Notes From a Muddy Racetrack (And Beyond): New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Notes From a Muddy Racetrack (And Beyond): New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Dee Dee Bridgewater performs
(Photo by Katherine Cecil)

NEW ORLEANS — Around midnight, as Saturday turned to Sunday in New Orleans, Dee Dee Bridgewater removed the feathered wig she’d been wearing to reveal a shaved head. By then, she was well into an 18-minute version of “God Bless the Child.” She sang soft and forlorn at first, gave way briefly to a solo by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, then built her vocal little by little into a sermon about empowerment and faith, filled with growls and shouts and improvised lyrics, which begat a scat-sung section in which she herself sounded like a horn. Finally, she landed back at the blues. For a moment, before a rush of applause, the crowd packed into the sleek jazz club Mayfield runs within Bourbon Street’s Royal Sonesta Hotel fell silent.

Bridgewater showed up about 24 hours later, unannounced, to end a Sunday late set at Snug Harbor on Frenchmen Street led by Terence Blanchard, another New Orleans trumpeter. Blanchard’s sextet had just played a program rich with textural innovation and free of formal convention; Blanchard is a star, yet still seeking out new musical territory. But when Bridgewater called off a blues in G, the group snapped precisely into groove. She was off again, this time wearing a woven cowboy hat, alternately fierce and playful, ripping it up.


And, oh yeah, there was a jazz festival.

Bridgewater was there, too, in between these cameos, singing with Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra on Sunday, for the final set of the final day at the jazz tent, one of 12 stages at the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. As I wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week, Jazz Fest is immense, a gated community drawing upon yet removed from the musical ferment in the streets and clubs of the city; it is impeccably crafted and indelibly tied to its home. Some 500 bands perform at the Fair Grounds, the horseracing track that becomes a music stadium once a year. An infield is filled with local cuisine and crafts, through which regularly dance Social Aid & Pleasure Club second-line paraders wearing Sunday finery and Mardi Gras Indians in feathered-and-beaded suits, accompanied by hand drums.

Jazz Fest serves as a mighty anchor to the amped-up musical offerings that start up after the Fair Grounds gates close and last well into each night. Bridgewater was one of many musicians who could be seen and heard in multiple settings. Another was the brilliant New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley, who one night moved from second-line parade rhythms to modern-jazz swing while leading a group at Snug Harbor (where he likes to sometimes strike a plumbing pipe as if it’s part of his drum kit), and the next, at the Blue Nile, just down the street, served as engine and traffic cop for the swirl of groove conjured by organist Dr. Lonnie Smith.

For the past two weeks in New Orleans, people have greeted each other with “Happy Jazz Fest,” and mostly receive the event’s offerings as if presents under a tree. When it rains, as it did mightily for part of the fest’s seven days stretched across two weekends, the Fair Grounds turns to muddy mess. Yet even this soggy fact can’t deter the faithful, thousands of them, who don rain boots or kick off footwear, mud be damned or even embraced.

Jazz Fest has always been different things to different people. One can set up shop in front of the Fais Do-Do stage all day and focus on Cajun, zydeco, and, increasingly, alternative pop rooted in those styles. Some couples still pair dance in the Economy Hall tent, where the traditional jazz you hear little of outside New Orleans rules, as played by those with authority and bloodlines in that game. One night, past and present members of the Treme Brass Band honored “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, the group’s bass drummer who died last year at age 81, and who symbolized the cultural traditions and familial warmth of its namesake neighborhood. Playing “Amazing Grace” set to a dirge, and then segueing into an up-tempo song, the musicians performed a New Orleans jazz-funeral ritual rich with both historical significance and in-the-moment appeal. When trumpeter Gregg Stafford performed at that tent, he led a band that “came correct,” wearing black five-pointed hats, white shirts, and ties, and playing three-part trumpet harmonies on the hymn “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”

After two initial jazz festivals in New Orleans, in 1968 and ’69, the event was handed over to impresario George Wein’s Festival Productions (and is now co-produced with pop-concert powerhouse AEG Live). For the 1970 festival, the only out-of-town act was Duke Ellington’s orchestra. Last year’s seven-day event attracted more than 450,000 people, generating an economic impact to the city estimated at $320 million; now pop and rock stars are regularly imported. This year’s crop includes those with legitimate influence on New Orleans musicians (B.B. King; Earth, Wind & Fire) and without (John Mayer closed Acura Stage on opening night; Fleetwood Mac performed on Sunday). Such a shift in programming has not gone unnoticed.

