How the rich stole jazz music

Fats Domino now suffers from dementia, but he is still loved here in his hometown, where the 46th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival wraps up this weekend with a special tribute to the rock and roll giant 87 years old. “Listen,” begins the JazzFest coverage in OffBeat, the city’s leading music magazine. “You can hear Fats Domino everywhere in New Orleans, even in places where there is silence. There’s something about its rhythms and melodies that’s in the way people walk and riff horns and cars drive and trams creak and cutlery slams and cast iron pots simmer. The beloved article barely stops to name Fats the father of rock and roll, saying that while he and his crack band “didn’t invent it, they perfected it” with songs like “Ain’t That a Shame”, “Blueberry Hill”, and “Walking to New Orleans”.

An even older New Orleans icon was celebrated last Sunday at the end of the festival’s opening weekend. “Jelly Roll Morton used to say he invented jazz,” clarinetist and music historian Dr. Michael White told the crowd from the folksave stage as his Original Liberty Jazz Band was pausing between numbers. “He didn’t invent jazz, but he did more of it than anyone else in the early years. He led the transition from ragtime to jazz, proving that written arrangements and improvisation could go hand in hand.

But this year’s Jazz Fest is by no means a genuflect to the city’s incomparable musical past. Probably no festival in the United States offers a wider range of musical genres: Eight stages spread across the infield of a horse racing track feature jazz, blues, gospel, zydeco, R&B , hip-hop, international, rock and roll, and more. . And new artists as well as confirmed artists are highlighted. The stars of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, the high school whose graduates include Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr. and Trombone Shorty, do two sets: NOCCA alumni performed last weekend, current students perform this Saturday.

And last Saturday, if one woke up early enough to catch the first 11 a.m. sets — something many Jazz Festers miss — the main stage offered a rousing performance by the To Be Continued Brass Band. Discovered as teenagers in the 9th Ward playing for tips on the corner of Bourbon and Canal streets in 2007, the TBC have steadily risen through the ranks of the city’s competitive marching band scene. “It was our sixth straight year playing Jazz Fest,” said Matt Lafrance, who, at 42, describes himself as the group’s father figure. TBC first played on the smaller Jazz Fest stage (the Jazz & Heritage Stage), then graduated to Congo Square and this year hit the headlines, the Acura Stage, which usually only features the biggest artists. “It’s a phenomenal feeling,” Lafrance said after TBC wowed the crowd with a series of horns and percussion, most notably on “Nagin,” their composition ridiculing Ray Nagin, the hapless Hurricane Katrina mayor who was convicted last year of corruption and money laundering.

Yet for all of Jazz Fest’s celebration of New Orleans music, food, and culture, some locals complain that one central element is missing: the people. The daily ticket price of $70 is just too high in a city where many people struggle to get by. In recent years Jazz Fest crowds have grown increasingly affluent, old and white as festival promoters, AEG, book bands such as The Eagles and this year The Who and Chicago who have very little to do with the music of New Orleans. .

“The only black faces you see more at Jazz Fest are the staff and the musicians,” says Gregg Stafford, a trumpeter who teaches a New Orleans public school by day and fronts world-class bands like the Young Tuxedo Jazz Band. “Of course, tourists are welcome, but Jazz Fest was started by and for the people of New Orleans to remember and celebrate our heritage. Black people created jazz, the people of New Orleans built this festival, and now it’s being taken away from us. When you see a $70 ticket price, it says to black people in New Orleans, ‘You’re not invited.’ »

Pianist and singer Henry Butler, a New Orleans resident whose gigantic talent has yet to translate to worldwide fame, is also sadly absent from this year’s Jazz Fest. “I won’t call Henry a genius, because I hate the way that word is thrown around,” says Tom McDermott, a veteran New Orleans pianist who flaunts his own extraordinary musical range and light touch on a new album. inspired by the sounds of New Orleans, City of Stamps. “But Henry belongs up there with all the great New Orleans pianists, from Professor Longhair to James Booker and Dr. John.”

Fred Kasten, the weekend emcee at Snug Harbor, the city’s premier jazz club, thinks Butler, who was blinded by glaucoma as a child, may have worked with the wrong producers in the pass. Pointing to Viper Drag, the new album Butler has produced with Steven Bernstein and the band Hot 9 and featuring Herlin Riley, perhaps New Orleans’ greatest drummer, Kasten says, “Bernstein is a great arranger and knows how to choose songs that work well with what Henry does. This could be the group of colleagues who finally bring Henry the mass audience he deserves.

Butler was supposed to have played Jelly Roll Morton’s tribute last Sunday – it covers three Morton tracks on Viper Drag, including “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” – but prostate cancer required surgery that landed him in a hospital in Denver. “Piano Night,” an annual Jazz Fest event that takes place on the Monday after the first weekend, was therefore dedicated to Butler this year. “The last time I spoke to him, the operation was over and the doctors had not yet decided what type of treatment he would receive next,” said Dr Michael White. “He sounded upbeat and said he wanted to do the Jelly Roll gig in the future.”

Perhaps the highlight of the opening weekend was singer Cassandra Wilson’s stunning performance. Presented as a Mississippi native deeply influenced by New Orleans – at age 26 she moved to New Orleans and was mentored by Ellis Marsalis before heading to New York – Wilson had just returned from Europe, where she was on tour to promote it. new album, a tribute to Billie Holiday, go out the day. “This year marks the 100th birthday of one of jazz’s greatest influencers,” Wilson told a crowd standing in the WWOZ Jazz tent. Pause. “And it was a woman!” Wilson exulted as his face lit up in a winking smile.

Wilson’s powerful, raspy voice is instantly recognizable, but to see her perform in person is also to be transported by that face: those lips that smile a dozen different ways after almost every phrase; those almond-shaped eyelids; that lioness hair. Her set included most of the songs from Holiday’s new tribute album (though not, oddly, “Strange Fruit”), along with her imposing “Sit Down!” shout at the end of “Good Morning, Heartache” causing the house to fall.

To leave a performance of such astonishing beauty and power and hear, moments later and just a few steps away, the laboring beat and raspy, offbeat voice of The Who was, well, sad. As the legendary English rockers launched into a cover of their debut hit, ‘My Generation’, it got even sadder. Don’t get me wrong: Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry wrote and performed terrific and enduring music at the time. But now, or at least at Jazz Fest, they haven’t even pretended to sing the high harmony line that gives “My Generation” its extra kick. Next comes an equally rambling cover of “Can’t Explain.” Bad music is rare at Jazz Fest, but The Who pulled it off.

You wouldn’t know that from their audience, though. Leaving the hall at the end of the day, they took turns raving about what they had just heard, using words like “phenomenal” and even “the most incredible concert I have ever seen”. Never underestimate the power of addicts and dedicated fans.

The true spirit of New Orleans music was not far away, however. Two blocks beyond the festival gate, seven black teenagers ripped to a tune by the Rebirth Brass Band as hundreds of jolly Jazz Festers marched past. They called themselves The Legacy Brass Band; the tuba player’s black and white t-shirt read “2020 College Graduate.” When three white girls in mid-riffs and shorts huddled together to flirt and dance, the youngest of the group, an angel-faced trombonist, blushed but continued to huff.

At dusk, the girls hoisted the band’s tip box above their heads and ducked into the crowd to collect donations for their crushes. Passers-by gladly contributed as music from New Orleans past and present wafted through the warm, humid air. Jazz Fest’s corporate promoters may be greedy and exclusive, but the magic of New Orleans remains for anyone with the spirit to embrace it.

Ada J. Kenney