menard, church choirs from all over the South under the Gospel tent, traditional jazz bands (and the second-lining of vacationers and their umbrellas) under the Economy Hall tent, Fats Domino (who was unable to play due to illness, I heard), the Hot 8 Brass Band, the Carrollton Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, the original Meters, and so on.
Here are some of my highlights from this year’s Fest:
- Hanging with fellow KEXP DJ and MSN web caster Jon Kertzer, who introduced me to everyone in the know!
- Eating my first soft-shell crab po’ boy in 5 years.
- Visiting Nick Spitzer’s (from American Routes) new production space, an old depot under remodel on Basin Street and next to the old St.Louis cemetery (where voodoo queen Marie LaVeau is buried) which is next to the original site of Storyville.
- Witnessing the Grand Re-Opening of the Preservation Jazz Hall, a mostly media event for the project “Music Rising” headed by U2’s The Edge and Gibson guitars to replace lost instruments for those affected by the hurricane. It featured Henry Butler playing “The Entertainer”, Leo Nocentelli of The Meters, and The Edge playing traditional version of “Vertigo” with the Preservation Hall Band. You can see a video clip of this from MSN Music/Jazz fest website.
- The Preservation Hall Jazz Band leading a second-line down Bourbon Street after the re-opening (see pic above)
- Attending a Mardi Gras Indian prayer at St. Augustine church in the Treme – one of the oldest churches in the city, if not the country. This Sunday mass invited the Indians to do their prayer/chant “Indian Red”, in full costume. Incredible!
- Bob Dylan’s bodyguard, security kill-joy, enforcing a no picture rule. Even cell-phone cameras from people in the front row, who waited hours for the show, were flexed by this tall, bitter man. This actually was a low-light. Dylan, again, didn’t even look at a guitar.
- Dr John being home in New Orleans with an all-New Orleans band. Great song selection.
- Allen Toussaint being Allen Toussaint. “Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further?”
- The Boss with his 17 piece Seeger Session band. One of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Read more.
I also had a very good time in the WWOZ hospitality tent – excellent iced coffee, all day – and hanging with Your Cousin Dimitri, Bruce, and all the ‘OZ folks who want to thank all of you for your support on-line, and for helping us at KEXP raise $8,000 for New Orleans community radio in the month of February. WWOZ-FM is New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage station, available on-line at WWOZ.ORG.
Top 5 Food at this year’s Jazz Fest
- Soft-shell crab po’ boy
- Crawfish monica
- Mango freeze
- Red beans (never good outside of NOLA; why?)
- Beer in a can
What were your favorites?
Listen to The Roadhouse tonight from 6-9 pm, for tickets to go see Bobby Blue Bland at Jazz Alley next week, and music from topical songwriters of the 1960’s, and new music from Springsteen’s traditional music album We Shall Overcome. It’s like it was made for the Roadhouse!
If you ever miss The Roadhouse, visit the Streaming Archive to listen to the past two weeks worth of KEXP programming.