And yet there are constants. There was gospel music at that 1970 festival, and Mahalia Jackson showed up. And there is still a gospel tent going strong through all seven days, which I stop in to begin each visit. New Orleans writer Alex Rawls, who did excellent fest coverage at his website, MySpiltMilk, pointed to another through-line:

The festival is one of the last places where traditional notions of talent rule. If you sing well and play well, there’s a stage and an audience for you. Whether by design or what it’s come to represent for its patrons, Jazz Fest is often a musical safe haven from the heathens on the charts with their Auto-Tunes and computers and so on.

At Jazz Fest, some things happen much like they’ve always happened, as when 101-year-old trumpeter Lionel Ferbos led his Palm Court band, and sang, “I may be late/ but I’ll be up to date if I could shimmy like my sister Kate.” Ferbos would play two sets later that night at the Palm Court club (talk about staying power). New things get tried out too, as when Big Chief David Montana fronted a Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra that included cellist Helen Gillet. Unlike at most festivals, this one bears some surprises. My first came when Allen Toussaint showed up unbilled, playing piano for a few tunes during Guitar Slim Jr.’s opening-day blues tent gig. My next came during Billy Joel’s Acura Stage performance: During 1977’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant,” when Joel reached the line about dropping a dime in a jukebox and playing “a song about New Orleans,” out came members of the Preservation Hall Band. A lyric’s detail became a hometown cameo and underscored the city’s primacy across genres.

At this year’s Jazz Fest, some of the most tradition-bound playing came from young performers. The most adventurous sounds came from saxophonists Kidd Jordan, who is 77, and Wayne Shorter, 79. (For more on Jordan’s set, go here.) Shorter’s quartet, with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, now more than a decade running, has scripted a new and stunning chapter in Shorter’s career, and suggests one for modern music overall. Shorter mostly issued succinct figures — sometimes gentle, others urgent — that set off activity or change course. No one musician actually leads; all instigate and respond. The music formed an extended suite, its ebbs and flows irregular but wholly organic. There were wild swings of tempo and dynamics. Along the way, a melody or bass line or a piece of the bridge from one of Shorter’s classic compositions or his newer ones took shape. But these were like objects bobbing into view on the crest of a wave then just as quickly swallowed by a turbulent sea of sound, only to pop up again displaced in space and time. This is music that deals in timbre and motion and dynamics and mood — it has no concern for style or credo. Which made me think of something Shorter told me early in this group’s tenure: “You know, Miles Davis used to say that he didn’t like guys who played what he called ‘duty.’ Our music is duty-free. It’s important to play this music with an appreciation but not in a submissive way, not paying homage through idolization. Because that idolization turns in to a credo, then a prescription, then an order, then a mandate.”

Taj Mahal suggested a similar imperative at the Alison Miner Music Heritage Stage, where musicians engage in public interviews. “Obliterate category,” he told interviewer Gwen Thompkins. “Some people call me a singer, and some people call me a guitarist,” he continued. “But I consider myself a composer.” His performance, which closed the blues tent on the final Sunday, was the most fully realized and gorgeous-sounding performance at this year’s festival. He led a band in which the four horn players each doubled on tuba, rekindling the concept behind his classic 1971 album, “The Real Thing” (and including at least two players from that live recording, electric pianist John Simon and tuba player Howard Johnson). His voice soared and his guitar moaned as tubas created a dense but buoyant bottom end to tunes including “Ain’t Gwine to Whistle Dixie (Any Mo’)” and “You’re Going to Need Somebody on Your Bond.” When he got to “Way Back Home,” five musicians (including Phil Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band) joined in on sousaphones (the tuba’s younger cousin, as modified by composer John Philip Sousa for marching, and a ubiquitous presence in New Orleans streets). With sousaphones playing the bass line and tubas sounding melodies and harmonies, the music achieved stunning density and richness, a beauty I couldn’t have imagined on my own.

There were many moments during Jazz Fest that characterized how well New Orleans, a city that has scripted much of what we know as American musical styles, can also wipe the lines delineate such styles. One great example was the Fleur Debris Superband, led by pianist David Torkanowsky, which was a fest highlight for me. It included trumpeter Nicholas Payton, a homegrown player who has set off controversies surrounding the word “jazz” and its meaning through his Internet posts; here, his search beyond category took purely musical voice. And driving it all with force and nuance were bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, who, on other stages, displayed customary supremacy over funk grooves and here channeled that same exalted mastery for a more slippery and refined sense of swing.

