What a Wonderful World: A Trip to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage FestivalJonathan Coleman
The cab is late to pick me up for my first day of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but I’m in no rush, and the driver is worth the wait. He has bleach-blond hair and wraparound shades, and he starts telling me about the many bands he’s been in, including one in which he wore a fake beard to do ZZ Top covers. He has also worn Mickey Mouse ears and a pink tutu to perform Cheech & Chong’s “Earache My Eye” (the same outfit Cheech Marin sports in the movie Up in Smoke). Then he starts talking about memorable passengers. During Mardi Gras he picked up one couple in which the guy was dressed as Tom Brady and the girl as an NFL referee. They had with them a pig costumed as a partially deflated football, and the pig was drunk on milk and vodka. The driver let them all in the cab. He says at first he felt bad for the pig, but then he realized that the pig was much happier being drunk at Mardi Gras than it would have been as, say, cochon de lait. Things could be a lot worse, you know?
I’m here to see Dr. John, a Jazz Fest stalwart and an artist I’ve always loved. He is headlining Sunday night’s show in the second weekend, performing songs from his latest album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, a Louis Armstrong tribute. On the phone before my arrival in New Orleans, Dr. John, né “Mac” Rebennack, tells me that Satchmo came to him in a dream and told him to make the album. The result, in which Dr. John riffs on the Armstrong canon, is totally weird in a wonderful way. The original songs are unrecognizable at first, reinterpreted as dank and murky funk, with horns arranged by trombonist Sarah Morrow (who is also his bandleader in the live show).
Rebennack has been coming to Jazz Fest for “thirty-something years.” I ask him whether he considers himself the festival’s mayor. “I’ve never thought of it that way, but maybe so,” he answers. His speaking voice on the phone is exactly like his singing voice, a Cajun rattle.
Dr. John is 74 years old. He has conquered obstacles including addiction (he’s been sober for over 25 years now) and a temporary exile from the state of Louisiana; after a stint in prison for heroin possession, he went to Los Angeles, where he spent years as a studio session musician. He switched to piano from guitar in the early ’60s after being shot in his left ring finger. He pioneered a style of psychedelic funk rock heavily influenced by New Orleans musical traditions but uniquely his own, with stage shows inspired by the historic local culture of voodoo. Dr. John has become a musical ambassador for his hometown. His last album of originals, 2012’s Locked Down, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, which refreshed his audience with new and younger fans. Now he’s thinking about doing a Fats Waller record as a follow-up to the Louis Armstrong tribute. “Fats was a great guy,” he tells me. Since the ’70s, Dr. John has become a flame keeper for the American songbook, particularly interested in music that broadened the racial boundaries of this country’s popular music.
Rebennack grew up in the Third Ward, which has produced some other big names in New Orleans music. Louis Armstrong, Master P,1 Juvenile, and Birdman all hail from the Third Ward. Dr. John’s father ran a store that sold both appliances and records; it was frequented by local musicians, and Mac became enamored of jazz music at a young age. At 13 he met local blues icon Professor Longhair and began taking steps to become a professional musician, playing in clubs where he was too young to drink. His dad’s record store was down the block from Vernon Winslow, a.k.a. “Dr. Daddy-O,” the pioneering black DJ on New Orleans radio.2 Dr. John praises Winslow, who produced the original “Poppa Stoppa” shows. He says his own dad was a big influence, too, giving him records of “a lot of different kinds of musics.”
The cab driver drops me off at the entrance to the mid-city race track where the festival takes place. Walking into Jazz Fest, I am struck immediately by how laid back the crowd seems compared to the try-hardness that infects selfie-heavy music festivals. Yes, there are young adults in neon tank tops, but they don’t dominate the landscape. There is no EDM at Jazz Fest, but no bias against electronic instruments either. Pitbull was one of the first weekend’s headliners. The crowd is diverse, in age and appearance. There is a ton of tie-dye. Over the course of the weekend I see more Grateful Dead shirts than I have ever seen outside of a Grateful Dead show. Many of them are official, but there are plenty of bootlegs, too — including sports-team specific riffs on the Dead’s “Steal Your Face” skull logo; I spot fest-goers in Dead-themed shirts for the Ravens, the Patriots, and, of course, the Saints. I see New Orleans–themed pseudo–Hawaiian shirts with patterns of alligators, magnolias, crawfish, and red beans and rice, strung through with Jazz Fest logos.
There is also a very high concentration of hats. At first I am unnerved by how many guys are wearing fedoras, but I quickly realize the fedora guys here are not like the Hollywood douchebags with whom I associate fedoracore. These are jazz dads, many of them with jazz beards, in porkpie hats. Being judgmental at Jazz Fest feels wrong. I find myself unusually accepting of the presence of the jazz dads, probably because I am a jazz dad myself.3 There are also baseball caps, visors, and women in lavishly flowered and feathered hats that wouldn’t look out of place at the Kentucky Derby.
