Dancing in the Face of Adversity: The New Orleans JazzFest After Katrina

Jason Gross

Our reporter covers the first week of JazzFest and partying to those great NOLA tunes within a national disaster zone.

T-shirt logos are always a good barometer of pop culture. Other than the usual ones about exaggerated sexual prowess or drinking habits, the most popular slogans at the tourist shops in New Orleans's French Quarter were "Willie Nagin and the Chocolate Factory", "Katrina that bitch" and "FEMA: Federal Employee Missing Again".

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
watch live videos from JazzFest MSN Music
visual tour of New Orleans MSN Music

Even the most optimistic New Orleans resident will still tell you that it's going to be years before the city is healed from the destructive effects of the 2005 hurricane. While donations have poured in, half of the city still has not returned, and many residents are likely never to come back. Some estimates are that hundreds of people are still missing and less than half of the restaurants and other businesses have reopened. Flights to and from the city have been cut back, and rebuilding costs for many damaged houses will be too high for their owners.

Even before Mayor Ray Nagin made his comment about how New Orleans was going to become a "chocolate city" (thank you, George Clinton) post-Katrina, there was already a history of racial tension and divide in the city that only became more evident after the storm hit. Though many commentators claimed a class divide was exposed, the shameful footage of refugees begging for help made it clear which race was disproportionately affected. And despite Nagin's prediction, many community groups are worried that greedy developers will take advantage of the housing problem to turn the city into a Vegas strip mall.

But all of that might be moot since the worst might be yet to come. Meteorologists say weather patterns in the next few years are going to get more and more severe -- that means we'll see more storms and they'll be even deadlier. For a city like New Orleans, the prospects are frightening. The levies are not going to be fully rebuilt in time for the next hurricane season, and it's possible that something even worse than Katrina could hit the area soon.

Food stands at JazzFest.
Photo: Jason Gross

As such, what's the best thing an outsider can do for the city? Charity donations are definitely a good way to help, but what about visiting? At first locals questioned whether Mardi Gras should happen this year. Residents were divided about whether it was appropriate. Detractors said it was no time to have a big celebrations while the city was so damaged and still in such pain, but boosters believed the city needed the celebration not just for morale but also for the influx of tourist dollars it would bring. The boosters won out, but rest assured that it was more for finances than morale, even if the celebration would bring nowhere near the money that the city so desperately needs.

Similar arguments and questions came up over the 37th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Would they be able to do it? Was this the right time to do it? Though they initially thought to have the show out of state, impresario Quint Davis managed to keep it in New Orleans, eight months after Katrina ravaged the city. So far, the first of two weekends (April 28-30) has come and gone without major hitches, and the next batch of shows are coming up this weekend. Under normal circumstances, it's a monumental task to pull off a festival of this size; it's even more impressive when it's done in the wake of a horrific storm: Some 40 to 50 bands appear each day during the 11:00 A.M. to 7:00 P.M. schedule. But as well as it went that first weekend, the effects of Katrina were still everywhere.

You saw it even before you arrived at the Fest. Taking a shuttle bus to the Fairground (normally a racetrack) where the Fest is held, you see the striking differences. Once outside the French Quarter, you see fewer and fewer of the pastel-colored houses with balconies lined with plants and intricate iron gates -- that's because the Quarter is on higher ground and thus was spared most of the destruction. As you travel nearer to the Fairground, you see demolished homes, boarded-up businesses, abandoned cars, debris piles and the occasional FEMA worker. More eerie were the houses with "TFW" written on the front along with two sets of numbers. It turned out that this meant "toxic floodwater", and the numbers were the date that the house had been searched and how many bodies had been found there. For real disaster buffs, some tour companies actually offer "Katrina tours" that take you through hard hit sections, though supposedly not the Ninth Ward, which saw the worst damage -- maybe it seemed too much like the Sex Pistols line about "a cheap holiday in other peoples' misery" come true.

Dilapidated home on the outskirts of the JazzFest Fairgrounds.
Photo: Jason Gross

Once you arrive at the racetrack, everything looked as it should for a music fest, save for a dilapidated house on the outskirts. After you wait in a long line for bag searches, you enter the fairground area, which sprawls out ahead of you with 10 stages set up, alongside stalls with crafts and paintings, and dozens of merch booths hawking CDs, T-shirts and such. The booth selling JazzFest posters had the longest lines. Food was everywhere, so you could have a good sampling of the renowned local cuisine: all manner of crawfish (crawfish bread, crawfish étouffee, crawfish rice, crawfish sushi, crawfish cakes, crawfish monica), po' boy sandwiches (the New Orleans version of a hoagie), gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice along with strawberry lemonade to wash it down and pralines, snowballs and mango freezes to top it off.

