Just as Kermit Ruffins sang “Sunny Side of the Street” with trumpet in hand, an early morning sun shone powerfully across North Rampart Street in New Orleans onto Congo Square. Two centuries ago, enslaved Africans and free people of color drummed and danced here each Sunday, exerting their right to free expression as their masters prayed at church, seeding the beat of the earliest jazz and just about all New Orleans music to follow. Nowhere else in the North American colonies had slaves been allowed to play their drums, let alone freely assemble. For anyone with even a passing knowledge of local culture here, Congo Square means serious history and sacred ground.
Ruffins had a cooler full of Bloody Marys waiting in the wings. It wasn’t yet 8 a.m. He doesn’t often rise this early, let alone perform. It’s unlikely that most of the several hundred people assembled before a temporary stage would typically have been up and out just then either, on the Monday morning following the first weekend of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where local and national stars filled ten stages through three full days.
But here, for no admission charge, was an assemblage of hometown heroes—along with Ruffins and among others, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, clarinetist Michael White, pianist Ellis Marsalis, drummer Herlin Riley, and the Treme Brass Band. Before the performances and some speechifying, a cadre of hand drummers and dancers did their thing. They were led by Luther Gray, whose Congo Square Foundation lobbied successfully to place Congo Square on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, and who leads weekly drum circles on the spot. Then came pianist Herbie Hancock. He played one of his classics, “Watermelon Man,” with an ensemble drawn from the high school players that have been mentored through the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, of which he is chairman. The group included trumpeter Glenn Hall III, who first gained national attention as a displaced 10-year-old in Spike Lee’s documentary When The Levees Broke, and now is the confident leader of the upstart Baby Boyz Brass Band and a student at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Meanwhile, a large video screen offered remote feeds of simultaneous performances of Hancock’s song, a virtual cross-cultural jam. Through his role as special ambassador for UNESCO, Hancock had instigated this event, one of three high-profile concerts (the others were in New York and Paris) to mark April 30th as “International Jazz Day,” a worldwide celebration of jazz as “a universal music of freedom and creativity,” as he put it.
“Jazz was born here,” Irina Bokova, the former Bulgarian minister of foreign affairs who is now UNESCO’s director, said from a podium with disarming sincerity. “But now it belongs to the world.” New Orleans, which has seen periods of Spanish and French rule, was once a thriving international port, and which doubled in population in the early 19th century when Haitians fled to it, has always belonged to the world, and so has its music.
If this was a moment to revel in jazz’s place in the world, it was also a moment to consider New Orleans’ place within that. Congo Square’s place in the city’s scheme of things has not always been completely clear: For more than a century before last year’s unanimous city council vote, New Orleans had recognized this spot as “Beauregard Square,” in honor of a Confederate general. In between numbers at the Jazz Day celebration, author Freddi Williams Evans read a passage from her book, “Congo Square: African Roots in New Orleans,” recalling those who came here “to lay their bondage down.” She explained the spot’s role as an African marketplace. Her book quotes an early 19th century travel journal: “Every stranger should visit Congo Square… no one will ever regret or forget it.” Meaning that the drummers and dancers of Congo Square also inspired the sort of tourism key to the cultural economy espoused by current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. And yet “these gatherers were not performing a show,” Evans pointed out from the stage. “They were re-forming a society.” Hancock and Bokova were attempting a similar feat, 21st-century style, with live video feeds, and by rushing off for a flight to New York for their sundown event.
Mayor Landrieu had stepped up to the podium at one point, too. He invoked “jazz’s power to transform, to solve conflicts.” Maybe so. “International Jazz Day” comes at a complicated moment in the relationship between the United States and UNESCO; after the organization accepted the Palestinians as its 195th member, the Obama administration cut off its annual contribution, which amounts to roughly 22 percent of the organization’s annual budget.
Ironically, some of the conflicts faced by Landrieu’s administration are stimulated, not solved, by the very jazz culture that owes to Congo Square’s traditions. His city council has still to vote on revised noise ordinances that threaten the livelihood of brass bands such the Baby Boyz, who often play in the streets (and the liveliness of those streets, as promoted by the city’s tourism campaigns). As a new New Orleans continues taking shape, the future of its indigenous culture—the one celebrated with mock second-line parades and faux Mardi Gras Indian celebrations at Jazzfest, but which also bleeds out into half the concerts in some form or another—is an open question. Old questions (will the musicians return?) have been answered. The new questions revolve around mundane but essential details of a civic re-formation that isn’t all that different than the one Evans talked about. Will the proposed ordinance Councilmember Jackie Clarkson floated, which would bar all people under 21 from music clubs that serve alcohol, come to a vote? (Would that be a good thing in a city with lots of budding musicians and an ailing cultural economy?) Will the many zoning ordinances now in flux allow for live music in the neighborhoods where it is nurtured? And what about those Mardi Gras Indians, who take to streets beyond Jazzfest four times a year in beads and feathers?
