The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place on the grounds of a racetrack, which makes perfect sense as you’re wending your way through the teeming crowds along the hard, dirt oval where the horses usually run, moving from the Gospel Tent to the Fais Do Do Stage to the WWOZ Jazz Tent to the Gentilly Stage—there are a dozen venues in all—trying to catch as many of the stupendous but simultaneously playing musical performances as possible. No other festival is at once so resplendently diversified and yet so utterly parochial. A dazzling array of musical styles have either been rooted or crucially hybridized in the Crescent City, and they transform the Jazz & Heritage Festival into a live, organic jukebox of bliss.
On Friday I came to the fest for the last three of its seven days, returning after more than 30 years, and the delirious gumbo of music felt instantly familiar. Within my first hour, I’d stumbled upon a stunning, accordion-fiddle-washboard group—the Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band—I’d never heard of but who have been playing the fest for the past 31 years. Moving on to catch pianist David Torkanowsky’s Fleur Debris in the Jazz Tent, I was waylaid by the peacock costumes and call-and-response of the Golden Sioux Mardi Gras Indians on the Jazz & Heritage Stage, and interrupted by a raucous, indigenous parade through the interior grounds (one of four that day) by the Divine Ladies and Original Big 7 Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs with the Original Pinettes Brass Band.
When I finally arrived, Torkanowsky just happened to have as guests the fabulous rhythm section from New Orleans’ seminal funk band, the Meters—bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Joseph “Ziggy” Modeliste. He brandished what looked like an outsized football helmet but was in fact the old civil defense helmet once issued to the late Crescent City pianist Professor Longhair. For the final two numbers, he introduced trumpeter Nicholas Payton—clad in Drew Brees’ #9 New Orleans Saints jersey, a Saints cap, and nerdy glasses—who blew long and hard with rising saxophonist Aaron Fletcher.
I’ll skip the sets by new country outlaw Jamey Johnson and the always engaging Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers (one of the few acts that can parlay an insipid pop song like “I Love You More Today Than Yesterday” with the classic “St. James Infirmary” and get away with it) and get to the hard decisions and inter-stage rambles that confront most festival goers in the final 90 minutes. (The fest ends at 7 p.m., so folks can either keep the party going elsewhere in New Orleans or rest up for tomorrow’s roster of acts). Here are some snapshots of the stretch run to the finish line.
My only son is named after the late bassist-composer Charles Mingus, so it was easy to lead off the stretch drive with the Mingus Big Band. The 14-piece ensemble launched into the stop-and-go bustle of “GG Train” (from the Mingus album Ah Um), reveling in the Mingus signature move of chromatic horn voicings when the group pulls up short, and lands before it lurches. Then the group delivered “The Children’s Hour of Dream,” the 18th movement from Mingus’s 26-movement opus, Epitaph, which featured a phalanx of flutes that soared and circled like birds chasing a grain truck down a rural highway.
Over in the Gospel Tent, Irma Thomas was paying tribute to the 100th birthday of Mahalia Jackson. Thomas, officially designated “the Soul Queen of New Orleans” a few years back, completed her transformation from the gruff and bawdy young belter to a more dignified mien as she and her band were all dressed in white vestments for the occasion. Highlights from Mahalia’s treasure trove of spirituals were the rockin’ declaration “I Found the Answer,” the good-time lilt of “Come on Children Let’s Sing,” and especially the bravura vocals on “How Great Thou Art.”
Lupe Fiasco is my favorite young rapper, but the mix was muddy as Lupe and his full band (live drums, guitar, keys) hit the Congo Square Stage all dressed in camouflage gear. The hit “Superstar” was a natural sing-along for the crowd, and then Lupe continued his recent policy of trying to cash in on the masses and hold on to the purists by simultaneously denouncing and promoting his new record, Lasers, introducing his new single, “The Show Goes On,” by sheepishly saying, “I needed to pay my bills.” The masses loved it anyway.
At this point there was maybe 15 minutes left, and without high expectations I swung by the Blues Tent for Gregg Allman. Good move. There he was, transplanted liver and all, with his trademark ponytail, playing guitar instead of keyboards but growling his way through “Whipping Post” from the classic Live at the Fillmore East album by the Allman Brothers. He followed that up with another Allmans gem, the crooning “Midnight Rider.” And after the raucous blues, “Sweet Feelin’” he closed with a third cut from the live disc, “Statesboro Blues,” with the band’s guitarist wisely choosing to go low-key to avoid comparison to Dwayne Allman’s incendiary solo. Otherwise it was vintage Allman Brothers—Gregg even had two drummers—and a glorious way to end the day.