To travel with me on this musical odyssey you will need to momentarily close your eyes. Now, in your mind’s eye, imagine that the world’s most talented musicians instantly appear before you. Imagine they are not only playing your favorite rock, blues, or country tunes, but zydeco, Cajun, gospel, R&B, bluegrass, African, Carribean, jazz and more. You’re not hearing any of this on your earbuds or through a streaming service but live and almost within arm’s reach.
Eyes still closed? Good. Now imagine that these exceptional tunes emanate not just from your favorite pop artists but from some of the most creative and inspired musicians and singers you’ll ever hear: from veterans who have performed for years-- the musical backbone of their genres-- to young inventive talent who bring abundant energy, fresh ideas and new takes to the classics.
Now imagine finally that you can switch from one genre of music to another in an instant, not by changing channels or by tickling a touchscreen, but simply by strolling a few hundred feet in either direction to the next stage. Now open your eyes. Imagine no further, because all this time you’ve been at Jazzfest. Jazz & Heritage Stage
When it comes to New Orleans, most people fall into one of three categories: either you've already been there, you plan on going, or you’ll end up there eventually whether you know it or not. How can I be so sure? Because the seductive power of the gumbos, crawfish po’ boys and beignets; the plethora of music venues city-wide, and the charm, warmth, and humor of the local folks provide too great an allure for most of us. So, if you ever needed an excuse to cop your New Orleans fix, Jazzfest is as good as any. It’s your perfect "get out of jail free card".
Jazzfest (officially known as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, originating in 1970), held annually the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May, takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course-- a long walk or short trolley or bus ride from most places in the city. Zydeco Roadrunners
Picture the venue as a big oval with 11 stages strung along its circumference. Most bands play on open stages while others perform in spacious tents. In the middle of the oval you’ll find scrumptious food, crafts and clothing for sale, as well as the work of visual artists like Terrence Osborne who painted the official poster in 2014 for Jazzfest’s 45th anniversary poster. Richard Thomas & Paul Rappoport You’ll also find my friend Richard Thomas (pictured here)—a painter who first appeared at Jazzfest in 1977 and has been an anchor and teacher in the New Orleans artistic community ever since. Among his many works for Jazzfest, Thomas created the official 20th anniversary poster featuring Fats Domino and more recently has been honoring the life and work of Louis Armstrong with a series of portraits. Thomas’ contributions to the NOLA community by bringing art into the lives of children, prisoners, and the needy remains unparalleled.
The festival as solely a jazz venue is a misnomer. Although true in its nascent period the event has become far more inclusive. And what often escapes most presumptions about its mission, the music purposefully provides a pathway to the greater cultural Heritage of the area while the heritage inevitably takes you back to the music. This completes the circle…or the oval if you will.
It gets hot at Jazzfest but a few shade trees at the Fair Grounds provide some shade later in the day. Sometimes it rains--like the first weekend this year--and it's always crowded. Some spectators come with blankets, others with beach chairs, but most with nothing at all except for large hats and plenty of water.
Bring no edibles though. You can't take it in and you wouldn't want to anyway given that the myriad food vendors will ply your palates with endless plates of the most exquisite southern dishes money can buy, including jambalaya, gumbos, etoufees, various po' boys, oysters, shrimp, alligator, beignets, pralines, and so on. The “fest” is a feast: a feast of music, culture and food. And if you haven’t had your fill by 7PM when the day is done, Bourbon Street, Frenchman street, and the rest of the Crescent City awaits you. NOLA Nights
Despite this bounty of bacchanal, however, New Orleans will forever remain defined in part by “Katrina” -- the once in an epoch flood. For many locals the flood is less a story of a Category 5 Hurricane that devastated the city and more about the levees, canals, and the army core of engineers that failed them. Close to 2,000 people died and over 700 others are still missing. 80% of the city was under water and the damage from the storm is estimated to rise above $150 billion (https://www.dosomething.org/facts/11-facts-about-hurricane-katrina). To this day-- 10 years later-- people are still dying in its aftermath.
And yet New Orleanians move forward, exhibiting a remarkable dedication and resilience. It’s the incredible comeback story from this once submerged city that inspires others and draws you to it, identifying with its people, relating to their loss, and aspiring to their determination. You feel its pain but also revel in its grit. It’s this New Orleans that you can’t help but acknowledge, applaud and embrace. Along the Esplanade
Being at Jazzfest means that you transition daily from the “fest” to this remarkable city and back again. You become unmistakably a part of both. Residents experience it the same way. Jazzfest and the City of New Orleans become one.
