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New Orleans Jazz Fest 2007 | Print |  E-mail
Written by Tammi J. Truax   
Wednesday, 09 May 2007

how the spirit of music transcended a tragedy

Although I had never been to the Big Easy until last month, the music of New Orleans has captivated me since I was in high school. Because my son has taken up the guitar, and my daughter the African drum, and because I wanted to see what has happened to New Orleans with my own eyes, I decided to attend this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, more commonly known as Jazz Fest.

I headed down with my son and daughter on the weekend of April 27 for five days of spectacular food and music for the body and soul. The festival demonstrated how far the city has come since Hurricane Katrina slammed the region 18 months ago, but it also showed how far the city has to go before it returns to the cultural Mecca it once was.

Friday morning, opening day of the festival, we headed in at 11 a.m. to see the Andrew Hall’s Society Brass Band, a 10-piece group complemented by traditional dancers donning beads and umbrellas. We also saw a bit of the Semolian Warriors and Mardi Gras Indians, which got us warmed up. Moving on, we caught the first of two performances we’d see by “Lady Tambourine,” also known as Rosalie Washington—and she is something to see.

Next came something I had specifically chosen for my son: the Swamp-Blues Guitar Summit featuring Lil’ Buck Sinegal and Rudy Richard. “I’m gonna bruise ya ’fore I lose ya,” Richard said when he took the stage. But these guys let their guitars do most of the singing. My son was especially impressed with Buck’s ability to play the guitar with his teeth.

On Friday afternoon, we had a chance to see a real New Orleans funeral when Jazz Fest paid tribute to the late “60 Minutes” correspondent Ed Bradley, a renowned jazz fan and festival regular. The procession included pals Jimmy Buffet and Mike Wallace. We should all get to go out that way.

Next came a hometown house call from Dr. John, who made a point of accentuating the positive. Someone described him as a psychedelic voodoo funk dude, and my son thought he looked like a pimp, but I’d just call him smooth. His upcoming show at The Music Hall on May 20 will offer fans a more intimate view of the legend, but they won’t get to dance barefoot in the brand new fescue of the New Orleans Fair Grounds racetrack while sipping a frozen SoCo mojo.

One of the great things about Jazz Fest is the extraordinary collaboration between unexpected visitors. Our closing act on Friday was Van Morrison, who was later joined onstage by Dr. John. We then moondanced home to the French quarter to see the sights on Bourbon Street.

On Saturday morning, we treated my 10-year-old daughter to some great African drumming, first by some kids performing in the children’s tent, and then by the Amazones: Women Master Drummers (and dancers) of Guinea, who were on their first U.S. tour.

Highlights over the rest of the weekend included Guitar Slim Jr., Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and The Zydeco Twisters. Norah Jones’ voluptuous voice never sounded sweeter than when joined by Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. But my children’s favorite was Clarence “Frogman” Henry, a king of New Orleans R&B. He sang a plea to FEMA to bring his grandbabies back, but his music and stage presence were as joyful as a circus show.

With 10 stages going at once, Jazz Fest attendees are forced to miss some of the best acts. I was very disappointed to have to skip Irma Thomas for Jerry Lee Lewis, for example. But I was pleasantly surprised by long, tall Marcia Ball, perhaps because Thomas was one of her primary influences. She started her set with “Red Beans Boogie” and then shifted to a honky-tonk set in the blazing hot sun.

Most disappointing of all was missing Richie Havens, who drew such a massive crowd it was impossible to get within earshot of his tent. We instead ducked into the gospel tent and found ourselves listening to the Dartmouth College Gospel Choir, featuring Walt Cunningham and One Accord. Their touching rendition of “Amazing Grace” did the Granite State proud.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and Louisiana native Jerry Lee Lewis, introduced as “the last man standing” after his latest CD, was truly a treat. At 72 years of age, he is much older than the wild young rocker pictured on this year’s official Jazz Fest poster. He shuffled on and off the stage, but when he sat down at that Baldwin piano, his fingers flew. He still sings about young girls, and he wore by far the best boots at the festival.

Our grand finale was another hall of famer, the beautiful Bonnie Raitt. I’ve been a loyal fan since I first saw her live 25 years ago. She’s still smokin’, and when she croons about no-good dirty-dog men, she is singing my kind of blues.

The Jazz Fest food was almost as fabulous as the music. It was great to be able to purchase healthy food the whole time and choose from a wonderful selection of seafood. I ate my fill of “mudbugs,” impressed by the diversity of ways crawfish can be served. My son devoured dishes like quail and pheasant gumbo and alligator po’ boys, while my daughter preferred African food and strawberry lemonade. I rarely had to wait in line to get an ice-cold beer, which was an important advantage on an 84-degree day in a crowd of 100,000 or so people.

The superb crafts and exhibits, affordable prices and peaceful crowds at Jazz Fest showed New Orleans at its finest. But don’t be misled. The crippling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has left an indelible scourge on the Crescent City, and many people, including native musicians like the Neville Brothers, are still displaced. While much of the city is in good shape and open for business, sections like the Ninth Ward are still in absolute ruins. There are ghost neighborhoods decomposing more each day.

On our way to the airport, I asked our cab driver how things were going for him. He has lived in New Orleans his entire life but lost all his possessions to the storm, and insurance won’t cover his losses. Even though only half of the former population is present, there is still a lack of work and a severe housing shortage in the city. Rents keep climbing and insurance costs are up 500 percent, but wages remain among the lowest in the country.

I believe that how we respond to help New Orleans is a measure of our humanity. We are capable of rebuilding the city, and rebuild it we must, because losing New Orleans would mean losing a valuable culture. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz—the music of America—and we must make things right there for the sake of the entire nation.

The festival resumed the following weekend with acts like John Mayer, Steely Dan, Rod Stewart, ZZ Top and many others. The theme of this year’s Jazz Fest was “Move your body and soul.” I did, and now I can say that I, too, know what it means to miss New Orleans.

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