Jazz Fest comes in so many forms. That first taste of a warm Soft Shell Crab Po'boy. The sound of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux weaving the Band of Gypsys' "Who Knows" with Papa Mali on the second Friday afternoon. Rejoicing with the Coolie Family Gospel Singers in the Gospel Tent. Seeing that friend from New York who you haven't seen in years. Catching up with your boy from Lafayette. The old lady who almost had me crying as she spoke of "Before Katrina." The cabbie who shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and thanked me. Astral Project (once again the best music I heard all weekend) transcending in the Jazz Tent. Laughing at god knows what well past sunrise in front of Le Bon Temps Roule in what must have been a dream Townes Van Zandt had while huffing plane glue. It's all Jazz Fest.
| Big Chief Monk Boudreaux|
Jazz Fest 2006 by Zack Smith
But this year was different, special, sad, and totally beautiful. For years, no-decades, we have taken New Orleans for granted. Perhaps not "for granted," but when viewed against just how special New Orleans is, the Crescent City has never been fully appreciated. It is an easy argument to claim New Orleans as America's most important city. It is the birthplace of what will forever be known as America's most significant contribution to the World of Art: Jazz. Yet our government doesn't give a fuck. I'm sorry to be so crass, but there are only so many ways to describe the atrocity that is occurring in the heart of America's most precious gem. In the Ninth Ward, where the levees broke, it looks like Katrina hit a few days ago. It's been eight months - EIGHT MONTHS! - and there is almost nothing being done to rebuild the homes of the city's residents. Like the t-shirts and stickers and signs I kept seeing, "MAKE LEVEES NOT WAR," or the one with a little more bite, "Fuck Fallujah, Rebuild New Orleans," the people are pissed, and you should be too. And this, this is why the 2006 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was so important. After a history of taking from New Orleans - taking culture, taking music, taking Le Bon Temps (good times), taking the flavor, the food, the life, the love, we NEEDED to give back. We needed to spend our hard-earned money there, and heck, even tip a bit more than normal. We needed to let our friend know just how much we love her. We needed to celebrate New Orleans!
If you've ever witnessed a New Orleans Jazz Funeral, you know it's something special. They don't mourn like Northerners or West Coast folks; they take to the street with horns and drums, drinks, and hats. Instead of sinking low and letting sorrow take control, they raise their spirits and celebrate the simple fact that today, while others have passed, I am alive! You will see widows crying as they sing and children dancing while they watch the casket go by. As I walked the streets of New Orleans late at night on my way to Tips for Gomez, or en route to a rare showing of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's Superwolf (which was astounding), this notion of the New Orleans Jazz Funeral kept coming to mind. As I tried to decipher the spray-painted markings on homes to indicate if the house had been checked for bodies (live or dead) or when I lost my breath looking at the water line six feet high on dilapidated abodes or when I drove past the Super Dome and remembered the war zone it had been, it would have been easy to fall victim to sadness; but instead, like the people who have made New Orleans, New Orleans, I raised a glass, picked up my head, and danced.
| Kirk Joseph :: Jazz Fest 2006 by Zack Smith|
And I was not the only one. While exact numbers are hard to come by, it was clear that music lovers the world over heeded the call and flocked to New Orleans. 4,000 artists performed on ten stages over the two-weekend event. With headlining acts like Bruce Springsteen, Dr. John, and Dave Matthews on the first weekend and Lionel Richie, Paul Simon (playing with Buckwheat Zydeco and Irma Thomas), and Fats Domino (who fell ill and couldn't perform, but did make an appearance to say "Hello") on the second, the organizers of Jazz Fest did their part. Quint Davis, the head man at Jazz Fest, believes that when the numbers are tallied, they should match or exceed the festival's biggest turnouts. For a city that questioned if it would be logistically possible, or even appropriate, to hold the Jazz & Heritage Festival, the fact that so many artists and so many fans came to New Orleans is an incredibly positive sign. If New Orleans needs anything it needs her musicians to come back. It needs tourism to come back. It needs to be treated like the irreplaceable heart and soul of America that she most certainly is.
| Bruce Springsteen :: Jazz Fest 2006 by Michael Weintrob|
Sitting in the Jazz Tent during the last performance of the 2006 Jazz & Heritage festival I found myself with a tear rising in the corner of my eye. The crowd was older, in their fifties and sixties, predominantly black, and having the time of their life. I thought about the music fans I meet in other places, the older ones (for the most part) don't dance. You couldn't have contained this group of celebrants in the Jazz Tent, and I once again realized this is New Orleans. This is Jazz Fest.
| Ivan Neville :: Jazz Fest 2006 by Adam McCullough|
As the music of nine horns soared, I found myself playing a sort of modified hide-and-seek with this little guy who looked to be about eight years old. He was there with mom and dad and his little sister who couldn't stop dancing. As a rousing rendition of "When The Saints Go Marching In" closed down the final day of the Jazz Tent, my new friend had a drinking straw in his mouth and was playing the horn lines, in time! As he would blow a note, I'd reciprocate, and I was again reminded, THIS is Jazz Fest. Children, families, strangers - all of us being filled with the music of New Orleans. It's the music that makes the community and the community that makes the music; and it's this relationship that makes the Crescent City so incredibly special. You just can't get this anywhere else in the world.
Bruce Springsteen's latest release, We Shall Overcome, was on display at Jazz Fest. Many feel it was the pinnacle moment of the weekend, perhaps the year. While the physical state of New Orleans and her future are still in question, her soul and her ability to rise up, to overcome, has once again been answered. The city was built on the sweat and tears of slavery. New Orleans has long been the forgotten city. Drained by corruption and a blind eye, she suffers some of the most severe poverty in our nation, but it's these circumstances that have forged the sound of jazz. The music, the food, and the culture of New Orleans has grown out of these hardships. You can not have one without other. The pain is the glory. The poverty is the sound. The sadness is the transcendence. If New Orleans can thrive and use her history to create jazz, she can and will rise from the destruction of Katrina. Just like the Jazz Funeral that finds folks singing and dancing, We Shall Overcome.
Jazz Fest 2006 by Zack Smith
For a great read and the source of inspiration for much of this article, please check out Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza.
For more on New Orleans by Kayceman, check out his extensive conversation with Dr. John at Harp.
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