Notes from Atlantis

Random Thoughts from the Crescent City

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Notes from Atlantis 21

Dear Folks,

Alright, for those of you who are keeping score...another milestone has just been passed, with some last-minute drama and a truly glorious finale. I’m talking about Jazz Fest 2006.

Your humble correspondent attended every day, and can truly claim to have experienced every possible human emotion over the course of that ten-day period, from boredom (watching Paul Simon) to rage (at people who speak AT THE TOP OF THEIR LUNGS in a public performance space ON CELLPHONES, NO LESS!!!) to surprise (who knew Bruce Springsteen could blow me away?) to pity to anguish to a shattering amount of joy.

Oh, and did I also mention those two much-underrated deadly sins, Gluttony and Pride? Because you can also eat some of the best FOOD imaginable at Jazz Fest. And pride? Well, what can I say? This city just keeps amazing me.

First of all, a little explanation. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know what Jazz Fest is? This year marked the thirty-seventh anniversary of what started out as a small festival in Armstrong Park, celebrating the jazz and heritage of New Orleans. And like Topsy and Ishmael Reed’s virus, it Jes’ Grew. And grew. And GREW.

By 2005, Jazz Fest was a sprawling, multi-million-dollar-a-year event that took over the Fairgrounds (a.k.a. the racetrack) for two weekends every late April and early May, replete with star acts, local discoveries, frat boys, gallons of beer, rivalries, clashes of temperament, girls in skimpy tops, local “characters”, love, sex, drugs (although they always pretended to search everyone’s backpacks) and music from rock ‘n roll to zydeco to cakewalks, Ornette Coleman to Dave Matthews.

In other words, a yearly landmark. A regular event. You marked your calendar. And like so much else in New Orleans, you assumed it would always be there. You could, in fact, take it or leave it.

Well, not anymore.

Since “The Thing”, NOTHING is taken for granted here anymore. And Jazz Fest was in jeopardy, make no mistake. Drowned by the flood waters and ripped to pieces by the storm, the Fairgrounds itself was a shambles after Katrina. The neighborhood, the lower arm of Gentilly and the upper reaches of Esplanade Ridge, still hasn’t recovered, and five minutes away on St. Bernard Avenue, the city still looks like a ghost-town.

So there was the whole question of could they put on a festival or anything else? And would there be enough money to pay for it? Would name acts come (because, although people carp every year that the festival’s supposed to be about local talent, it’s the big acts that are the biggest draw)? Would there be an audience? And could the city handle the strain? In late 2005, all these questions and more were debated. And one thing was fairly certain: if there WASN’T a Jazz Fest in 2006, it would be a pretty clear indication the city really WAS on the ropes.

And then...something wonderful happened. Big name acts started signing up to play, and all I can say is, God bless them every one. Even Paul Simon. After all, he may not be my cup of tea, but he can certainly sell tickets by the truck-load, and that’s what was needed. By the beginning of this year, there were enough celebrities on board (Springsteen, Simon, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Herbie Hancock, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Buffett) that a good crowd began to be a real possibility. The festival organizers (including our pal Bob Edmundson) worked tirelessly and called in favors and who knows, may have even made contractors offers they couldn’t refuse...but somehow the Fairgrounds were reclaimed and looked completely back to normal by the time the gates opened on April 28.

And the audience? Well, they came. They came in droves. They came by the car-load and the bus-load and the plane-load. And they stayed and celebrated like nobody’s business.

Let me put it this way--when Bill and I arrived that first Friday afternoon, we walked in next to the Acura Stage and were faced with a sea of people...I mean wall-to-wall, you couldn’t have fit one more person in with a shoe-horn. At every stage it was the same story. And every day only brought more attendees...people who love this city, people who love the music, people who were so happy to be here the atmosphere was truly extraordinary. People came from all over, and they stayed in the city’s hotels, and they ate in the city’s restaurants, and they spent money, and they cheered and danced and bought fried oyster po’boys and art and jewelry and t-shirts, and we (and they) loved every minute of it. It was a festival, yes, but it was also something more... somewhere between an enormous family reunion and a religious revival. It was indeed something.

