New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – Born on the Bayou

[25 May 2009]

By Anderson Heston

Editor’s note: Also check out PopMatters’ coverage of this year’s Festival International de Louisiane.

The first thing that must be stated about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is its size. Seven days over the course of two weekends, 14 stages and tents, and about 400,000 people. There are around 500 performances, demonstrations, and interviews listed on the schedule. Jazz Fest is second only to Mardi Gras as New Orleans’ major tourist draw.

The next thing that must be considered is its history: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was founded in 1970; only the Newport Jazz Festival has been around longer, and both were founded by the same guy (George Wein). Moreover, since its inception, Jazz Fest, as it also commonly known, has had a cultural agenda. From the Jazz Fest website: “The Festival celebrates the indigenous music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, so the music encompasses every style associated with the city and the state: blues, R&B, gospel music, Cajun music, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, folk music, Latin, rock, rap music, country music, bluegrass, and everything in between. And of course there is lots of jazz, both contemporary and traditional.”

One hesitates to take the Jazz Fest organizers to task for their degree of faithfulness to their organization’s mission statement, but still: How do James Taylor, Bon Jovi, and the Dave Matthews Band have anything to do with “the indigenous music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana?” Moreover, the program effectively ignores some of New Orleans’ more recent musical traditions: The infectious local party-rap style known as bounce, for example, is as New Orleans as Louis Armstrong, and yet has no place at Jazz Fest. New Orleans also harbors a fairly healthy metal scene. Jazz Fest doesn’t offer even a cursory acknowledgement of that scene’s existence. How hard would it have been to toss an early time slot to a bounce or metal act, just for show?

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival does represent some aspects of New Orleans and Louisiana heritage; namely, the most profitable ones. Jazz Fest is an expensive festival; tickets are $50 at the door, and most meals are about $10. Needless to say, a good many people are priced out, and the lineup reflects the musical sensibilities of those who can afford tickets; without getting too deep into demographics, your average Tony Bennett lover, for instance, is probably much more likely to splurge for a Jazz Fest ticket than your average bounce or metal fan. Thus, the crowd skews older, and far whiter, than the city itself. At Jazz Fest, I saw my first pair of Tevas in recent memory, and one is rarely more than an arm’s length from a festivalgoer wearing a Hawaiian shirt and/or a wide-brimmed straw hat. The whole thing is over by dusk.

I must confess: I found Jazz Fest kind of lame. For instance, every day of the festival featured a number of performances by Mardi Gras Indians, a New Orleans tradition that is mind-bogglingly unique and wild and wonderful. Every Mardi Gras day, the Mardi Gras Indians take to the streets of New Orleans. Each one represents a different local African-American neighborhood society, and each is dressed in a costume heavy with sequins and baubles and a dazzling riot of feathers. Once appropriately attired, the Indians parade through their neighborhoods on Mardi Gras day in search of worthy adversaries, and when battle is eventually joined at some fateful street corner, all the boasting and jibing, the dozens and the talk of flagboys and loving machines and drinking panther blood… well, it is something to see, in any case.

To a purist, though, the Mardi Gras Indians march only on Mardi Gras day. They leave early in the morning, and they do their marching in some of New Orleans’ roughest neighborhoods. Unless you live in or near one of these neighborhoods (as, I hazard, most Tony Bennett fans do not), it’s not particularly easy or convenient to go see the Mardi Gras Indians on Mardi Gras day. Jazz Fest is a much more expensive way to hear the Indians’ song, but assuming you can afford the ticket, it sure is more convenient. The Indians look and sound great on stage at Jazz Fest, and one can’t deny the distinctiveness of this centuries-old tradition. Still, to put Mardi Gras Indians on stage for a bunch of middle-aged white guys in Hawaiian shirts seems somewhat inauthentic, and, for lack of better words, kind of lame.

