Clusters of the dearly departed, memorialized in wooden figures on the Fair Grounds infield at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell, don’t constitute a cemetery – though the milieu has abiding tones of death-in-life. The painted images that are taken down, stored and repositioned each year depict carriers of culture, personalities who gave the city its distinctive color, souls alive in the popular memory.
“We call them the ancestors,” says festival spokesman Matthew Goldman.
Danny Barker, the balladeer, guitarist and author is there with a replica of his wife and vocalist, Blue Lu. A mainstay in their golden years at the Palm Court, Danny and Lu were a grand pair. In 1994 he had a vintage brass band send off; Miss Lu followed a few years later. Danny was a storyteller to his bones. Once I told him that he had done it all – recorded with everyone from Armstrong to Wynton, toured in the 1930s with Cab Calloway’s big band and wrote books, plus the long-running act with Blue Lu. I had only one question – he cocked an eyebrow – what’s the secret of sustaining a marriage 63 years? He shrugged, gave a few excuses and then said: “You have to give her the money.”
Jules Cahn looms nearby, the shaggy gray hair and hint of a smile on the avocational cameraman who followed the funerals and second lines until his own. “The funerals in the (19)60s were like urban ballets,” he told me one blazing July afternoon at Congo Square, watching a group of Lakota Indians welcome Mardi Gras Indians in a ceremony called White Buffalo Day.
Several years later when, at 78, Cahn was laid out in a mortuary on N. Rampart Street – since subsumed by the festival offices – his family and various synagogue members sat in the parlor as Milton Batiste led Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band in signing “This Train Is Bound For Glory,” a song of slaves seeking freedom. “Jules is riding that train,” purred Milton, the silver trumpet dangling at his side.
Milton is gone; so, too, Harold “Duke” Dejan, the alto clarinetist who stamped his last name on the band for its remarkable last lap, nearly 40 years, after several incarnations stretching back roughly a century. Dejan stands permanently at Jazz Fest, as he did in leading Olympia to the White House, foreign festivals, innumerable second lines and the airport to greet Pope John Paul in 1987. “Everything is lovely” was Dejan’s motto.
For the last decade Wright McFarland has been the artist responsible for the Ancestors in recent years; however, created the figure of ethereal clarinetist George Lewis.
Tom Dent, the towering poet who ran the Jazz & Heritage Foundation for a time, hovers among the ancestral figures. We had a friendship that grooved to long spontaneous dialogue on the telephone, and exchanges about writers and musicians that veered into chortling gossip about people we would never want to hurt, yet whose moods and disasters demanded some discussion. Dent issued a rocking chuckle at the story of James Booker harassing an airline reservations clerk so tyrannically over the irrelevance of a hot credit card that the poor woman put him on the plane in order just to be rid of him.
I think it was 1980 when a monsoon rain turned the festival infield into deep muck. Sloshing through that ooze, wrecking a pair of tennis shoes, I was toting a heavy box with gallon cans of raw oysters for some reason when there stood Dent with the Cheshire cat smile, next to a slight, bug-eyed man who looked hauntingly familiar: “Put down the box,” said Dent, “and meet James Baldwin.”
Buster Holmes, the French Quarter chef whose eatery fed everybody at a time when you could get a plate of red beans for barely a buck, is in the Jazz Fest assemblage. So is Professor Longhair, who ate at Buster’s with his gold-toothed smile and forged a keyboard signature with the Caribbean left hand that marching bands have long since adapted for Carnival parades.
Allison Minor, who died much too young, managed Fess in his later years and planted him on the cosmic map. She helped put the festival there, big time. The Allison Minor Heritage stage is where the oral history interviews happen, as if she never left.
Al Hirt, the bearded, totemic trumpeter known as Jumbo, scored a huge a hit on the Allen Tousssaint composition of “Java,” rode in the Bacchus parade and had his own club on Bourbon Street for many years – his likeness rubs elbows with the others, created by another artist, Stuart Auld.
Sherman Washington, who organized the Gospel Tent and sang in the Zion Harmonizers with a shouting baritone that gives me chills every time I hear it, has joined the festival memory grounds.
These and others like them rewrote a Crescent City imagination, teasing out cosmic essences from a slow motion late 1960s urban backwater, where music happened and food sprouted as if in separate zones; all the cultural interweaving since then in the four decades of Jazz Fest would have happened in some fashion, but with not nearly the same magic. As the ancestral memory ground grows, so the city rolls and the festival with it.