In terms of sheer joy and wonder, nothing could top the jazz tent set by pianist Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa Orchestra. In force, elegance, scope, and ability to convey both personalized feelings and a broad sense of cultural history, I’d place this group alongside Ellington’s. At the jazz tent, where ushers are usually strict about keeping aisles clear and sightlines intact, eventually they just gave up; the call to dance was too strong to counter. This music is Afro Latin dance music — “salsa,” if you must — but to consider it solely that misses a lot, for instance the interaction between Palmieri and bassist Luques Curtis, which is as complex, idiosyncratic, and free-flowing as anything in modern jazz.

Family lineage is one thread that runs through Jazz Fest: One could hear Jason Marsalis ably supporting the quartet led by his father, pianist Ellis, or hear him stretch out on vibes, leading his own group. Separately, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis led his Uptown Jazz Orchestra. At Jazz Fest the real working-class heroes, the guys who’ve done the heaviest lifting in a city where culture-bearers carry great weight, often have the surname Andrews. Trumpeter James Andrews 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.

James’s cousin, trombonist Glen David Andrews, who is one of the most naturally gifted musicians in town, had played that same stage two days earlier. He’s got a new band that’s tight in its focus and sharp in attack. Having endured some personal challenges, he’s got a new attitude, best conveyed through original songs that focus on newfound faith. These lyrics would have worked just fine in the gospel tent, and his trombone solos might have satisfied in the jazz tent. He’s another hometown player on the rise, soaking in and letting out more than one tradition.

Troy Andrews, younger brother to James and better known as “Trombone Shorty” (despite the facts that he’s sort of tall and plays trumpet, too) closed the Acura Stage on Jazz Fest’s final evening. It’s an honor usually reserved for the Neville Brothers. But Aaron Neville was performing solo this year, in support of his new Blue Note CD, “My True Story,” and his brothers were performing separately. Even if by default, the honor of such billing wasn’t lost on Shorty. Backstage at the jazz tent the previous day, he reflected a bit on the meaning of such a slot, and the arc that led him there. Even in a city full of precocious young talents, Shorty is unusual. By age 7, he was touring in James’s band; by 9, he led his own group. His Jazz Fest debut came at age 4, in impromptu fashion, when the crowd literally passed him up to the stage during a set by Bo Diddley. “I just blew a few notes, tried not to mess up,” he said. He recalled how his brother James mentored him; how the Nevilles had taken him along on summer tours when he was much younger; and how he and Omari Neville, Cyrille’s son, used to dream about closing Jazz Fest as he was about to do.

“I’m humbled and honored,” he said, “because no accomplishments mean as much as the ones here in my hometown. And what this really shows is that hard work pays off.” Musically, that hard work means the continual refinement of a band that has more or less been together for a third of Andrews’s life (he’s 27).

Onstage, his eyes concealed behind stylish sunglasses, his sinewy frame leaning forward, his feet planted like a boxer’s, his trombone pointed straight ahead, Shorty played crisply articulated lines and, when singing, was as smoothly declarative as any R&B singer. When he switched to trumpet, the notes came brightly, often high and sweet, much like those of a Cuban player today or an early New Orleans jazzman. The big, dense sound of his Orleans Avenue band contains the heft of arena rock, the crunch of heavy metal, the scruffy textures of alternative rock, and the bottom-heavy throb of hip-hop. Running through it all, suggested more by horns than drums, is the insistent, rolling groove of a New Orleans parade. At precise moments during “Hurricane,” a track from his Grammy-nominated 2010 CD “Backatown,” Andrews enticed the crowd to shout “Hey!” For most dancing in the audience, this must seem a typical hands-in-air dance-club impulse. But when I spoke to Andrews about the construction of the song and about that “Hey!” he said he was thinking of that moment — anyone who attends Sunday second-line parades in New Orleans knows it — when the Rebirth Brass Band issues its call and the second-liners respond.

To conclude his set, Shorty waded into a sea of supportive arms, crowd-surfing as he often likes to do. Twenty-three years after that first Jazz Fest experience, he was passed from the stage, not to it, no longer a boy prodigy but a man on the cusp of stardom.