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Live From Jazzfest: Family Affairs And Holding On To History In A Changing New Orleans

Mavis Staples.
Mavis Staples.
Larry Blumenfeld

In the grandstand, away from the heat of the Fair Grounds—the horse-racing track that becomes a music stadium for each New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—stood an exhibit of black-and-white photos that suggested much of the music going on outside. "Faces of Tremé," drawn from 30 years of work by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, evoked the past of a New Orleans neighborhood that has long been hothouse for much of what jazzfest offers. Namesake of David Simon's HBO show, Tremé is both the beating heart of living culture and contested turf in that culture's ongoing battle for survival.

Calhoun's and McCormick's work is artful enough, its content weighted with sufficient history to convey some of these facts even for those who don't recognize, say, a very young Troy Andrews (also known as Trombone Shorty) and his older brother, trumpeter James, posing with Danny Barker, the banjoist and bandleader credited with keeping brass-band tradition alive during a period of waning interest. I'd just heard the current Rebirth Brass Band, 30 years along and going strong, at the festival's Congo Square stage. Pictured here, in a more formative version (including trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, who'd just led his Barbecue Swingers at the Gentilly stage), Rebirth paraded with the Sixth Ward High Rollers, a neighborhood second-line club.

Water damage, a reminder of 2005's floodwaters, blotted out the center of one large, brilliant shot taken at The Shop, a favored musicians' hangout of decades ago, where the Rebirth band is said to have gestated. Much of what Tremé once was has been blotted out, and much of that occurred long before and independent of Katrina, having more to do with winds of civic change. Laurie Kaufman, whose family has lived on North Villere Street for more than a century, smiled at one shot of Claiborne Street before the live oaks were gone and the I-10 expressway overpass cast its shadow, before a section of homes was razed to create the gated park that bears Louis Armstrong's name. "When I was a little girl, that neighborhood was formidable," she said. "So much of it disappeared overnight."

And yet so much remains—vitally so, and not without a fight. Sometimes that happens in dramatic fashion. I flew away, back to New York, too soon to attend the "Tuba Fats Tuesday" celebration, which honors Anthony Lacen, better known as "Tuba Fats," a mentor to many Tremé musicians during his life. That post-fest party takes place on the open lot of North Robertson Street where, five years ago, acting on a neighbor's complaint, police swarmed and broke up a memorial parade, cutting short the hymn "I'll Fly Away" and slapping cuffs on two musicians. Sometimes the skirmishes over culture are less pointed and largely out of view; a few days before this year's jazzfest, two dozen Tremé residents stood before a city council planning commission with impassioned ideas about the zoning ordinances and approvals that will help determine the fate of live music venues in a changing neighborhood. The mundane mechanics of city governance will play a central role in the future of the New Orleans culture as it occurs beyond the Fair Grounds. The TBC Brass Band (whose name stands for "To Be Continued") sounded sharp and mature on Sunday at the festival's Jazz & Heritage stage. Two years ago, cops asked them to move along from the spot on Bourbon and Canal Streets where they'd honed their performance style before a crowd while earning cash; the band was in defiance of a city noise ordinance and a public-performance curfew, its members were told. These are complicated issues; residents and business owns have rights, and governments a duty to find balance. The ways in which the city council deals with pending changes to this legislation—still very much on the table and worth watching—will have much to do with what you may or may not hear at jazzfest a decade from now.

Back in 2010, To Be Continued trumpeter Sean Roberts described his frustration. "What they're doing is slowly but surely killing the New Orleans tradition," he said. "I learned how to play trumpet on this corner." Standing with me before the Jazz & Heritage Stage a few days ago, Alex Rawls, the savvy editor of the local music monthly Offbeat, said: "The Disneyfication of New Orleans that people talked about after Katrina was supposed to be quick and dramatic. But the danger is not like that. If you take your hands off the wheel and let business interests rule, that sort of thing happens more gradually, almost without people noticing."

