To the senses, it is a distant fiddle, the spontaneity of a brass band in procession or perhaps an electric guitar being put through its pre-performance twangs just as a sweet cloud of barbecue casts its spell. By name, it is The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but sometimes the word “jazz” has played, if not second fiddle, then perhaps second cornet. In fact, the musician who has become the festival’s symbol, Professor Longhair, played rhythm and blues, not jazz.
Jazz’s direct evolution began in New Orleans, and many of its great musicians still come from this town, but the music has never really flourished here. This city has produced the raw produce for which the value has been added elsewhere.
During the ‘60s TV journalist David Brinkley chided New Orleans in an NBC report because many of the jazz clubs in the French Quarter had given way to striptease. The city suffered a bout of self-flagellation for not supporting its native music.
Truth is, once music forms become popular, the places of their origins are rarely big enough to support them. Reggae cannot survive in Kingston alone; neither Memphis nor St. Louis can fully support the blues. That New Orleans cannot provide work for all its jazz musicians reflects the fertility of the city in nurturing so many performers rather than the lack of jobs. Nashville inspires more country crooners than there are places for them to sing.
In New Orleans, jazz survives mostly because of tourism. But because tourists are citizens of the world, that might be a tribute to the music’s far-flung popularity.
Brinkley might not have ever known it, but he prompted a jazz preservation movement. In the spirit of the movement, Preservation Hall, a place dedicated solely to traditional jazz, opened in the French Quarter amid the strip clubs. Other traditional jazz spots would follow, including the Palm Court Café. It is the festival, however, that has given jazz the most visibility in the town of its nativity. Curiously, while jazz gave the event a name, the fest has made big names out of other native music forms.
Look at the crowd in the gospel tent. Most people in that number would probably never experience the music in the churches. Look at the performers. Many groups, we suspect, now exist for the Jazz Fest. Sure, they perform before the pews on Sundays, but the fest is the big show in their lives. Stories have been told of record producers coming to the fest to scout talent. Recording contracts were signed. The music found a new audience. Jazz Fest put the music on the map. And that’s the gospel.
There are similar stories for other native music forms, notably zydeco, Cajun music and the chants of the Mardi Gras Indians. All survived rather exclusively in their little corner of the world. All were discovered anew at the Fair Grounds. (The same can be said about food: Many New Orleanians and fest followers would not know about cochon de lait, maque choux, sweet potato pone and crawfish boudin were it not for the fest.)
When the choruses are performing, the crowds in the Gospel Tent clap along in rhythm. They may be responding to the music or perhaps to the messages. Either way, the tent at that moment is a temple, if not to the spirit within, then to the spirit of the festival. And in the distance, a brass band begins its march. Once more jazz is filling the stage.
Krewe: The Early New Orleans Carnival – Comus to Zulu by Errol Laborde is available at all area bookstores. Books can also be ordered via email at email@example.com or (504) 895-2266.
WATCH INFORMED SOURCES, FRIDAYS AT 7 P.M., REPEATED AT 11:30 P.M. ON WYES-TV, CHANNEL 12.
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