Here is a description of what Roy Orbison looked like to me when he performed at the Jazz Fest in 1985:
A black stick on a stage, with a stick band behind it.
Oh, and the stage seemed to be about a half-mile away.
Orbison, who always dressed in black, drew a crowd. Those of us in the rear would have been better off staying home and listening to a record.
This is our second April without a Jazz Fest (though maybe in October) so we are just left with memories of the other times: Take Ernie K-Doe, for example. He remains my favorite New Orleans R&B performer of all time with his classic “’Taint It the Truth” still Number One on my personal Top Ten list. Besides his singing, K-Doe was known for his chatter, including the revelation he made one afternoon at the Jazz Fest. Never lacking self-esteem, K-Doe announced that he was “the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans.” I could not disagree, though some people would rank building the levee system and finding a cure for yellow fever as competitors. But we had to respect that K-Doe approached the stage wearing a crown and a cape.
Frankie Ford was from New Orleans too. His biggest hit was “Sea Cruise” which began with a ship bell clanging followed by a wishful journey.
Old man rhythm is in my shoes
It’s no use to sittin’ and a singin’s the blues
So be my guest, you got nothin’s to lose
Won’t you let me take you on a sea cruise?
It is a cliche among many performers to introduce one of their songs by saying, “it goes something like this.” Not Ford. Refreshingly, at the 2009 Jazz Fest, he announced his hit accordingly: “This next song does not go ‘something like this,’ it goes exactly like this.” Clang, clang.
Word usage hit a rough note when the band BeauSoleil was being introduced. The stage announcer, a D.J. for a local country music station who obviously did not know much about Cajun pride, introduced the group by saying, “and now for some real coon ass music…..” Michael Doucet, the band’s founder and star approached the microphone and icily responded. “We are not coon ass; we are Acadian.” The crowd cheered. The D.J. retreated to a corner of the stage like a boxer staggering from a blow.
There are many great performers who have played the Jazz Fest but none who can claim to be the founder of a genre of American music, except for the late Bill Monroe. The mandolin player is credited with having created bluegrass. Derived from rockabilly, bluegrass sizzles with stringed instruments played so fast, especially Monroe’s mandolin, that they could be smokin’. One Sunday, at the closing hour of the festival’s last day, he and his band, the Blue Grass Boys, who were dressed in suits, boots and Stetsons, were joyously singin’, pickin’ and cloggin’. The performance should have been preserved for the Smithsonian. Instead, the music was overlooked by the many Fest folks who walked past Monroe’s stage on the way to the Neville Brothers’ traditional closing performance.
Monroe played unfazed and even asked those few in the audience if they would like for him to come back one day. They cheered. But if there is a lesson to be learned from the Jazz Fest—never have to compete with the Nevilles.