The Jazz.com Blog
April 29, 2009 · 1 comment
Twelve months ago, Zoie Clift covered the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for jazz.com. Who can blame her for deciding to go back again for the 2009 edition? She reports below on the first day of her immersion in jazz, zydeco, blues, and the attendant culinary delights that make the music sound so much tastier. Check back soon for her next report from the field of duty. The festival continues through May 3. T.G.
This year marks a special anniversary for The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the 10-day musical feast that is eagerly anticipated annually by music aficionados around the world.
For 40 years, Jazz Fest (as it’s affectionately known) has been a staple of the city and a way to experience a taste of both Louisiana culture and music. The event, which began in Congo Square, is held at a racing track in Gentilly and has become the biggest event for the city. Yep, even bigger than Mardi Gras.
Though the event can boast four decades of history, and with it many changes in New Orleans and the music world, the core of the festival is mostly unchanged. "The blood and guts, the skeleton, the heart and soul, the vision and artistic palette are exactly the same," said festival director Quint Davis, who has served as director for all 40 years.
What began as a small gathering (the first festival drew around 350 people) of local musicians has grown into one of the nation's largest celebration of music, showcasing jazz, zydeco, blues, gospel, funk, country, rock, etc. The festival has stayed true to its grassroots tradition, though, as around 80 percent of the musicians featured are still local. According to Davis, around 5,000 musicians will play on the 12 stages (this marks the first time all the stages have been used since post Katrina-last year 9 were used) over the course of the event, which takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course over two weekends: April 24-26 and April 30-May 3.
The event has been a boom for the city's recovery since Katrina and continues to survive and thrive even in the midst of the current recession. Due to the recent economic downturn, the festival lost three sponsors, but Shell Oil, the biggest supporter, is still on, allowing the music and festival to continue on for hopefully many more anniversaries to come.
This year’s line up was overflowing with options to suit the palette: From Neil Young to Kermit Ruffins, from Etta James to Wynton Marsalis from Joe Cocker to Dr. John. And the list goes on. And on…
I started off the first day (April 24) at the WWOZ Jazz Tent where the Marlon Jordan Quartet was just beginning their hour- long set. The tent filled with the notes of Jordan's energized take on the classic Miles Davis Quintet. Jordan, a New Orleans native and the youngest of seven children, was a force on the trumpet and I quickly understood why Columbia Records scooped him up and signed him when he was only 17. He played songs from his new release 3 Faces of Marlon Jordan, which fused the genres of classical, jazz, and hip hop.
I decided to stay put at the WWOZ tent to check out Sophisticated Ladies of Jazz. The program showcased the talents of four women from diverse backgrounds—jazz songwriter Leslie Smith, jazz singer Cindy Scott and gospel singers Barbara Shorts and Judy Spellman who all joined voices and took turns singing vintage jazz takes. The ladies were backed by Larry Sieberth on piano, Brian Seeger on guitar, Mark Brooks on bass and Shannon Powell on drums. Leslie Smith sang an emotional tribute (Billy Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” ) in honor of her late father Michael Smith, a respected local documentary photographer who had covered every Jazz Fest up to that point. All four ladies closed out the set with “Hey, Hey, the Blues Is Alright.”
After the set, I stepped out to wander the grounds and get quick fix of Crawfish Etouffee and art. The sun was out in full force and I found myself camping out in the misting tent for a quick recharge before heading to the Blues Tent where Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters were playing. Dopsie, who is known as the ‘Mick Jagger of the Marsh’, was wearing his signature sunglasses and cowboy hat and unleashed hip-shaking acrobatic-fused dance moves throughout the set. No other zydeco band had ever been fronted by a washboard player before this group came along, and hopefully he has started a trend because the moment he took the stage he rocked the tent in true Jagger fashion. Other musicians featured included David Rubin on vocals, Alton Rubin, Jr. on drums, and Anthony Dopsie on accordion. With songs with titles like “Funky Butt” and “Boogie Woogie Zydeco Man” how can you go wrong? Dopsie had the crowd spilling outside the tent before he even set foot on stage. He ended the set by jumping on top of the speakers and having the crowd sing him “Happy Birthday.”
I didn’t have many concrete plans at the start of the day (my favorite strategy is to wander the grounds and see where the day takes me) but from the beginning I knew where I would be for the last set: at the Congo Square “My Louisiana” Stage. This year marked the return of New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis, who has been a sporadic presence at the event in year’s past.
His Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra joined with the Ghanaian bandleader Yacub Addy and his band Odadaa! (which combines West African polyrhythmic percussion, flutes, guitar, bass, balaphon, and vocals) to perform the trumpeter’s Congo Square . The set showcased switch-offs between African drumming and Western jazz and when the two intertwined the mix provided an intoxicating sound that drifted over the crowd.
The Marsalis composition was a tribute to the mixing of sounds and cultures that gave birth to jazz a century ago and was a solid way to end a first day. As the sun set on the first day of Jazz Fest, the marathon of music continued as musicians and festival goers left the grounds to head to clubs and venues around the city to keep the music going until the next day.
This blog entry posted by Zoie Clift. Check back soon for her report on day two of the festival.