A few weeks ago my friend Sal lamented that he would miss his annual pilgrimage to JazzFest this year. (Thanks, economy.) I thought at the time, who cares, we've got plenty of culture right here in the Big Apple. Plus I'd spent a long JazzFest weekend in 2004 the year prior to Hurricane Katrina's devastation. But as I rewind through this past weekend in New Orleans as part of the collective that descends annually to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I was struck by the undeniable and infectious vibe of the event.
Back in New York, we think we know and own all culture. In many ways we do, and it is often measured by the media by how loud we bray and beat our collective cultured chests. And it's certainly one of the main reasons I moved here in 1981. Then the East Village music and art scene was second to none. And I thankfully ingested much of it. But lately it occurs to me that much of our American culture is being co-opted and packaged in week- or weekend-long party parcels -- from music festivals (Bonnaroo, Coachella, et al.) to Micro Film Festivals (Santa Barbara, Cape May, Sundance, et al.) to Art Basel in Miami to ComicCon in San Diego to cultural festivals such as SXSW, Burning Man, Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, et al. Most of it is very cool and worthwhile, and I've drunk long and deep from some of those said culturally rich wells, but I might argue that JazzFest is the best.
The JazzFest is something totally American and unique. It may appear on the surface to be a big ol' rambling yuppie-friendly music festival attracting major yuppie headliners this year, including The Beach Boys with Brian Wilson, Tom Petty, The Eagles, Bruce Springsteen, and Jimmy Buffett. But it's so much more. In fact, the Foundation that runs the annual Spring event fervently promotes the indigenous music of the region, and in some ways has helped elevate music that is truly indigenous to America -- jazz, R&B, Cajun, blues, gospel, folk, Zydeco, roots-rock, and funk. And wisely, many of the headlining acts that play at the Fest do their best to incorporate some of the local legends and heroes, big and small, on stage -- UK act Gomez featured three of the Rebirth horns, Dr. John sat in with The Boss, etc.
Eleven stages/tents share music from 11:20 AM to 7 PM every day the festival is open -- typically Friday-Sunday the first weekend and Thursday-Sunday the second weekend. There's even more music in the clubs, bowling alleys, streets, gardens, private homes, and parks. It is a music orgy for ears and feet.
I couldn't help but get up on my good foot to the Cajun or Gumbo funk of many bands on Friday and Saturday afternoon. And why not when it's served up with so much verve and passion. Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band were one of my favorite bands featured at the Fais Do-Do stage on Friday. Ditto for many of the acts at the Gospel tent on Saturday. Sanctified and soul sanitized every morning. "Look for the tambourine lady (AKA Rosalie "Lady Tambourine" Washington). If she's on stage in the gospel tent then you know the band is worthwhile," quipped NYC-based singer Dayna Kurtz. Dayna was spot on. There Rosalie was stage left with the Wimbley Family Gospel Singers.
Thanks to my very wise dancing hostess Seran and her crew, I got to imbibe in the primal musical stew of 101 Runners. It couldn't have been any more perfect. Mardi Gras Indian Funk, part jamband mixed with the native gumbo Indian culture; the perfect commune of music past, present, and future.
But why would I proclaim New Orleans the new center of America's music scene? Well, hanging out Saturday evening on Frenchmen Street certainly helped strengthen my proclamation. Some may argue that street alone is perhaps only rivaled by Austin's 6th Street. Certainly the East Village rivaled their scene back in the day, but it is now diluted by the numerous hipster clubs in Brooklyn where much of the youth culture has flocked. (Plus the death of the Lakeside Lounge. RIP.) One crazy evening of dancing to The Soul Project at Cafe Negril's changed my attitude. It was early Sunday morning and the clubs were still jamming. The music was pumping, the crowds were jumping, and it was not DJ culture either. Live music! One club after another. And there was more to follow as my friend Alan peeled off to catch Galatic's last set at another venue. I punked out, spent and satiated after an entire day at JazzFest, a huge meal at Elizabeth's in Bywater with my new comrades from Chicago, and too much dancing.
Even when I was working, if you can call it that, it was chill. During SyncUp I got to conduct the keynote interview with fellow NYer Daniel Glass -- owner/president of the indie label Glassnote Records, home to some very fine music including Mumford & Sons, GIVERS (they killed it on the Gentilly Stage on Friday afternoon), Phoenix, et al. -- about the current state of the music industry. (Thanks Scott and Tim.) Imagine an hour-plus-long interview in the auditorium of NOMA (New Orleans Museum of Art) at 10 AM with half the audience drinking Bloody Marys, yours truly included. By the way, my new friend Robin the Royalista convinced me to take in the outsider/self-taught artists exhibit, including the magnificent Thorton Dial. His exhibit Hard Truths: The Art of Thorton Dial should not be missed. It features over 40 of Dial’s large-scale paintings (image left), drawings and found-object sculptures, including 25 new works. If you're still in New Orleans, it is well worth the effort, as I'm fond of saying.
Ditto for an elegant and sumptuous lunch at the Commander's Palace. I got to share mirth and merriment with some dear friends from New York (Peter, Ingrid, Emma, Maki), forge a new friendship with Ms. Alexa G. from NOLA (thanks for all of your hospitality), wear my seersucker blazer and straw porkpie hat, sip a proper Pimm's Cup (one of the best I've ever had outside of the UK), and of course dine on some very fine cuisine. To be certain, that was way too easy of an afternoon of leisure.
Sal, I finally get it. And I get when you said, "Sometimes you lament what you missed and not what you saw." There is so much to take in. New Orleans has that snap that New York once had so many years ago. But it's easier; the Big Easy swag. And I get why so many of my music-freak peers can't wait to get back year in and year out. I know that I shall return. See you at the Fest or on Frenchmen Street. I'll be dancing and sweating and workin' my mojo overtime. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Mr. Wright is content creator and culture curator. He is a contributor to The Huffington Post, the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 4 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.