And when the performers called out to us, one after another, to tell us how much they loved New Orleans and how glad they were to be back, we all cheered our thanks, and even the sky seemed to echo.

So, in answer to the question everyone asks everyone every day, who did we see?

Well...we saw Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes and the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra (performing an expanded repertoire...apparently they’ve had time for rehearsals, along with double-rotations as some of New Orleans’ leading doctors). We caught Bob Dylan and Dr. John. The one...well, he now sounds like he’s singing through a tracheotomy, but he had a great band and is a great poet, so the music was wonderful. The other...well, it was pretty much the same thing! We saw Eddie Bo channeling the spirits of Professor Longhair and Ray Charles...Allen Toussaint playing with Elvis Costello... Buckwheat Zydeco...the original Meters (who took time out from their set to accuse Allen Toussaint of stealing all their money!)...the Radiators...Jimmy Buffett (yes, friends, I actually sat through a whole set of Jimmy Buffett...what can I say, he’s a homeboy)...Sam Moore (of Sam and Dave fame)...Irma Thomas...the Pfister Sisters and the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars.

Highlights included Etta James (slimmed down and sexier than ever), Ivan Neville (cleaned up and funkier than ever) and Evan Christopher and Tom McDermott, on clarinet and piano, performing everything from 19th century Gottschaulk waltzes to modern Latin-influenced Creole jazz. And then there was Hugh Masekela, singing about the train that carries young African men to life (and death) in the South African mines. A scream of beautiful agony, accompanied by trumpet solos. And Bruce Springsteen, gone acoustic with his new Seeger Sessions Band, blending great rock n’ roll with classic protest songs to sing of anger, oppression, suffering and political ineptitude (a timely reminder these days).

It was magnificent...sweet...happy...and deeply human. A magnificent stew (yes, a gumbo) of the old and the young, the frail and the robust, every race, every skin color (from sunburned redneck to deepest black) and every variety of body...from those who gladden the eye to those who really, in another context, should think twice before baring that much skin.

And then at the end...drama. And a triumphant climax.

Here’s what happened. Towards the end of Paul Simon’s set, the rumors started buzzing...Fats Domino, who was supposed to close out the festival at the biggest stage, wasn’t going to play. He was in the hospital. This is the man, remember, who came out of the hell of the Lower Ninth Ward last October, when everyone had thought him dead. Some people in the crowd thought he might be dead NOW. It was a potentially crushing blow to the festival...especially when you add in a second closing performer, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who we found out later had also had to cancel.

But New Orleanians are a resourceful bunch, and the show had to go on. With slightly more than three hours’ notice (the final word on Fats came down after two, and he was supposed to start at five-fifty), Lionel Richie was switched over from the second-largest stage to the biggest one (this involved the transfer of a tremendous amount of gear...believe me, Bill and I have been involved in enough music shows to know). Sam Moore was told to go long at the secondary stage...he ended up playing for more than three hours, belting out “Soul Man” to a delighted crowd. A thrown together band of New Orleans’ greatest brass musicians was pulled together literally without a rehearsal, and laid down some of the most amazing jazz I’ve ever heard in Mr. Payton’s absence (by the time they wound things up with “When The Saints Go Marching In” there were something like fifteen musicians onstage, and yours truly was scarcely the only person in the audience awash with tears).

It was inspiring.

It was improvised.

It was beautiful.

And everybody loved it.

Fats even came out onstage (no, he’s not dead) and apologized to the crowd for being taken ill, and the audience predictably went wild.

I truly don’t think there’s another place on earth that could have pulled off what was done in the last three hours of Jazz Fest 2006, and like all great art, made it look easy.

I wish you all could have been here. I wish the whole world could have seen what we saw. I strongly recommend you make your reservations now for Jazz Fest 2007!

With much love,



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