New Orleans is a city quite unlike any other in America. Colonised first by the French in 1718 and then by the Spanish before being sold into American territory, the city was home to an influx of refugees from the Haitian Revolution of 1804, as well as the nation’s largest slave market. This diverse mix of immigrants coupled with the racialised trauma of the antebellum South is what makes the Crescent City what it is: defiant, proud, and unashamedly singular. A melting pot of peoples and food (namely the melting-pot that is gumbo), it seems unavoidable that this city would, in 1917, become the birthplace of jazz.
It may be a cliché to state, but jazz runs in the city’s blood just as the Mississippi cuts through it. Take a walk along the oak-lined streets in the midst of the humid afternoon heat and you’ll be greeted by the sounds of brass bands practicing together or Dixieland tunes crackling out of the city’s many front porches. Local talent has its outlet in the countless bars across the city, especially on Frenchman Street where you can find session musicians at jam nights throughout the week, but each year the city puts on an international showcase of its finest talent: The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Where Mardi Gras is New Orleans’ Bacchic celebration of its regional heritage, the annual Jazz Festival is the celebration of its music.
Founded in 1970, with a line-up that included Duke Ellington and Fats Domino playing to a crowd of 350, recent years have seen the festival host closer to 600,000 revellers across its two weekends. With its expansion into cult status, the festival has seen its artistic remit widen and at a first glance of the 2018 line-up, the headliners were decidedly non-jazz and non-New Orleans: Sting, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith and Beck, to name a few. Sponsored by a glut of multi-national conglomerates, including Shell as the headline donors, it seemed the festival had succumbed to a commercialised watering-down of its founding premise.
Yet, Jazz Fest – as it’s known to locals – is really two separate festivals rolled into one. One, existing for the international and out-of-state crowd, attracted by the ‘Big Easy’ reputation of the city and the pop-glamour of its headliners, and the other, existing for those who have been coming to the festival for the past decades, locals attracted by the wealth of talent and history on display away from the main stage. And the food, of course.
As the city celebrates the 300th anniversary of its founding this year, there was a heightened sense of lineage being showcased. One stage where this heritage was fully on display was the Economy Hall tent. Here, amongst the seated calm of the white-top marquee, was a rousing tribute to Billie Holiday led by New Orleans-native Sharon Martin, whose uncanny impressions of Lady Day, as well as her own vocal acrobatics brought classics like Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child into this second century of jazz. A highlight of the stage was the Treme Brass Band, whose Sunday afternoon set was a condensed history lesson in the marching shuffle and Dixieland melodies of traditional New Orleans brass. Led by saxophonist Roger Lewis, whose forays on the microphone brought to mind Louis Armstrong with his gravelly tone, Treme Brass were an enlivening presence, finishing their set with a traditional ‘second line’ march around the tent.
Whilst Treme Brass satisfied the traditionalists, Hot 8 Brass Band served the younger crowd and displayed the enduring relevance of the music. Fellow sons of New Orleans, Hot 8 played two sets at the festival, as well as an impromptu afterparty at the d.b.a bar on Frenchman. Their second performance in the wood-floored Cultural Exchange tent was a highlight, blasting through with non-stop energy as they put their brass-led twist on soul classics like Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together, James Brown’s Get Up, and Marvin Gaye’s Sexual Healing. Despite the sweat-laden steam of the tent, they kept the crowd dancing throughout and provided welcome relief from Rod Stewart’s concurrent headline set.
The Cultural Exchange tent, as its name suggests, was an exciting mix of curation, showcasing the diversity of New Orleans music from brass to Native American Pow-Wow, Zydeco, and swing. In the latter category was a tribute to New Orleanian Sidney Bechet, led by alto saxophonist Calvin Johnson. Bechet, who is partly credited with bringing jazz to the UK while touring with the Syncopated Orchestra in the 1920s, is an early progenitor of the New Orleans sound and as such Johnson regaled the crowd with tasteful renditions of his standards like Summertime and Petite Fleur. To further emphasise the unavoidable musical lineage of the city, Johnson featured Bechet’s own great-great nephew Brian ‘Breeze’ Cayolle on the clarinet, providing rousing, falsetto-laden solos.
The festival wasn’t all about brass and heritage though. For a city so full of musical history, it is the perfect place for experimentation. No one better exemplifies this ethos than Christian Scott. Also hailing from New Orleans, Scott played an invigorating set of his ‘stretch music’ taken from his trilogy of albums released last year. From the chromaticisms of West of the West to The Last Chieftain, Scott’s homage to recently becoming a chief of his New Orleans Indian tribe, he seamlessly blended electronic drum sounds with the shrill concatenations of his trumpet – at one point even taking on Coltrane’s Giant Steps.
Similarly, trumpeter and keyboardist Nicolas Payton provided a set entitled ‘Too Black’, dedicated to jazz greats such as Bobby Hutcherson, Charles Neville and George Duke, putting a soulful spin on Scott’s brand of jazz futurism. While Payton’s inclusion of vocalists felt gratuitous at times, his acrobatic transitions between soloing on the Rhodes and then trumpet was a feat to behold.
Of course, there were the big names too: George Benson, Common, Steel Pulse, Charlie Wilson, to name just a few. Benson was a highlight, closing out the first weekend with a set of crowd-pleasing hits such as Love x Love, Give Me The Night and On Broadway. He showcased his signature scatting solos although ultimately fared better on the instrumental numbers as his voice strained over the top-line vocal melodies.
A review of Jazz Fest isn’t complete without a special mention to an unexpected highlight : the Gospel Tent. Cleansing the spirit, gospel choirs like the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children and the Anthony Brown Groupdisplayed pure vocal power and unbelievable feats of harmony while revealing the clear connections between this music of praise with that of jazz, blues and R&B.
Ultimately, for a city still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina – with entire districts like the Lower 9thWard derelict and abandoned by their residents who cannot afford to return – Jazz Fest feels like a much-needed respite from the historical trauma the city has endured. New Orleans insists on partying for this very reason; coming together in spite of adversity and opening their arms to outsiders in celebrating the rich heritage of their home. Every local will tell you that the city is becoming gentrified and that the culture is being watered down – as evinced by the overbearing sponsors, corporate guests and incongruous headliners. Surely, then, all the more reason to celebrate what makes New Orleans and its music so unique: its people.
[This piece was published in EZH Magazine on 02/05/18]