Over at Jazzfest’s “Cultural Crossroads” tent, where Mardi Gras Indian culture gets discussed in detail, civil rights attorney Mary Howell sat alongside Big Chiefs. “It’s kind of unfortunate that we even have a lawyer here,” she said, “that we need that.” She held up the bright green caps worn by her and other “Legal Observers” at Indian events. Recent calm during important Indian events have shown promise. When NOPD Captain Bob Bardy showed up at the tent, he spoke of a newfound spirit of partnership built on respect and a fuller knowledge of what these traditions mean to the community he serves. Still, Howell spoke of a “constant tension between what happens culturally in the streets and the law” and an “ambivalent relationship between culture and the city government. My role is to keep the law at bay.”
Still, most of those who flock to New Orleans for the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival come for music and food, not conversations in a damp tent. Congo Square is also the name of one of 10 stages within the Fair Grounds, the horseracing track that transforms into a music stadium once each year. On Sunday, that’s where Al Green closed the final day of the opening weekend with piercing high notes, seductive croons and tossed roses. Green, who is both a soul-singing conjurer and an ordained minister, is more than just a master entertainer. He embodies the fusion of sacred and profane, uplift and seduction, at the heart of New Orleans music. Right around the same time, over at the Acura stage, Bruce Springsteen sang his songs of grit and glory. Near the end of his two-hour set, he crowdsurfed a bit. Some in New Orleans still talk about it Springsteen’s 2006 set here, when much of the city was still in ruins, which ended with a spare, almost desperate version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” “He lifted us all up,” Jazzfest producer Quint Davis had told me then. This time around, Springsteen let the crowd support him.
At Jazzfest the real working-class heroes, the guys who’ve done the heaviest lifting, even long before the flood, are those like trumpeter James Andrews. He hammed it up as he always does while leading his Crescent City All-Stars at the Blues tent, cocking one hand behind an ear to gain more audience response, and wiggling his hips. He turned “Little Liza Jane,” a standard owned by New Orleans musicians as much as anyone, into a modern-blues romp, blowing loud and pure. And there was Glenn Hall, at his side, keeping right up.
James’ younger brother, Troy, better known as Trombone Shorty (but who is now kind of tall and plays lots of trumpet, too) brought things to a fever pitch at the Acura stage. Singer Irma Thomas ended her Gospel tent tribute to Mahalia Jackson by waving her arms wide and furiously, as if to summon a different sort of frenzy as she sang “Precious Lord.” Two clarinetists, Michael White (at the Economy Hall tent, where people still dance and parade) and Evan Christopher (at the jazz tent) called up a century’s worth of tradition on their instrument, synthesized and personalized in distinct ways. Two local-hero trumpeters reveled in respective associations with two rhythm masters: Terence Blanchard joined conga player Poncho Sanchez to recall the legacy of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo; Nicholas Payton played in a trio with trap-set monster Jeff “Tain” Watts and bassist Vicente Archer. Payton caused waves recently by blogging about his disdain for categories, and for the very word “jazz.” He pissed some people off, but he wasn’t without a point. He made that point more gracefully and better playing a Fender Rhodes keyboard with his right hand, and soloing with grace through the trumpet he held in his left, leading his trio through Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses.” If I’ve left out some of the gigs you wanted to hear about, have a heart: A man’s got to dig into a cochon de lait po-boy sometimes, chill out with a mango freeze, you know?
Meanwhile, Jazzfest is hardly the whole story. You could have a perfectly satisfying time attending only the gigs that happen away from the Fair Grounds, after the gates have closed. Clarinetist Christopher played a terrific midnight set at Café Istanbul, a new spot that is a wildly promising addition to the city’s nightlife scene; Roland Guerin was on bass for that one, and his mastery was on full display. Trombonist Glen David Andrews packed listeners into Three Muses, and packed musicians into the club’s storefront; with a pianist in the doorway, a drummer in the window and horn players fanning out into the audience, he jump-cut genres and improvised lyrics packed with the details of his life. A sweaty throng couldn’t get close enough to the stage at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street. There was good reason: Lonnie Smith manipulated the tones from his Hammond B3 into a web of rhythms that his sextet, including drummer Herlin Riley and alto saxophonist Donald Harrison, kept in intricate and delicate balance. Down the street a bit, at a club called DBA, singer John Boutte had the crowd hushed in wonder as he sang the title track (the best one) from his brand-new CD, “All About Everything.” Some of the folks up front sang (pretty well in tune, some even in harmony) on the chorus of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” “There’s more than one way to have sex,” Boutte said afterward, “and we just had an orgy.”
Sacred and profane: This must be New Orleans.
(To be continued… )
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 3, 2012