I make my way to the Zatarains/WWOZ jazz tent, where trumpeter Christian Scott is playing. Scott went to the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts (NOCCA). He has an eight-piece band onstage playing an expansive jam. He introduces a song called “West of the West” that he says is about how much he hated living in Los Angeles. Scott’s uncle is jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., and I learn later that the family is the inspiration for the Lambreaux family on Treme. Onstage, Scott expresses his frustrations with the New Orleans Police, invoking the recent events in Baltimore. The set ends with a song called “K.K.P.D.” for “Ku Klux Police Department.”
During the weekend I’m there, the headliners are people like Elton John, No Doubt, T.I., Chicago, Steve Winwood, and Ed Sheeran. But the big names are almost beside the point. I read an article in a local magazine that questions whether Jazz Fest has sold out; it’s been partnered with AEG Live since 2004.4 But any concerns that the festival has been watered down evaporate as soon as you step into the Gospel Tent. While some of the headliners represent prestige, nostalgia, and contemporary roots revivalism from around the world, the bulk of the performers are local legends, and they garner equally large and reverent crowds. There is no cynicism at Jazz Fest, nobody with their arms folded waiting to be impressed. It’s immersive.
Every random performance I see at Jazz Fest is just as great as the ones I’d planned to go to. You cannot lose. In the Gospel Tent, I see the incredible New Orleans blues chanteuse Irma Thomas. Thomas is in a white lace dress that resembles a choir robe, and there is a giant yellow chiffon rose pinned to the front. Her clear and bright voice levitates the room. As she testifies, some people in the crowd hold up their babies to absorb the floating vibrations of her magnificence.
For the day’s closer, I check out Chicago on one of the big stages. People my mind still identifies as “grown-ups” are camped out in chairs on the fields. You are allowed to sit down at Jazz Fest; in some cases you are even encouraged. Comfort is key to the above-all goal of pleasure. Chicago, with its brass-heavy lineup, fits right in with the rest of the festival, which is heavily instrumental. There are guitars too, but the booking is anything but rockist. Equal emphasis is put on all instruments: pianos, brass, violins, drums, the human voice. Ensembles are the festival’s glue. There is a communal vibe; everyone works together. It makes the sound bigger. Jazz Fest ends every night at seven, before it’s even dark, but there are late-night jam sessions with a lot of the local artists at every club in town. Chicago’s horn section wafts sound waves into the crowd as it starts to cool down outside.
I begin day two by seeing Charles Lloyd, the jazz saxophonist and flutist, at the Jazz Tent, on the recommendation of my extremely hip jazz dad. Lloyd played in the Cannonball Adderley sextet in the mid-’60s and did the flute solo on the Beach Boys’ “Feel Flows.” Like many Jazz Fest artists, Lloyd moves freely between genres and styles, embracing their inherent contradictions. I miss seeing Jerry Lee Lewis, but I can hear his aggressive piano plinking drifting from the Acura Stage as I walk through the crowd in search of a cold beverage. On my way to see Aaron Neville, I stop in at the Peoples Health Economy Hall tent and catch a little bit of blues singer Ruby Wilson doing a Bessie Smith tribute set.
At the Blues Tent, Neville is performing an emotional cover of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” which Newman wrote in 1974 about the Great Mississippi Flood, but which became linked with Hurricane Katrina after Neville sang it on NBC’s A Concert for Hurricane Relief. It’s the first acknowledgement I hear of Katrina, 10 years after the dual-pronged tragedy: the natural disaster followed by the horrific FEMA fuck-up. Neville hits the refrain, “Louisiana, they trying to wash us away.” People around me are crying, and then I am too.
But as fast as there is sadness there is joy, as the band launches into a medley of the anti-war spiritual “Down by the Riverside” and New Orleans’s unofficial theme song “When the Saints Go Marching In.” There is a long history of reinterpretation in New Orleans music; gospel hymns were often made into upbeat dance songs for brass bands to play. “When the Saints Go Marching In” can be played as a melancholy funeral march or Dixieland swing. Louis Armstrong made it a pop standard in the ’30s and Fats Domino updated it into rock and roll for the ’50s. New Orleans loves its traditions, but all of its traditions are meant to be played with in as many ways as possible: No two dishes taste exactly alike, even cooked with the same ingredients. I love things that lend themselves to multiple equally correct interpretations. Neville’s band vamps on “Saints” as it begins the familiar “Who dat?” chant of the New Orleans Saints. The band slides into “Tell It Like It Is,” and couples of all ages slow-dance at the back of the hall. Neville hits his falsetto register and I feel a jolt of pure ASMR.
I move toward the Congo Square area, where bounce queen Big Freedia is about to take the stage. The stage is named after the real Congo Square (located in what is now Louis Armstrong Park), where, during the 19th century, slaves were permitted by law to congregate on Sundays. Congo Square became a center for preserving African musical traditions after the involuntary diaspora, a tradition that continued after the Louisiana Purchase.
