Hopeful Dispatches From the 40th Jazz & Heritage Festival


New Orleans inspires even inveterate Twitterers and Facebook correspondents to release their thumbs and touch real life. Except the guy at the bar of a club called DBA one recent Monday, who just leaned harder into his BlackBerry, typing feverishly as Glen David Andrews—trombone in one hand, mic in the other—upped the tempo of “It’s All Over Now.” Some people just don’t get it.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which celebrated its 40th year through two long weekends from April 24 to May 3, is the grandest showcase, the tourism calling card, for a culture that defies the virtual. At the festival’s Gospel Tent five days later, Andrews stirred fervor with hymns from his new CD, Walking Through Heaven’s Gate. Monday, secular. Friday, sacred. Same effect. These are the two sides of New Orleans’ musical coin, and nowhere is that truer than Andrews’s old neighborhood, Tremé: He recorded his album at Zion Hill Baptist Church there, where he was baptized 30 years ago.

Hanging in the balance ever since the levees failed is the very existence of neighborhoods like Tremé, which is fast gentrifying (a 52 percent post-Katrina citywide rise in rents doesn’t help). But such places have long sanctified what Jazz Fest sells.

The festival, held since 1972 at the sprawling Fair Grounds Race Course, is an artificial environment, far removed from the city’s pools of spontaneity. That said, it’s lovingly crafted and immense. Some 400 bands—many famous, most homegrown—perform on a dozen stages, surrounding an infield filled with culinary wonders and marching Social Aid & Pleasure Club second-line paraders in Sunday finery alongside Mardi Gras Indians in massive feathered-and-beaded suits. The second-liners and Indians were fewer in number this year, and their traditions are embattled beyond the Fair Grounds (the clubs have twice taken the city to federal court). But they were there, and things would’ve been a good deal less sacred were they not.

At the first Jazz Fest, the only out-of-town act was Duke Ellington’s orchestra. These days, pop and rock stars are regularly imported. The Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose referred in print to this year’s “Bon Jovi situation.” I know what he meant. Then again, Neil Young’s two-hour set moved masterfully from the plugged-in trash of “Hey Hey, My My” to an exquisite, solo acoustic “Needle and the Damage Done.” And when Bonnie Raitt called up a trio of local horns during “Women Be Wise,” it was both a heartfelt connection and a photo-op.

The festival’s anniversary was one of several legacies honored: Wynton Marsalis, the city’s best-known native trumpeter, presented his piece dedicated to Congo Square, where enslaved Africans once danced and drummed, seeding the pulse of New Orleans music. (Those moved to visit the place were in luck: It had been effectively off-limits since the flood until January, when Armstrong Park reopened.) Leroy Jones, the hometown trumpeter most deserving of wider acclaim, reassembled nearly all of the Fairview Baptist Church Brass Band in tribute to banjo player and bandleader Danny Barker, and to a moment when a fading tradition was rejuvenated. Jones’s carefully restrained, sweet-toned playing was featured in five other bands, which gets at one of Jazz Fest’s great pleasures: the chance to hear favorite musicians in varied formats. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (playing trumpet, too), and drummer Herlin Riley popped up on stage after stage.

Then there’s the festival beyond the festival: beefed-up local gigs in between weekends. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard showcased a new edition of his quintet that gleamed with promise at tony Snug Harbor. Fellow trumpeter Michael Ray re-created Sun Ra’s well-arranged psychedelia at the rough-hewn Zeitgeist. Pianist Henry Butler stormed through his former city, reasserting his primacy-in-exile at each stop. And Riley proved that no one hits harder, hipper, and more correctly nearly everywhere, and especially at the Blue Nile, with alto saxophonist Donald Harrison in organist Lonnie Smith’s band.

The Fair Grounds is removed from the harsh realities outside its gates, but listen closely, and you’ll get the news you need. “This is for all the people who are trying to bring charity back,” singer John Boutté announced between tunes. He meant the larger virtue, by way of the latest local hot-button issue: the fight over Charity Hospital, the city’s largest health care provider for the uninsured, which has stood vacant since Katrina. Louisiana State University, which governs the hospital, has proposed a controversial $1.2 billion plan for a new medical complex that would raze a chunk of historic Lower Mid-City, leave the old building as one more blighted architectural treasure, and further delay the resumption of critical medical services. This called up memories of last year, when, shortly before Jazz Fest, HUD-ordered, City Council–approved bulldozers eliminated 4,500 public housing units. Now as then, proponents of restoration (at lesser cost) threaten to be run over by one more plan to tear down, build up, and replace “public” with “mixed-use.”

Jazz Fest, which attracted more than 400,000 people and pumped $300 million into the local economy, was one of a constellation of late-April Louisiana events, ranging from Lafayette’s Festival International de Louisiane to New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp, a jewel of an affair celebrating forgotten jukebox heroes—all of which argues for culture as a vital engine in the region’s recovery. Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu made just that point as he sat in a trailer between Jazz Fest stages, flanked by foreign ambassadors, to promote his “World Cultural Economic Forum,” which seeks to restore Louisiana’s international prominence when it comes to the arts.

But just a week prior, Governor Bobby Jindal had ordered the state’s decentralized arts funding cut by 83 percent, and its overall cultural support (some $4 million) halved. “That’s short-sighted and just wrong,” Landrieu said. As Jindal shepherded a $50 million rescue of a chicken-processing plant, some 70,000 e-mails rained on State House Representatives, who’ve since voted to restore much of the money, pending Senate review.

Working musicians in New Orleans face steep enough challenges: Since Katrina, bookings are down by nearly half, while the cost of living has risen 11 percent, according to one recent survey. Sure, there’s great music everywhere, but the time-honored conundrum of a culture that’s beloved around the world from a city possessing no serious music industry has grown starker and, well, far less charming. As one response, Jazz Fest’s foundation hosted “Sync Up,” a talent exchange to connect visiting executives and talent bookers with local players. Outside the Jazz Tent, clarinetist Evan Christopher criticized the tourism machine for trivializing the culture: “You’ll see tourism ads that show guys playing for tips, or just instruments next to a plate of gumbo, like it’s a side dish.” He thinks local musicians should “stop giving it away” and call their own shots. (At the very least, city officials should revisit archaic and arbitrary live-music ordinances.)

Jazz Fest itself can be suspect. Tuba player Bennie Pete turned down a slot at the modest “Jazz & Heritage” stage for his Hot 8 Brass Band, requesting a bigger-draw tent based on his group’s raised profile and international tours: “The festival has an opportunity to help lift up the local musicians,” he said. “We want something to aspire to—not just surviving in the streets.”

Yet despite hard times and spurred in part by disaster, local musicians have broadened their creative pursuits. Trumpeter Shamarr Allen’s new CD is titled Box Who In? “Lately, I’m covering Ornette Coleman and Jimi Hendrix as often as Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington,” Christopher noted. Clarinetist Michael White, an authoritative if often buttoned-down traditionalist, wore a T-shirt and the smile of a pleased mentor while playing with the Hot 8 at Sound Café. And at the Jazz Tent three days later, he sported a colorful West African shirt with Fatien Ensemble, in collaboration with Seguenon Kone, whose balafon and dundun drums bespeak his native Ivory Coast. The group played a new tune of White’s, “Ancestral Reunion,” then a rhythmically realigned version of “St. James Infirmary.”

“I think life as I knew it ended with Katrina,” White had told me. “And I’m on to another one now.”