Give credit to the Holy Spirit – and to Quint Davis.
Though the event is generally referred to by the shorthand name “Jazz Fest,” its full title includes the words “cultural heritage.” There are many music and cultural forms that have been given a universal stage by the Jazz Fest. THE prime example though is Gospel, which, because of the fest, reaches an audience, like the biblical multiplied loaves, far in excess of those who would have heard the music just in neighborhood 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 on stage and a 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.”
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.
“At that time, 1970, not many white people had seen black gospel in its full glory,” Davis recalls. “Gospel was not common at blues festivals or jazz festivals. So, you know, we got on kind of a mission there to bring gospel on down to the front of the bus, as we called it.”
Despite their 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. (ZION HARMONIZERS Arts Council Awards 2014: youtube.com/watch?v=hCkACl8b_pk)
“Gospel music is such a raw, direct line to something that is spirit-filled, and spirit-full that you just can’t help feel that gospel music can move everybody,” Davis adds.
P.J. Morton, the heir of a spiritual singing family, won his third consecutive Grammy this year, this time for Best Gospel album. The sea is bountiful with the talent that New Orleans’ gospel scene has produced. (There’s some sadness too in memory of one of the area’s greatest, Raymond Miles, another victim of the city’s gun violence.) Nevertheless, we can rejoice to the likes of Johnny Adams, a Baton Rouge era rhythm and blues crossover with a falsetto that could compete with Aaron Neville, who, like many black performers, grew us singing church music.
Worship at the Gospel tent. Its tent flaps are open wide. All the better for the music’s disciples to keep marching in.
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