In & Around The 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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photo by Larry Blumenfeld

I’m still unpacking—clothes, notes, photos, ideas—after nearly two weeks in New Orleans. Not sure what I’ll end up writing, or where.

For now, some things that happened in and around the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival (incomplete, and in no particular order):

• On the eve of his 82nd birthday, tenor saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan played a benefit concert for the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp, of which he is artistic director. Three members of his quartet—he, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille—had a cumulative age of 237. Supported by their vast shared experience they leaned forward into a blissfully improvised present.

• As the Fair Grounds (the horse track that becomes a multi-stage venue for jazzfest) buzzed in celebration of jazz’s freedom and heritage, encampments of men and women formed around the city’s Confederate monuments that were scheduled for removal, either celebrating or protesting different yet related aspects of freedom and heritage. The site of the Jefferson Davis monument (which has just been removed) was a popular spot. On a Monday, those protesting the threatened removal of the monument were met by an “antifascist karaoke and barbecue.” The following Thursday evening, the Brothers of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity held a “Social Action Prayer Vigil.” By Sunday morning, protestors were back out, wearing military garb and waving Confederate flags. One of them put down his flag long enough to tell me: “The South got it right in 1861, and I’m here to protect all of that.”

• Displaying the refined focus and rhythmic verve of the group’s new CD, “So It Is,” which was inspired by a trip to Cuba, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band assembled each night at its namesake venue for midnight shows with special guests: It swung hard and precise on opening night with pianist Jon Batiste, and lent sweet and savvy backing to singer Irma Thomas midweek. The high point was ten-minute descarga anchored by Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés and his band, and featuring the Preservation band’s horns; the moment added a new layer of resonance to the story of this celebrated spot. (The following evening, Chucho and company closed jazzfest’s jazz tent in mesmerizing fashion.)

• A 150-strong Cuban delegation energized jazzfest in profound and varied ways. Los Van Van rocked the Congo Square stage, as did Adonis y Osain Del Monte. But mostly, The Cuban Cultural Exchange Pavilion was the magnet for anyone with ears, hips and a heart. (The ropa vieja in back wasn’t bad, either.) Standout shows here (and on other stages) came from rapper Telmary y Habana Sana and singer Daymé Arocena.

• Though roughly a dozen performances at jazzfest (and a few outside the Fair Grounds) percussionist and singer Pedrito Martinez was an unstoppable engine of power and ingenuity, leading his own quartet and co-leading a Rumba Project with percussionist Román Díaz. Their Rumba Project—different in each of its several iterations—was simply the place to be within jazzfest’s swarm of must-see shows.

• Pianist Henry Butler, who has been battling cancer, looked and sounded radiant and peformed at breakneck pace: conjuring raucous beauty with his Jambalaya Band at jazzfest’s blues tent; messing masterfully with Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” while playing solo piano at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center; investing new meaning and devilish harmony into even the oft-heard “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” at the Snug Harbor club; and paying tribute to one of his piano heroes, James Booker, on the upright at the Bywater Bakery, while surounded by dear friends, the day after jazzfest closed.

• Stevie Wonder, who battled sound system issues throughout his Acura Stage set, is still Stevie Wonder.

• Trumpeter Terence Blanchard sat in for a tune with Pedrito’s quartet at the jazz tent, then stood in for trumpeter Hugh Masekela (a late cancellation due to health) with pianist the Jazz Epistles featuring Abdullah Ibrahim and Ekaya. A week later, he was back with his own fiery E-Collective band, which sounds like it’s on a mission beyond simply music and ended with a song dedicated to social workers.

• Trumpeter Nicholas Payton stood in for Masekela during a tribute to Louis Armstrong with clarinetist Michael White, honoring that tradition with erudition and without cliché. Payton led his own defiant yet accessible “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” band a week later; at the set’s end, he led a jazztent audience in a chant, drawn from a sampled snippet of a Max Roach interview: “Jazz is a four-letter word.”

 

 

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