The Jazz.com Blog
April 28, 2008 · 0 comments
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is in the midst of its biggest post-Katrina production, with music on eleven stages, and concerts that will continue this coming weekend. Below Zoie Clift shares her photos and comments on the first day of the festival. Tomorrow we will publish her account of day two of Jazzfest. T.G.
Jazz music is steeped in a tradition of bringing people of different social, cultural and racial backgrounds together. New Orleans is the birthplace of Jazz and there is no greater celebration of the city than the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, aka Jazzfest. It’s an opportunity to inhale the local traditions and thank the jazz gods for hosting visitors at such a splendid event.
Held at the Fair Grounds Race Course, Jazzfest is in its 39th year. This is third festival since Hurricane Katrina and according to organizers, attendance at this year’s event will likely surpass that of the two previous Jazzfests. Around 350,000 attended last year’s festival and this is the first year since the storm that the event has returned to a full seven day schedule spread over two weekends.
“In New Orleans, culture is a beacon for the rest of the community,” comments Jazzfest director Quint Davis. “When a trumpeter blows the right notes, we come together and dance. When a grand marshal steps, we step with him. Jazzfest is trying to help lead the way in guiding New Orleans to complete recovery—culturally, economically and spiritually.”
JazzFest has 11 stages mostly populated by Louisianans. The festival hosts hundreds of musicians in genres from jazz, blues and rock to gospel, hip-hop and country. There are also visiting international acts from Europe and Africa.
At the Fairgrounds, all plans fade as soon as you cross the track. Many scope out who they want to see before opening day, pouring over detailed coverage and daily schedules in outlets such as The Times-Picayune and Gambit Weekly. But no matter how hard you plan, it’s inevitable that your eyes and ears will take you off any pre-determined path. There is a whole year’s worth of music packed into a few days.
The first weekend alone was set to include performances by Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis, Pete Fountain, Nicholas Payton, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, and many other familiar faces. New to the fest were big names such as Robert Plant, Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel and Elvis Costello. "We've got a lot of people that want to play this festival," said Davis. "I felt more of that this year. Some of it is New Orleans, and some of it is Hurricane Katrina.” Along with the music, there is a bounty of homegrown foods and crafts, and experiencing a soft-shell crab po-boy or crawfish bread is hard to pass up.
In 1970 the first festival was founded by George Wein. The event saw second line, brass bands, gospel, and other music indigenous to Louisiana such as the Preservation Hall Band and Mardi Gras Indians. Steeped in tradition, many of the same performers were showcased at this year’s event too.
The 39th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
(photo by Zoie Clift)
For a Jazz enthusiast, it’s hard to beat a full day on the grounds. On opening day, the Amina Figarova Sextet of The Netherlands was an off-the-beaten-path option. Hosted in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, Figarova, a classical pianist, and her combo fused R&B and Latin sounds into a contemporary jazz set. In the nearby Economy Hall Tent, The Original Dixieland Jazz Band led by trumpeter Jimmy LaRocca made an appearance. The band was founded by LaRocca’s father in 1917 and the six musicians played traditional jazz standards such as "Bourbon Street Parade," and "Dixie Jazz Band One-Step.”
The sounds of blues were also in the air and an unscheduled stop by the Southern Comfort Blues Tent showcased Barbara Lynn, a vocalist and guitarist (she plays left handed) known as the "Empress of Gulf Coast Soul." Shouts of appreciation could be heard throughout her set and she reciprocated, telling the crowd: “These are the hard core music fans.” A stop to refuel with Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians at the Jazz & Heritage Stage quickly ensued. The group was led by Big Chief Walter Cook and rhythmic beats from the crew had people dancing throughout the audience and even into the photographer’s pit. Members of the tribe jumped down from stage to dance with the crowd and their colorful suits (influenced by Native American ceremonial apparel) added an extra spark to an enthusiastic set.
Energized by the set, I ventured back to Economy Hall where I encountered Jamil Sharif’s New Orleans Jazz Professors. Sharif is one of the most versatile trumpet players of his generation and the son of trumpeter Umar Sharif. The band's repertoire featured traditional New Orleans jazz and swing from the Louis Armstrong and Fletcher Henderson songbooks. Sharif ( who was the musical coordinator for the movie Ray) was joined by pianist Larry Sieberth, bassist Dewey Sampson, drummer Stanley Joseph, saxophonists Kelvin Harrison and Earl Bonie and trombonist Stephen Walker.
Sharif's set inspired impromptu dancing in the aisles and before long, under and outside the tent groups could be seen dancing. It's hard to listen to this music and sit still. The attitude of freeness that the musicians exude filters throughout the tents, to the fairgrounds, and ultimately throughout the city. Even after the festival closes, the music doesn’t stop. Various clubs around the city host acts up into the early hours of the morning.
Ellis Marsalis at Jazzfest (photo by Zoie Clift)
A trek back to the Jazz tent ensued to hear Ellis Marsalis, one of the most respected pianists in jazz and patriarch of the Marsalis family. His act didn’t disappoint. The tent was packed and a calm and collected set was a perfect way to end a music fueled day. And this was just day one at the festival. Though six more days of music were still in the lineup, a lesson had already been instilled. Jazzfest was a chance to improvise, change your plans and immerse yourself in the moment -- in other-words, live a true Jazz experience.
This blog entry posted by Zoie Clift. Tomorrow check in for her report on day two of Jazzfest.