45 Years on, Jazz Fest Remains an Irresistible Draw

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The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival wrapped up its 45th anniversary celebration this weekend with an announcement that Shell Oil will remain the festival's presenting sponsor for at least five more years, when it will turn 50. The seven-day event was blessed with near-perfect weather and played to huge crowds this past Saturday and Sunday, with New Orleans favorite son Trombone Shorty closing down the Acura Stage and John Fogerty headlining on the Samsung Galaxy Stage at the other end of the Fairgrounds racetrack.

In many ways, Jazz Fest is bigger and better than ever; it is, in my opinion, the best music festival in America, if not the world. What makes this growth all the more remarkable is that the festival almost died ten years ago, when torrential rains shut down the festival on both weekends. In survival mode, the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and Festival Productions formed a partnership with AEG Live, one of the two largest concert promoters in the country. This partnership enabled the festival to come back from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and Shell signed on as presenting sponsor in 2006.

Since then, Jazz Fest has featured a parade of superstar headliners, including Christina Aguilera on Friday and Bruce Springsteen on Saturday on this year's second weekend.

REWIND: A Special Springsteen Preview From New Orleans

Needless to say, this evolution toward the mainstream has not come without criticism from New Orleans locals and longtime festivalgoers. Springsteen, whose Saturday set paid heartfelt tribute to New Orleans' musical heritage, is one thing. Aguilera -- who according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune was in full diva mode, arriving late and changing her clothes several times during her set -- is another.

At the press conference announcing the Shell sponsorship, Quint Davis -- whose Festival Productions has run Jazz Fest almost from the beginning -- told a reporter asking about strings attached to the money, "If Christina Aguilera does not suggest to you that we are stretching our boundaries, I don't know what will."

But what makes Jazz Fest the best music festival in the country is not the superstar headliners, who can be heard at any number of other festivals and on their stadium tours. What makes it great is the same thing that made it special in the first place: New Orleans. The brass-band parades winding through the Fairgrounds. The Mardi Gras Indian displays in the Louisiana Folklife Village. The food courts with specialties such as Crawfish Monica and Alligator Pie. And most of all, the wonderful local and regional music featured on the smaller stages.

Saturday was all about Bruce, with crowds so thick that by 2 p.m. that you could hardly move in front of the main stages.You stood your ground, craned your neck and watched the afternoon performers such as Allen Toussaint and Better Than Ezra on the big video screens at both sides of the stage rather than looking at the stage itself. In the Blues Tent, slide guitarist Roy Rogers played to what was probably the largest crowd he will see all year, many of whom were wearing the same type of short-brim straw hat Rogers has been sporting for the last 30 years.

On Friday, the crowd was big but not so massive, and it was much easier to get around. I saw at least one song by 20 different acts performing on ten different stages, starting with Jermaine Hawkins and the Harvey Spirituals in the Gospel Tent, the first stage you pass when entering the Fairgrounds through the Sauvage Pedestrain Entrance.

The group was rocking hard on songs with choruses like "Can I get a witness?" and "I want to take you higher." But these were not the familar pop/R&B songs by Marvin Gaye and Sly Stone with those titles. This is where those guys got it from -- church -- except at this church you can smell reefer wafting through the air and tourists from New York and Philadelphia who probably have probably not been to an actual church (or synagogue) in decades are down front dancing and waving their arms in the air for Jesus.

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I wasted about a half-hour watching Hooray for the Riff Raff on the Samsung Galaxy Stage, trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. The group, which represents an emerging stream of acoustic Americana/folk music coming out of New Orleans perhaps inspired by the street buskers played by Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli on the HBO series Treme, has become an NPR favorite and lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra has graced the cover of magazines like American Songwriter.

Of course, every musical generation has the privilege of discovering the heritage of traditional American music for itself, and Hooray for the Riff Raff attempts to inject a hip rock consciousness into its embrace of Appalachian and Cajun sources. But really, why get hung up on the latest derivations when there is so much of the real deal going on all around you? I wandered over to the nearby Sheraton Fais Do-Do Stage where Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, a zydeco band that plays the festival pretty much every year, was holding forth. I did not have to try to like it. I just had to start moving to the groove. Hooray.

Traditional New Orleans jazz can be found in the People's Health Economy Hall Tent. I caught a few songs by Mark Braud's New Orleans Jazz Giants, an all star band of younger musicians, black and white, keeping the Storyville tradition alive that includes Braud on trumpet, Lucien Barbarin on trombone, David Torkanowsky on piano and Shannon Powell on drums. Braud, who plays regularly with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, sang a tongue-in-cheek version of "St. James Infirmary" that featured great solos all around before the band launched into a lively parade march that got the oldsters up out of their seats and parading around with their umbrellas up and down.

In the Blues Tent, I heard New Orleans R&B divas Wanda Rouzan and Jean Knight performing classic soul hits such as "Mr. Big Stuff" and "Tell Mama," as well as the theme song from Treme, on which Rouzan had a featured role. Back in the Gospel Tent, Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans divas, paid tribute to Mahalia Jackson with her version of "He's Got the Whole World (In His Hands)," backed by a full gospel choir.

The last set, starting at 5:30 on most stages, presented a choice of more contemporary soul divas; Aguilera on the Acura Stage, Chaka Khan on the Congo Square Stage and Brittany Howard with her band Alabama Shakes on the Samsung Stage. I picked Alabama Shakes; it was the right choice. The band sounded even better live than it does on record, with Howard's powerhouse vocals, Memphis Stax/Volt organ and lo-fi blues-rock guitars. I stayed long enough to hear the band perform their best-known song, "Hold On," with the crowd swaying and singing along.

At the Jazz and Heritage Foundation's Synch Up business conference on Friday morning, keynote speaker Don Was -- bassist, producer and current head of Blue Note Records -- quoted Bob Dylan as saying that the job of a performing artist is to put people in touch with their feelings. Apparently, there are a lot of people who can relate to a song about how "You got to hoooooold on..." The sound of all those voices pulling for each other put a chill on my spine.

At 6 p.m., one hour 'till closing time, I pulled myself away from the Shakes and made a beeline for the Zatarain's/WWOZ Jazz Tent -- past the Lost Bayou Ramblers on the Fais Do-Do Stage, past the Celebating Brazil Tent, past the Iguanas on the Jazz and Heritage Stage -- to hear tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, one of my all-time musical heroes.

Sanders, 73, resembles an African village elder with his long white beard and kufi cap. He was backed by a tight quintet including drummer Joe Farnsworth and guest trumpeter Marlon Jordan of New Orleans. Pharoah played a soulful ballad, he played a bit of the blues, and he screamed through his horn as only he can do on his anthem "You Got to Have Freedom." He closed with "The Creator Has a Master Plan," a joyful prayer for "peace and happiness through all the land."

Smiling beatifically, I headed for the exit. But Jazz Fest had one more gift for me. As I passed the Blues Tent, I found old-school soul man Charles Bradley down on his knees, his face drenched in sweat and his shirt unbuttoned, pledging his undying, eternal love to the woman who made him feel so good. It was a leave-it-all-on-the-stage finale that Bruce Springsteen would have appreciated.

Thank you Jazz Fest, thank you New Orleans. Here's to 45 more.


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