With unusually large crowds this year showing support for the city, you'd need the race-horse speed the track normally caters to if you wanted to make it around the huge Fest quick enough to catch acts on each stage. Like SXSW, most bands played within walking distance of each other, tempting fans to hike around breathlessly each day to feast on as much of the musical smorgasbord as they could. Though it was a good mix of male and female, the Fest crowd was overwhelmingly segregated -- it seemed as though the only blacks in attendance were either on the stage or on the staff.

At first you had to wonder if the performance tents at the southern edge of the track attracted packed houses because of the shade they provided from the heat. But soon you saw that something more was going on. Though much smaller than the outside music stages, the tents were still packed with enthusiastic audiences. Just like The Village Voice's Pazz and Jop poll, the name Jazz and Heritage is something of a misnomer, as most of the jazz is relegated to two of the 10 music areas. But these areas provided some of the wildest music, from the wailing Dukes of Dixieland to the raucous big band of the Loyola University Jazz Ensemble. (Yes, a bunch of teenagers howling away.) Not surprisingly, many of these performances garnered a spontaneous row of second-line dancers bouncing around the tent perimeter.

Photo: Jason Gross

But the most compelling, consistent and joyous music was heard in the gospel tent, usually in the form of large choirs. Just as you'd be blown away by one act, an even better one would be on next. While Shades of Praise was as appropriately uplifting as you'd hope, Reverend Charles Jackson and the Jackson Travelers testified and then some. But the place was brought down by the Providence Baptist Church Choir, who unleashed absolutely raw soul. You had the feeling that if you spent the whole day there getting the spirit -- even if you were a heathen -- you wouldn't have seen a bad act.

The local R&B legends were in effect too, though one of the consequences of Katrina was that many musicians were scattered around the country and couldn't make it back for the Fest -- most notably the Neville Brothers. Confined to a wheelchair and preparing to retire next month, Clarence "Frogman" Henry still had enough enthusiasm and voice to make his oldies like "(I Don't Know Why) But I Do" and the now poignant "I Ain't Got No Home" come alive again. And while Snooks Eaglin bends a mean guitar string, he's a little lacking in presence as a bandleader. Singer-pianist Eddie Bo didn't have any such problems, unleashing a lively set of New Orleans R&B standards. Probably the best known of the local heroes, Dr. John (taking the unenviable spot after Dylan), made like the walking encyclopedia of NOLA music that he is and featured a band made up of Ninth Ward refugees.

C.J. Chenier.
Photo: Jason Gross

Zydeco, another Louisiana homegrown style, also had a good contingent to represent itself. While Terrance Simien had a good set marred by a cheesy synth standing in for the more traditional accordion, Beausoleil proved what a good showman fiddler Michael Doucet is, and C.J. Chenier had the spirit of his daddy, pioneer Clifton Chenier, showing how well he can belt out good-time music.

The Mardi Gras Indian tribes are another local tradition, and though a number of the groups made it, the poststorm aftereffects were felt as some members had to participate in several groups so that each had enough members to perform. For the ones that made it there, you couldn't miss them from a mile away -- huge, colorful, elaborate costumes full of feathers and beads to fill out their head-dresses. The bands featured five or six singers chanting, backed by as many grooveful percussionists; they would run through a list of classics like "Big Chief" and "Iko Iko." While the Creole Wild West and Black Seminoles turned out exciting shows, the Hard Headhunters literally took their act off the stage, bringing their members into the crowd for elaborate dance displays. Back on stage, the chief explained that the band was made up of an ex-dealer, a kid recently struck by a bullet, a flood victim from the savaged Ninth Ward and a six-month-pregnant "queen." It doesn't get much more hard-core than that. Also, considering the Mardi Gras tribes have had unpleasant run-ins with the local police, this show of force at the Fest undoubtedly sent a message that these groups weren't going to be bullied out of playing their home city, even if some of them couldn't call it home for now.

