My First Jazz Fest

I was ready to love Jazz Fest when I first pilgrimaged there in 2008

The first music I ever loved was traditional jazz, called Dixieland everywhere but New Orleans, where Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong and other street kids, rebels and inventors devised it from African, European and Caribbean roots.

Then came the jovial bounce of Fats Domino, the fierce glee of Little Richard – I know, he’s from Georgia but made his best records in New Orleans – the zooming accordions of zydeco… I could go on, and I think I have, as guitarist Leo Kottke said once onstage at Troy Music Hall.

Crowd enjoys Kirk Joseph’s four-Sousaphone band at Jazz Fest 2008. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

Jazz Fest would happen right soon in normal time: the last weekend of April and first weekend in May. It’s cancelled this year, like almost every other cultural expression that depends on and rewards gathering. But New Orleans public radio station WWOZ presents a virtual Fest on the air.

Here’s how it hit me, my first time, as I reported in my column:

People said for years that I had to go, and they were right; but they also warned me it’s instantly addictive, and I’m afraid they’re right about that, too. My first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – “Jazz Fest,” as attendees call it, though there’s less jazz than of everything else – was the biggest, best, mellowest music experience I’ve seen since the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Words fail, mostly, by which I mean, here are some snapshots.

Jazz Fest may be the only place on earth where I would leave a perfectly fine – well, up and down, really – Stevie Wonder show to see trumpeter Terence Blanchard lead his jazz band and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in his “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).” Raindrops big as crab cakes fell during Stevie’s set, but a rainbow formed – I swear! – as he sang “Ribbon in the Sky” and the sun shone like Blanchard’s trumpet into the jazz tent as he etched an eloquent message of loss and hope.

The enormous devastation of what people call “the storm” was every bit as overwhelming in the direction of heartbreak and desolation as Jazz Fest is in its exhilaration and sheer fun. 

The only possible complaint about Jazz Fest is there’s too much that’s too good, all at once. Asked on my return if choices arose between two good things at once, I said, “Hell no!” – There are usually about five good things at once on its 12 stages. I saw 26 acts in four days at Jazz Fest including two bands with two sousaphones each, one with three drummers (Jason Marsalis’s mighty Max Roach tribute) and ten groups I’d never heard of, and everything was at least good. There’s no wrong choice among Richard Thompson, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, John Boutte, D.L. Menard & the Louisiana Aces and the Ebenezer Baptist Church Radio Choir, but no easy way to choose, either. How could piano fans choose among keyboard killers Art Neville, Henry Butler, and Ethan Iverson with the Bad Plus, all playing at the same time, while the astounding Trombone Shorty was simultaneously playing perhaps the hottest set of all?

The return to Jazz Fest of the Neville Brothers in their first hometown show since Katrina for the closing set promised and delivered a powerful catharsis of sheer homecoming joy that brought tears to many. Guest Carlos Santana played way looser and wilder with the Nevilles than in his own set preceding them.

Randy Newman provided a compelling Jazz Fest anthem with “Louisiana 1927,” singing it in deep sadness after proclaiming New Orleans “my favorite place on earth.” Others sang it there: Marcia Ball, the great but unknown-outside-the-city John Boutte, and Aaron Neville in his reportedly sky-splitting set in the Gospel Tent. 

Late addition Alejandro Escovedo made the most of his too-early slot after thunderstorms drenched the place, playing fierce and touchingly sweet Texas rock to a sparse crew happily standing slack-jaw-dazzled in puddles before the Accura main stage, one of three stages that accommodate SPAC-sized crowds.

Playing solo, as Newman had on the same big stage, Richard Thompson said he’d represent “the northern European tradition of complex poly-rhythms,” his wryly arched eyebrow visible at 100 yards. His musically straightforward but lyrically dark songs connected surprisingly well in the hot sun.

Discoveries worked both ways: Musical pilgrims from afar were knocked out by Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove or the Melody Clouds – New Orleans acts that don’t play out of town – and it was fun to see New Orleanians get hip to Thompson or to the Oakland funk of Tower of Power, both in their Jazz Fest debuts.

The 1960s era soul singer Bettye LaVette just tore up the Jazz Tent, singing great at 62 and reveling in a comeback she is working hard to earn. Fans fanned out in rapt, dense deltas outside the doors of the mobbed Gospel Tent during a tribute to Mahalia Jackson by Irma Thomas, Marva Wright and Raychell Richard.

 The food at Jazz Fest is famous as the music, and the T-shirts and other fashions are cheerfully outrageous. Best Fest foods I found were a giant Cajun duck po’boy and a steaming bowl of crawfish etouffe. Best T-shirts: “Boudreaux’s Butt Paste” (for diaper rash and other afflictions of one’s nether parts), “Bowling for Concubines,” and one promoting a beer: “Polygamy Porter: Why Stop at Just One?” A woman in a barely-there black bikini, cowboy hat and white rubber shrimp-boat boots to mid-calf walked arm in arm with a guy in a white suit, starched shirt and tie, pants rolled to his knees and red alligator shoes tied around his neck, both trudging happily through ankle-deep mud with drinks in hand.