The whole festival isn’t much different: So much talent and so much character on display, but still, it’s kind of disappointing, not for what is there, but for what isn’t. All the artists are “safe”: Even the left-of-center acts like Erykah Badu, Spoon, and Wilco seem like “cool dad” music (average age of Badu, Jeff Tweedy, and Britt Daniel: 39). Or consider Friday’s headliner, Joe Cocker: “Feelin’ Alright” is undeniably, inarguably, stone-cold funky, and Cocker’s “With a Little Help from My Friends” is probably one of the better Beatles covers out there. I was excited to see Joe Cocker, and he wasn’t bad. Still, the greater part of the crowd, having spent most of the day sprawled out on blankets half-listening to whomever happened to be on the Acura Stage, found it hard to muster much enthusiasm. No slight to Mr. Cocker, I didn’t muster much enthusiasm either.

Bruce Daigrepont

Bruce Daigrepont

The next day started off on a more energetic note, with Bruce Daigrepont performing at the Fais Do-Do stage. “Fais Do Do” is an old Cajun term for a dance party; the term apparently comes from the command young mothers would give their babies to “go to sleep” (according to Edwin Duhon of the Hackberry Ramblers: “she’d want that baby to go to sleep fast, ‘cause she’s worrying about her husband dancing with somebody else out there.”) Daigrepont himself is as Cajun as Cajun gets; growing up, his parents spoke only French to each other. Daigrepont plays a spirited accordion, and his band can get even the most reluctant dancers on their feet; I’ve seen him on a number of occasions at Tipitina’s, the local club where he plays every Sunday evening, and for the few hours he’s onstage the dance floor is positively whirling. Cajun music is a rare treasure, and it is a testament to the syncretistic nature of the state of Louisiana that a music blending French lyrics, blues chord changes, and an instrument seen most often in the hands of polka players and Venetian gondoliers, is still somehow quintessentially American folk music. I suppose Daigrepont qualifies as a conservator of this tradition, but the term doesn’t quite fit; his music is much too lively to feel like Cajun music is in danger of disappearing.

Representing a soberer strain of American folk music, Pete Seeger took to the Jazz Fest stage on his 90th birthday. Seeger, wizened and rail-thin, looks like he’s spent the century in a boxcar, and together with his grandson Tao and Tao’s band the Mammals, he ran through “Midnight Special”, “This Land Is Your Land”, and other numbers of comparable vintage. The performances were hardly revelatory, and Seeger’s age has slowed him down considerably. Still, these were old songs when Seeger learned them, and that was roughly three-quarters-of-a-century ago (he performed for Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941, for instance). What with the economy in shambles and the two wars and all, these songs about coal miners and wartime brides seem as relevant as ever. It’s frustrating to hear in these stories of sufferings old and new how little we’ve learned from our history, just as it’s comforting to know that however dark our present predicament may be, the republic has already survived far darker times. Seeger has lived through and sung about the better part of the American century, and if a human being can rightly be called a national treasure, I’m hard pressed to think of anyone more deserving of the honor.

One could easily forget that Wilco started off putting a punky spin on the same Depression-era tropes Seeger helped introduce into popular music. Wilco, however, left its No Depression peers behind long ago, and while Son Volt and the Old 97s continue to release middling retreads of former glories, Wilco has become one of the more relevant contemporary American rock bands. Granted, they’ll probably never be as popular as they were in the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot days, but Wilco’s move from college-rock hopefuls to arena-filling superstars puts them on equal footing with the likes of Coldplay, Modest Mouse, even R.E.M. As Wilco’s audience has gotten bigger, so has the band’s sound; what with all the proggy breakdowns, the harmonized guitars, and the generally sustained aura of bombast (to say nothing of the lineup changes), the Wilco of today is a far cry from the earnest youngsters of A.M. and Being There. There have been missteps along the way: Sky Blue Sky was full of them. Still, after Wilco’s set at Jazz Fest, I am glad they got tired of alt-country-by-numbers, and even non-album-centerpiece tracks like “Handshake Drugs” and “Company in My Back” become positively thrilling live. In a nod to earlier days, Wilco closed with “Casino Queen” and “Outta Mind (Outta Sight)”, songs they’ve been playing for over a decade, and will hopefully be playing for a decade to come.