This year’s headiners like Elton John, The Who, Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga, No Doubt, Steve Winwood, Chicago, Ed Sheeran, John Legend and others get the attention they deserve, but big names alone do not make Jazzfest. Honestly, the superstars provide great entertainment, but “Jazzfest” is everything else. Dr. John "Mac" Rebennack
Other than the more two dozen or so big stars, there remain roughly 400 performances by local or lesser known artists—and most no less talented for sure-- including the likes of Reverend John Wilkins, Ruby Wilson from Memphis who channeled Bessie Smith, Ruby Wilson Young Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, Young Hunters Mardi Gras Indians Leroy Thomas and the Zydeco Roadrunners, Marcia Ball, the Dukes of Dixieland, and hundreds more that grace the fest’s stages. Some names easily roll off your tongue like Jerry Lee Lewis, Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Aaron Neville, and the list goes on.
Just a single day at the fest can be so exhilarating and even exhausting that you’ll need a break to catch your breath. So you head back, freshen up, go out later in the evening, and maybe look for more music and a few drinks-- or just head to one of the city’s many great restaurants for dinner.
This year my wife and I avoided the hotel scene and instead rented a small apartment in the Marigny-Bywater section of town, a ten-minute car ride or 20-25 minute walk from the French Quarter. This was a new neighborhood for us and what a gem it was.
The Marigny-Bywater is a transitional residential neighborhood still working its way back. It’s home to blue collar types, retirees, young professionals, artists, tourists, drinkers, stoners, and colorful characters of all types. It’s here in the Marigny where you can sense the great spunk and spirit of a city that has a lot to say and a lot yet to do.
We settled in here amidst the pot-holed and sometimes tree-lined streets. Every block was a new adventure. Turning every corner another surprise. In this direction were art galleries, NOCCA, (the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) and an upscale restaurant. In another direction a local bar, a few sandwich shops, and a mix of homes: some beautifully rehabbed, others abandoned and still others in various states of repair. Flora's
Populated by warm and engaging people with a palpable energy that screamed “reinvigoration”, we made friends quickly and got the inside scoop on the area. We shopped at the old Mardi Gras store, now the Mardi Gras Zone 24/7 grocery—funkiest-ever of all groceries with a special mardi gras section upstairs and pizza ovens downstairs. Then we dropped in at Euclid Records on Chartre St. to scout some old vinyls (Ask “Lefty” if he’s got your old gold.) and then crossed over the Piety street bridge to the new Crescent Park for a Mississippi view of the Crescent City at dusk.
We dined at Feelings Cafe-- seated outside in the delightful backyard garden where the atmosphere and cuisine were superb; breakfasted the next day with cousins Cliff and Chana on Dauphine Street at one of Satsuma’s two “local and organic” coffeehouse cafes and consumed a delicious Asian repast at Doug Crowells’ Bao&Noodle on Chartres Street-- super fresh and tasty and don’t miss it. Dinner at Feelings Cafe
New Orleans never disappoints. One afternoon on the way back from Frady’s where hot lunches and po’ boys southern style amaze even the locals, we found ourselves cut-off from the Marigny by a freight train on Press Street. We eventually wound our way around the snaking train emerging “on the other side of the tracks” at the corner of Press and Royal streets.
It was here that we were confronted by a rusting and faded historical marker designating this very spot as the place where, on June 7, 1892, Homer Adolph Plessy was taken off the East Louisiana Railroad and taken into custody by the police. Plessy, a “black” man of mixed race was supposed to sit in the “colored car”. By brazenly boarding the “white car” Plessy was in violation of the “1890 Louisiana Separate Car Act that separated railroad passengers by race” and was promptly arrested.
Near Press and Royal Streets Four years later Plessy lost his case. In 1896, the Supreme Court of the United States, (Plessy v Ferguson) ruled against him, establishing legal precedent whereby laws requiring the separation of the races were deemed constitutional. I read the marker but could not believe my eyes. It was right here, at this very spot, at the intersection of Press and Royal streets in the heart of the revitalization of today’s New Orleans where a profound infamy occurred 119 years ago, altering the course of race relations in America. It took another 60 years for this injustice to be corrected. In 1956, in Brown v Board of Education, the Supreme Court reversed this decision and we were back on the right side of the tracks again.
Crescent City 'n' Ole Miss. New Orleans was at one time the center of the slave trade, the largest city in the south, the birthplace of the Creole culture, the home of the Cajun people, the birthplace of Jazz, the childhood home of Louis Armstrong, and yes, the mixing of black and white in what has become one of the friendliest and most welcoming of all American cities.
To know this you do not need to close your eyes. You have nothing to imagine. You just need to return to the music. The music is where all things coalesce, heritage included. Listen to the lyrics, feel the rhythms, hear the beat of the drums. Pay attention to the ones that went before and follow the legacy. This is the soul of New Orleans. This is the magic of Jazzfest.
copyright Paul Rappoport
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Additional photos from New Orleans and Jazzfest
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