Big Freedia is the stage name of Freddie Ross, who was born in Baltimore and moved to New Orleans at age 10, learning about the bounce music subculture through local bounce performer and drag queen Katey Red. Big Freedia performs hits like “Gin in My System” for an adoring crowd of midday twerkers, surrounded by dancers acrobatically shaking their asses. For the finale, Freedia takes off a cloak, bends over and twerks beautifully as a male dancer daggers him, and the crowd goes wild. Afterward I check out T.I., who does a better-than-expected set of his own hits, and also that thing rappers sometimes do for live shows — he just plays the beats for songs that are popular now, like “Truffle Butter,” and does verses from his own songs over them. It’s a cheap tactic, but it totally works.
For the close of the second day I go to the Acura Stage, where Elton John is playing a two-and-a-half-hour headlining set. I was never an Elton John super-fan, owing to my inexplicable prejudice against “Crocodile Rock,” whose “la la la la la la” chorus I always associated with my related dislike of Frankie Valli’s falsetto. But watching Elton perform live, I question all my previous assumptions. He is great. And he pounds the piano for more than two hours nonstop, sounding like he’d fit in at any New Orleans honky-tonk. He plays “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” as the sun begins to set, and the drunk crowd chants along. He does “The Bitch Is Back” with a live horn section, which feels appropriate. A plane flies overhead trailing a banner ad for the Hustler Club on Bourbon Street.
The sun is still dropping when Elton launches into “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting,” and I find myself getting hyped with everyone else. Someone up front in the crowd near the stage hoists a pole with pink and orange feather boas trailing from it and waves it like a flag. Elton is a great live pianist, and I laugh out loud as he improvises a little flourish of “If I Were a Rich Man” from Fiddler on the Roof during his solo.5 He comes back for an encore: “Crocodile Rock.” For the first time ever, I just submit to the song’s ’70s-’50s charms, and giving in feels great. I sing the dreaded falsetto part at the top of my lungs in imperfect harmony with the crowd, which is all singing, dancing, and clapping along. I leave the grounds energized, in a great mood.
I have a running theory that pianos are marginalized in rock because they’re feminized. If guitars are often viewed as phallic, then pianos are vaginal. But pianos are everywhere at Jazz Fest. So are instruments and voices that are marginalized in other arenas of music. Jazz Fest is progressive: musically, racially, and demographically. The musical ageism that plagues popular music charts seems like a joke in this context, where some of the biggest names are also the oldest, where musicians get better as they go on and they play gigs forever, for to keep living is to keep playing. Jazz Fest is unique, and its specificity is what makes it special. It can only be itself, and within that very locally focused and tradition-preserving specificity is such diversity that it’s insane. I see two Armstrong tributes over the weekend — Kermit Ruffins’s and Dr. John’s — and they are utterly different. The festival exists outside of popular music in some ways — to the detriment of popular music. It exists beyond passing trends and elevates what genuinely matters: musicianship.
On Sunday, I see another smattering of awesome performers: Steve Winwood, the O’Jays, and the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Gospel Tent. At the Jazz & Heritage Stage I see Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. & the Wild Magnolias, a Mardi Gras Indian group, who perform a tribute to their recently deceased leader, Big Chief Bo Dollis. The New Orleans tradition of Mardi Gras Indian tribes features black carnival groups that parade in regalia inspired by Native American ceremonial garb, in tribute to stories of Choctaw, Chickasaws, and Seminoles who helped slaves escape and survive in the 1700s. The Wild Magnolias perform popular songs from the 20th century with the lyrics changed to reference the history of the Wild Magnolias and Big Chief Bo Dollis. The performing groups periodically parade through a route in Jazz Fest that also hosts the brass band parades known as second lines. New Orleans loves parades. I dance in my first second line and never want it to end.
Finally I go to see Dr. John close out the day with his Armstrong tribute set. The Blind Boys of Alabama come out onstage together. There are about a million people onstage, all of them playing instruments. It feels like a party. Dr. John enters the stage with his hair in a banded ponytail, which looks like a shirt about to be tie-dyed. He uses two walking canes adorned with trinkets. His hatband is filled with feathers. The band plays a funky jam that reveals itself to be “Mack the Knife,” delivered in Dr. John’s creepy-crawler voice. Seagulls go crazy flying over the crowd as Dr. John does “Memories of You.”
Afterward, I meet Mac backstage. Musicians pay tribute to him on their way out of the trailer. One guy hugs him and says, “You are a blessing.” Everyone is full of love for Rebennack, music, and each other. It’s a really nice place to be. Mac asks me if he’s free to “bust a square,” which is his way of saying he wants to smoke a cigarillo on the porch, his last vice. He bids me goodbye in his froggy voice as I pass him on my way out of the trailer.
The Jazz Fest grounds are empty now, the field silent and trampled, the crowd dispersed to keep partying or make their way out to the clubs. I walk down the street past people partying in a bar called the Seahorse Saloon and hail a cab, feeling optimistic about the human capacity for surviving, rebuilding, and creating.