At any given moment there’s a lot of different things going on at Jazz Fest. In the first hour of the festival’s last day, for instance, I watched the Crocodile Gumboot Dancers of South Africa dance to a hypnotic Afro-Celtic reel, listened to local bluesman St. Louis Red howl and scrape through Robert Johnson and Willie Brown songs, and looked on as Mac Rebennack, Jr., better known as Dr. John, regaled the Alison Miner Music Heritage Stage audience with stories of Snooks Eaglin and Ernie K. Doe, two of New Orleans’ many bygone musical luminaries. Then there was the Ladies of Unity Social Aid and Pleasure Club, an all-female second line group normally contracted to march at funerals, swinging their umbrellas while the New Orleans Jazz Ramblers played “Down by the Riverside”. Allen Toussaint was dapper in his white suit, and he introduced his flautist as “…all the way from the seventh ward” before singing a song about how anywhere he goes, “there’s a bit of Tipitina” and that “it’s a New Orleans thing, y’all.” It all begs the question: Where else on earth could this happen?

Which is all to say nothing of the incredible food, which is as much a part of the festival as the music. Over the course of the festival, I sampled crawfish enchiladas, crab-and-crawfish stuffed mushrooms, a barbecue shrimp po-boy, shrimp maquechoux (a spicy shrimp-and-corn dish supposedly of Native American origin), crawfish beignets, a crabmeat po-boy, something best described as an oyster pot pie, a mess of fried onion and alligator, and the legendary cochon de lait po-boy, otherwise known as the ne plus ultra of pork. Not everything was amazing, but nothing was bad.
Earlier, I called Jazz Fest “kind of lame”, and I stand by that assessment. Still, by the second weekend, my perspective had changed somewhat. There were just as many white guys in Hawaiian shirts, to be sure, and the booking was as conservative as ever. After a week of thinking through my complaints with Jazz Fest, though, I started to wonder: If not for these white guys in their Hawaiian shirts, and the whole “selling black culture to white audiences” that Jazz Fest had come to represent for me, would I have ever been able to see the Mardi Gras Indians? If nothing else, these white guys in Hawaiian shirts have money, and for a cultural tradition to survive, it helps for it to make money. I still believe that seeing the Mardi Gras Indians in the sanitized, pre-packaged format of Jazz Fest isn’t the same as seeing them on Mardi Gras day. That said, if this helps the social aids and pleasure clubs to finance next year’s parade, I’m all in. Yes, it’s a little inauthentic to take a raw and unpolished cultural phenomenon and turn it into a commodity, and to think in terms of revenue rather than the repayment of some sort of mythic debt to one’s ancestors. We all have bills, though.

Enough cultural theorizing; Jazz Fest is a music festival, which brings me to the best music of the festival. Neil Young has been around long enough to know what he’s doing onstage, and his was undoubtedly the hardest-rocking performance of the festival. The man has a nearly endless supply of big hits to play, but his lesser known numbers are just as powerful; for instance, “Change Your Mind”, from 1994’s Sleeps with Angels, is just as good a song as any of Young’s ‘70s hits. Throughout his set, Young’s reedy voice cut through the thunderous roar of open-string guitar chords, and the band sprawled out into extended versions of “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Hey Hey My My (Into the Black)”. From the latter, Young singing “Rock and roll will never die” might have been the most powerful moment of the weekend, and the darkening skies and looming thunderstorm only lent the moment further gravity. By the time said thunderstorm did come (another Jazz Fest tradition), the festival was just about over, and, soaked and exhausted, the staggering crowds headed home to talk it all over, and to wait for next year.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/new-orleans-jazz-heritage-festival-born-on-the-bayou/