For many, Jazz Fest is just the beginning. There’s dinner, and a throbbing club scene. Waiting for a table in the great cajun restaurant Cochon on Tchoupitoulas Street, my two fellow musical pilgrims (Jazz Fest vets since 1995) and I spotted Diana Krall and her band at the neighboring stand-up cocktail table. Actor John C. Reilly bumped into me in the Jazz Tent without spilling his beer or mine.

At Mid-City Lanes, the famous Rock & Bowl (you’ve seen the shirts) offers 24 lanes, on-the-spot embroidery of your bowling shirt and, the night we went there, four zydeco bands playing at 10 p.m., midnight, 2 and 4 a.m. The next night at Southport Hall, a J.B. Scotts-like place tucked against a levee, the subdudes welcomed a parade of old friends to the stage. And the next night, pianist Jon Cleary jammed the Maple Leaf so full that, standing just 20 feet away, the only person I could actually see onstage was the huge guitar player Derwin “Big D” Perkins. Next door, Jacques Ymo’s restaurant was still serving at 1 a.m. An ancient pickup parked in the street and on the sidewalk was part of the restaurant: In its bed sat a couple delighted with the choicest table in town.

The only night I got to bed before 1 a.m. was before a 7 a.m. flight home when the airport was full of hung-over, sunburned, sometimes still muddy but really happy people. 

The deepest funk experience of a supremely funky four days was a visit to Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. (Check Neil Strauss’s NY Times story “All Dolled Up in His Lounge and Shrine.”) K-Doe parlayed his 1961 No. 1 hit “Mother-In-Law” into this cozy two-room tavern, with an apartment upstairs where his widow Antoinette K-Doe lives. In the corner of the bar lounges what Antoinette calls “the statue:” a manikin that uncannily resembles the late singer, dressed on the day we visited in a garish red suit, rhinestone shoes and meticulously tended wig. Warmly hospitable, Antoinette spoke of her late husband as if he were still alive, explaining that his caretaker changed his clothes “when he needed that” – for public appearances. She often takes “the statue” around, in a hearse, to her cooking demonstrations, and to Jazz Fest. 

See, people go to Jazz Fest, at least in effigy, even after they’re dead.

Daily Gazette May 16, 2008

Re-reading this now, during the Big Ugly, reminds me of how Jazz Fest ALWAYS delivers a miraculous experience on your first visit – a peak of surprise fun that is addictive as any drug and brings you back again and again.

Randy Newman sings “Louisiana 1927” at Jazz Fest 2008. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

That’s also why Fest veterans love bringing newbies: to be nearby when that novice Fest-goer gets that miracle.

Mine came in that visit to the Mother-In-Law Lounge in the Treme. We were driving by when Mike* shouted, “Look, SHE’s out there!” Dennis* hit the brakes, gliding to the curb before the scabby lawn alongside the Lounge where Antoinette K-Doe and her sister sat at a picnic table sister snapping beans into a big bowl. Nobody was a stranger to Antoinette who immediately invited us to the dinner she was preparing. She told us she’d also invited Dr. John but he was still up in the air. Literal-linear me, I thought this meant his flight from New York hadn’t landed yet. 

She took us inside the Lounge and showed us around, mixing reverence with a matter of fact directness as she brought us to “the statue” – the garish enduring representation of her late husband. Unmoving but not inert, it radiated a presence, a power – conferred and preserved by her devotion to him. Not it, him. She spoke of “the storm, which many surivors won’t, recounting how she hid in the dark, sweltering second floor of the bar, announcing to intruders she heard below that she had a shotgun and would come down and use it. They left. As we left, Mike shook hands with Antoinette. Spotting the sneaky-subtle way he pressed a bill into her palm, folded small, considerately discreet, I wish I’d been as alert to the opportunity to help.

Antoinette’s lesson in the persistence of devotion, through anything, and the permanence of powerful personalities, was worth more than I could ever have paid. Her love had outlived him; just as the Mother In Law Lounge out-lived her. She died of a heart attack, in the Lounge, on Lundi Gras, 2009 – the year after Mike and Dennis and I met her there.

Ernie K-Doe didn’t write “Mother In Law” about Antoinette’s mom. He also liked his first mother-in-law, by all accounts. Antoinette rescued him from living on the streets and helped him buy and run the bar. Get famous in New Orleans, and you stay famous.

We didn’t go back to Antoinette’s dinner that night, just as we didn’t board the converted schoolbus to infinity – “Interstellar Transmission” painted on the side – that roared past us on Esplanade Avenue. It carried a band and fans; happy young black men making music inside, bringing the funk as they rocked the bus, the whole block, as they passed. They waved to us on the sidewalk, inviting us in. The rear emergency exit of the bus was gone and we could see the drummer, just inside, sweat gleaming in the streetlights’ glow as they roared past Buffa’s Lounge, bound for outer space. Mike Gondek and Dennis Bidwell are my Jazz Fest guides, inviting me along on my first (2008) expedition there via Nashville and Houston, then on four returns thereafter. I owe them VERY big. Regulars since 1995, they’d attended the first resumption Jazz Fest after “the storm,” when Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band folk-rocked musical messages of defiant, resilient resolve, on April 30, 2006.

We’ll see what Dennis has to say about the “interstellar Transmission” in an upcoming post.

2 thoughts on “My First Jazz Fest

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