There are probably as many ways to enjoy the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as there are styles of music found at the event that now celebrates its 41st year. Fest fanatics line up for the opening of the gates, and they refuse to leave the Fair Grounds before the last note sounds. Then there are those more casual types who drift into the festival site sometime during the mid-afternoon, perhaps to catch just one big act.
Musical tastes remain equally variable and thus contribute to the way one negotiates the multitude of options that are offered on the three large stages, four tents and three more intimate prosceniums. Many folks simply camp out at the venue that offers their brand of music, be it at the gargantuan Acura Stage where soul queen Aretha Franklin will perform on Fri., April 30 or the Economy Hall Tent, the spot for traditional jazz veterans such as drummer June Gardner, who will undoubtedly please the April 23 opening day crowd with his solid band and entertaining nature.
FRIDAY, APRIL 23. The first Friday boasts a cornucopia of music and sets the stage for a festival that, throughout its seven days, presents numerous special tributes. Drummer and noted WWOZ programmer Bob French leads the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band in celebration of its 100th year. Established in 1910 by trumpeter Papa Celestin, the ensemble boasts having the longest existence of continual performance in New Orleans. French took over leadership of the group from his father, Albert “Papa” French 25 years ago. Expect some special guests.
Zydeco hotshot, accordionist and vocalist Dwayne Dopsie, the youngest son of the late Alton “Rockin’ Dopsie” Rubin Sr., will pay tribute to his father by, as he says, “playing his songs that people fell in love with” such as “Sweet Lucy” and “Old Time Zydeco.” His brothers, vocalist/washboard player Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., drummer Tiger Rubin and accordionist Anthony Rubin will join him for this first-time event.
Other strong acts this day are Grammy Award-winning modern jazz saxophone giant Joe Lovano, whose group includes two drummers; and Maurice Brown, an exciting, well-versed trumpeter who came to New Orleans via Chicago, then left following Katrina. Presently he’s making a name for himself in New York City. Funkmaster George Clinton and Parlament-Funkadelic, a highlight of last fall’s Voodoo Music Experience, brings it on with his merry gang of costumed funksters. Our own pianist and vocalist Dr. John brings on his own brand of funk, offering it up with his distinctive, swampy gris-gris.
SATURDAY, APRIL 24. Grammy-winning, singer/songwriting team Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, who hit the scene in the mid-1960s and brought us classic hits such as “The Sound of Silence” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” top the first Saturday’s festival menu. Also on the bill is a special show from pianist and vocalist Davell Crawford, who’s inviting fellow keyboard masters Dr. John and Jon Cleary for a performance dubbed “One Foot in the Blues.” (Crawford returns to the festival on Sun., May 2 to lead the Davell Crawford Singers in the Gospel Tent.) Sousaphonist Kirk Joseph keeps the tribute theme going, paying props to the late, much-beloved Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lucen by assembling other big horn players for a “Sousaphone Symphony Parade.”
SUNDAY, APRIL 25. Another interesting combination of players takes place on the first Sunday with trombonist Wycliff Gordon, a longtime member of Wynton Marsalis’ Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Gordon will team with New Orleans trumpeter James Andrews and saxophonist Victor Goines for a show called “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.” The tributes continue with some of this city’s premier female jazz vocalists – Germaine Bazzle, Leah Chase and Betty Shirley – remembering our own Juanita Brooks, whose sudden passing last September stunned the local music community.
“Don’t miss the Electrifying Crown Seekers” is a slogan that should be heeded. This gospel group from Marrero comes armed with a secret weapon: a vocalist who steps out to sing “Walk Around Heaven” completely in falsetto.
His rendition always produces goose bumps.
THURSDAY, APRIL 29. Drummers in this city are notorious, and Shannon Powell is definitely in that number of greats that historically include Paul Barbarin, Ed Blackwell, James Black and Idris Muhammad. He too is mixing it up on Thurs., April 29 by performing with Blue Note recording artist guitarist Peter Bernstein and New Orleanian saxophonist and clarinetist Charlie Gabriel. The same day, the internationally renowned jazz vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater sings material from her new release that celebrates Billie Holiday – Eleanor Fagan: To Billie with Love from Dee Dee. Rather than try to imitate the legendary vocalist, Bridgewater casts her own spell on material associated with Holiday.
The much-heralded New Orleans singer, trumpeter and bandleader, Louis Prima, who passed away in 1978 at the age of 67, dons this year’s Jazz Fest poster depicted by vocalist Tony Bennett. His contributions will be acknowledged throughout the festival with performances by his daughter, Lena Smith (Fri., April 23), longtime collaborator Keely Smith (Sun., April 25) and finally by his son, Louis Prima Jr. (Fri., April 30).
FRIDAY, APRIL 30. Many nationally renowned local acts whom we don’t get to hear often enough fill the bill on Fri., April 30, including the always-on-the-road Buckwheat Zydeco and Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton. Over in the gospel tent, Jermaine Landrum, the grandson of this city’s gospel community mover and shaker Louis Dejean, is the very exciting leader of the powerful Ebenezer Baptist Church Choir.
New Orleans has no shortage of strong choirs and Tyronne Foster & the Arc Singers is definitely among the best. Another motto one can live by out at the festival is: “When in doubt head to the Gospel Tent – it always swings.”
SATURDAY, MAY 1. Shreveport native Brian Blade, a hugely talented drummer who was a regular on the New Orleans jazz scene while attending the University of New Orleans in the mid-1980s, leads his own group, the Fellowship Band on Sun., May 1. The ensemble includes another face familiar to modern jazzers, bassist Chris Thomas, who was digging into jazz in the city during the same period. Blade will return to the Fair Grounds Sun., May 2 to perform with saxophone legend Wayne Shorter’s super-star quartet that includes John Pattucci on bass and Danilo Perez on piano. For many, Shorter’s appearance is the most anticipated show at the Fest.
This city has pretty much adopted the soulfully funky group Maze and its leader, vocalist Frankie Beverly, as one of its own. The love affair began after the group recorded its 1981 release Live in New Orleans album at the Saenger Theatre. Beverly and Maze return to the Fest after last year’s crowd-drawing performance. Count on a huge electric slide line dance when Maze kicks in with “Love and Pain.”
SUNDAY. MAY 2. Naturally, the last Sunday of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival once again means the Neville Brothers closing out the Acura Stage. The brothers rarely perform in New Orleans as a group, making this often-bittersweet finale all the more moving. It is always a moment when the crowd feels connected to each other and to the artists when Art, Aaron, Cyril and Charles Neville take the stage. This is New Orleans all the way.
Also in that vibe is the Jazz & Heritage Stage that specializes in brass band music and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, which remains at the pulse of New Orleans music. A more intimate, outdoor venue, this stage makes for a great spot to meet up with friends and really get your dance moves on. Most of the second-line parades that weave through the Fair Grounds culminate nearby so it’s a very colorful and active area at the festival.
Whether you’re a stage camper or a festival prowler, there’s tons of music to be heard and had. Have fun!