 

John Butte.
John Butte.
Larry Blumenfeld

Jazzfest's joyous swirl can make such fears seem far-fetched—they're not—yet it's impossible not to recognize that these pleasures stem from traditions best not uprooted. Troy and James Andrews showed up near the end of a rollicking Blues Tent set from their cousin Glen David Andrews, who began by calling audience members to rise from their seats, "if you love the Tremé neighborhood and want to have a god-damned good time." Evident everywhere at jazzfest, and in the club gigs beyond its borders, were legacies and family ties. Singer John Boutté —whose "Tremé Song," the theme of the HBO show, is now de rigueur (for better and worse) at jazzfest stages—was in the gospel tent a day after his powerhouse jazz-tent show, alongside his sister, nieces and cousins for the equally riveting "Boutté Family Sunday Praise." The Meters, that rosetta stone of a funk band, played their first local gig in 30 years at the Howlin' Wolf club Saturday night. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, inventor of its own style of brass-band playing in the late 1970s, played both jazzfest's biggest stage and the smallish club DBA, celebrating a brand-new album. The Neville Brothers, fast approaching four decades of bandhood, closed the festival's Acura stage.

Jazzfest is a family affair, and not just for fans wheeling strollers. Catch pianist Ellis Marsalis during one set; come back for the fine big band led by his son, trombonist Delfeayo. Sitting stageside for trumpeter Terence Blanchard's guest slot with percussionist Poncho Sanchez were his three children. Those young boys at the rear of the stage during a tight and impressive set by Irvin Mayfield's New Orleans Jazz Orchestra? The trumpeter's two sons. There's a larger sense of lineage on display too, one that crosses borders. That happened in formal fashion, through violinist Regina Carter's "Reverse Thread" project, which mines West African folk melodies and includes kora, a 21-string harp. And it popped up in more casual collaborations. I hosted an interview and performance pairing bluesman Little Freddie King, who left Mississippi for New Orleans a half-century ago, with Cheick Hamala Diabate, who was born in Mali and now lives near Washington, D.C. The two clicked easily during King's "Used to Be Down," King on semi-hollow-body Gibson electric guitar and Diabate on gourd-and-skin-bodied ngoni. Little Freddie laughed. "I know why it's good," he said. "He's left-handed, just like Albert King."

Walk around jazzfest long enough and other types of connections pop up, themes emerge. Pianist Herbie Hancock closed his jazz-tent set with his 1960s classic, "Cantaloupe Island." The next day, that tune's signature riff framed an extended section of a set from Los Hombres Calientes, whose brand of Afro-Cuban jazz was emboldened when Cuban percussionist Pedrito Martinez joined founding member and conga master Bill Summers in the rhythm section. The group eased smoothly back and forth from Hancock's tune to a 1970s Earth, Wind & Fire hit, "Getaway." Martinez, who is a brilliant player and bandleader in career ascent, had been playing all over, within and without jazzfest. In a public interview with writer Ashley Kahn a day earlier, he'd talked about soaking up Earth, Wind & Fire and The Commodores from a cheap transistor radio as boy in Havana. "That stuff was as much a part of me as the Cuban tradition," he said.

This year, it was hard to miss the presence of strong women making powerful statements. Sometimes they were out front, as when Ani DiFranco sang Pete Seeger's "Whose Side Are You On" with the Preservation Hall Band at the Fais Do Do stage. Mavis Staples's gospel-tent show was my personal festival highlight. (During Curtis Mayfield's "This Is My Country," she left the verse to testify some. "What's up with people going around disrespecting our president? We know what that's about. I ain't never going back to the back of the bus.") Sometimes women shone in supporting roles, like the mostly female horn section during Allen Toussaint's brilliant Acura stage set. Sometimes they blurred lines between star and support, as when alto saxophonist Tia Fuller invoked John Coltrane within Stevie Wonder's "I Can't Help It" as she traded phrases with headliner Esperanza Spalding. Fuller was yet more impressive, as was trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, within drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosaic, a band that's good enough to erase both gender and genre biases. Annie Tee's jazzfest debut, singing fiddling with her band, Bayou Cadillac, was really actor/musician Lucia Micarelli stepping in with the real-life Red Stick Ramblers for a couple of tunes, soon to be a moment in Season Three of HBO Treme.

In New Orleans, a place where fact and fiction routinely blur into one seeming whole, jazzfest is both a tangible boon the economy and a surrealist assemblage of all the city offers, away from actual environments such as Tremé. It's both a "god-damned good time," as Glen David Andrews, who was born and raised in Tremé, said, and a window into his truth.

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