Hard Headhunters Mardi Gras Indians.
Photo: Robin Cook

Yet another local musical tradition are the brass bands. While Coolbone indulged in touristy covers ("Just the Two of Us") and Panorama Jazz Band tried out some kitschy calypso, the best of these bands didn't appear onstage at all. Throughout the festival, parades snaked around the route. Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs would lead them, made up of a small group of color-coordinated women bouncing umbrellas in a traditional second-line dance. (These groups actually have a rich history, including mentorships and local community support.) Following them along would be a brass band usually made up of trombones, trumpets and a sousaphone. The only thing more exhilarating that watching these parades is marching along with them and joining in the fun, and for the moment, the memory of Katrina seemed far away indeed.

But JazzFest also welcomes out-of-towners, especially big national acts to help draw in the crowds. This time, it included blues diva Etta James (in fine voice, though advancing years made her grab a seat now and then), Keb' Mo' (low-key neo-traditional blues) plus the really big guns. Bob Dylan, who not surprisingly drew the biggest crowd for the first day, appeared in a white cowboy outfit and shades, playing piano now as arthritis has limited his guitar playing. Though his voice is long gone, his band kicks up a lot of dust (especially steel guitarist Donny Herron) through a set of his oldies. Ani DiFranco also had a good crowd, though you couldn't help but thinking that she was more exciting and interesting in her angry young woman phase than in performing the MOR material she played at the show.

Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians.
Photo: Jason Gross

The problem with any music event like this is the clone syndrome (thank you again, George Clinton) -- the only way to cover an multi-area, multi-artist fest well is to be in several places at once to hear bands do full sets. That meant seeing all of the above and yet missing Hugh Masekela and Herbie Hancock, plus local acts Juvenile (who's also broken nationally), Charmaine Neville (of New Orleans's first family and supposedly very pissed about how the community was abandoned by the government), New Birth Brass Band and the New Orleans Jazz Vipers. As for seeing the Dave Matthews Band, journalistic obligation only goes so far. Finances also held back a visit to the last day of weekend one, featuring an amazing line-up of bluesman Sonny Landreth, Ivan Neville, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello (previewing their recent collaboration), trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, the mighty Meters and a Jersey boy named Bruce. That's not even mentioning who's playing this coming weekend at the Fest: Keith Urban, Koko Taylor, Marcia Ball, Jimmy Buffet, the Ohio Players, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Buckwheat Zydeco, Robert Randolph, Susan Cowsill, Fats Domino, Paul Simon, Lionel Richie, Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Sam Moore and Irma Thomas, among others.

In compensation though, a visit to New Orleans is more than just the JazzFest. In the evening, clubs like Tipitina's, House of Blues, Le Bon Tempe Roule and Sweet Lorraine's featured many of the Fest performers doing lengthier sets. Also, a trip down Bourbon Street took you through bars, strip joints, eateries and clubs where you could hear everything from good Chicago blues (check out Big Al Carson at the Funky Pirate), fiery Dixieland music (the N.O. Jazz Relief Band at Fritzel's) and zydeco groups, though they were no match for the much more crowded clubs offering pop karaoke and bad 1980s cover bands. It's kind of discouraging to see that in a city so steeped in music history.

Maybe that disconnect is part of the problem with New Orleans music now. As great as the classic local songs sounded again and again at the Fest, the fact of the matter is that the tunes stopped coming out about the mid-1970s, around the height of the Meters' and Dr. John's popularity -- or if you want to stretch it, the early Nevilles albums in the late 1970s. One of the last and latest ones was Rockin Sydney's "My Toot Toot", but that's already 20 years old. What the local music scene needs are musicians who know and respect tradition but are progressive enough to screw around with it and try to expand it too, just like Alvin Youngblood Hart and Corey Harris have been doing for the blues. Wynton Marsalis does try, but he's still stuck in a pre-bop time warp. Nevertheless, the New Orleans music scene depends on this musical continuity and expansion as much as it does on any relief efforts for the city. New blood can be encouraged and cultivated but sad to say, were still mostly powerless against the forces of nature.

On the second day of the fest, thick rain clouds threatened the festivities. Though they didn't open up until evening (after the Fest ended), they were a grim, cruel reminder of not only the past but also the future. Even with all the celebrations, music and great food, the next storm season was only a few weeks away. Even as New Orleans struggled to rebuild and renew itself, no one wanted to ponder what the next wave of weather might bring. Whatever comes, there's still plenty of defiant people there who'll find a way to stay regardless of any disaster. As one of the Mardi Gras Indian chiefs told a jubilant crowd, "Katrina's gone but we're still here and we ain't going anywhere!" Now that's something you'd want to wear on a T-shirt.

* * * *

Jason Gross is the editor/publisher/founder of Perfect Sound Forever, one of the first and longest running online music magazines.

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