Not to be bragging or anything but I once met one of the Jazz Fest’s all-time biggest celebrities. I think it was at a cocktail party, I’m not sure where or why, when I fell into a conversation with another of the invitees.
“I am Monica,” she said by way of introduction. Then she added more information. “You know, Crawfish Monica.” I was stunned. This moment was like bumping into Elvis. In 1983 her husband, Peter Hilzim, a chef who heads a company called Kajun Kettle Foods, had introduced a crawfish and pasta dish that he kindly named after his wife, Monica Davidson. The dish, which included crawfish tails with rotini pasta along with cream, wine, butter and seasonings, quickly gained fame at the Jazz Fest food vendor’s area. It became the best-selling item, competing with the Cochon de Lait poor boy.
Crawfish Monica, along with other festival successes, came to mind last week with thoughts of George Wein, a native of Massachusetts who died at home in Manhattan at age 95. He was the founder of our Jazz Festival, as well as the Newport Jazz Festival and other global musical events. In a year in which we are all denied the festival because of COVID-19, the yearning grows stronger to again experience what he created.
Though the event is generally referred to by the shorthand name “Jazz Fest,” its full title includes the words “cultural heritage.” The phrase could just as well be “cultural preservation” or, perhaps, “cultural development.”
There are many music and cultural forms that have been given a universal stage by the event. One example is gospel, which reaches an audience, like the biblical multiplied loaves, far in excess than those who would have heard the music just in churches. In 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Jazz Fest organizer Quint Davis talked about Gospel music in a feature for National Public Radio:
“The Gospel Tent, probably more than any other, is the beacon of what is happening in New Orleans, with the community, especially the black community. Because in order to have a gospel tent, you have to have churches, you have to have a people.”
“A lot of people up there will have lost everything, and be struggling to come back and, you know, this is a faith-based music… When they come in there, they talk about having church. So it’s not a church — but it’s a place where you have church.”
New Orleanian Mahalia Jackson, one of the music’s all-time greatest figures, performed at the first Jazz Fest in 1970, since then the spirit has continued.
Despite its origins tracing back to 1939, the Zion Harmonizers, referred to by music writer Gwen Tompkins as “The Elder Statesmen of New Orleans Music,” would never have reached as wide of an audience were it not for Jazz Fest. Other groups have followed rocking, rolling, praying and praising the Lord before a multi-colored crowd.
Zydeco, a fast paced and intense expression of Louisiana Black French culture has a tiny home base in the vicinity of Opelousas stretching to Lafayette, but the Fest has given it a widespread outlet.
There was a time when the Mardi Gras Indians could only be seen on Carnival Day and only in Black neighborhoods. Now the Indians dance to second lines daily along the Fair Grounds paths. Big Chief has a huge territory and, I suspect, according to his spy boy, there’s a big crowd ahead.
All music, of course, is enhanced by the festival including Jazz itself where next- generation crowds can experience the seductive powers of an ode to Basin Street or Louis Armstrong’s lushly beautiful “West End Blues.”
If music is nourishment for the soul, good food is nourishment for all else. Most city people had never heard of cochon de lait. (Unless they were from the Louisiana town of Mansura where an annual festival in name of the roasted suckling pig is held.) Whomever first thought of preparing this Cajun country pork preparation as a New Orleans style poorboy combined the best of two worlds.
As anyone who loves Jazz would be, Wein was obviously enamored with New Orleans. He even once operated a nightclub in Boston called “Storyville.” Ernie K-Doe, the late Rhythm and Blueser once said, matter of factly, that he thought “all music came from New Orleans.” Perhaps George Wein knew that was true all along.
SOMETHING NEW: Listen to Louisiana Insider a weekly podcast covering the people, places and culture of the state: LouisianaLife.com/LouisianaInsider or Apple Podcasts.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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