By Geraldine Wyckoff
It’s impossible to ignore/forget how the first day, Thursday, April 25, of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage’s 50th anniversary began. It rained torrentially, enough so that the opening of the festival’s gates was delayed for an hour and a half. That the festival organizers were able to get it all going again so fast was both remarkable and appreciated by attendees. Of course, Jazz Fest and many regular festival-goers have much experience with downpours and the resulting muddy conditions. Let the show go on!
With some calculated planning matched by flexibility, Fest fans really could do well musically despite sudden cloud bursts that warranted taking shelter by most, but not all, folks. Crazy young and old music maniacs just stood out there in their boots and rain ponchos seemingly rejoicing in the experience. Been there, done that.
The joyful voices of Arthur and the Friends Community Choir simply drowned out the sound of the rain pounding on the roof of the Gospel Tent. A powerful ensemble of some 40-plus members, it was driven by a great band of young musicians with the drummer really hitting on all cylinders. The ever in motion, Rosalie “The Tambourine Lady” Washington, added the ring of the tambourine to the percussive element of the set that included some screamin’ solo vocalists.
Even the Gospel Tent staff was dancing on Sunday when octogenarian Andrew Jackson Sr., the leader of the Legendary Rocks of Harmony, stood at the edge of the stage and with the strength of a much younger man belted out, “I’m Still Here.” His son, Andrew Jr., joined him and soon thereafter took off his deep green jacket and got down on the floor with his microphone. All the veterans in this group, which has been together for 60 years, got into the action and spirit. The fine guitarist offered a wonderful rendition of “Amazing Grace” and even the keyboardist jumped up to dance. “Do we look good?” Jackson asked the crowd. Wow, yes they looked as good as they sounded with their green suits and vests set off by their yellow shirts.
The Cultural Exchange Pavilion, the dancing-est spot at the Fest, was a great place to be, rain or shine. It must have been around 4 p.m. Thursday, just after drummer Gerald French & the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band’s exhilarating set in Economy Hall that blue skies appeared in the west. It was the perfect time to celebrate by jumping on Martinique’s Chouval Bwa’s fanciful carousel, located next to the Pavilion, while the band, complete with percussion instruments, an accordionist and vocalists, plays in its center. The music so beautifully accompanies the ride on the hand-carved and man-powered carousel that looks innocent enough until it really gets going. In this case, New Orleans’ term for a merry-go-round, flying-horses, suits the ride well. Whee…
New Orleans headliners took over the Jazz Tent on Friday including established groups such as trumpeter Terence Blanchard & the E-Collective and the all-star band, Astral Project. Lovers of those deep, low tones certainly dug on the group baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis (Dirty Dozen, Treme Brass Band) put together for his appropriately titled “Baritone Bliss,” that included Lewis, Tony Dagradi, Calvin Johnson, Khari Allen Lee and more on bari plus a bass saxophonist who really held down the bottom. Dedicated to the late saxophonist Tim Green, who once played with this unit, the Bliss’ selections offered an appealing variety of genre’s from Dagradi’s “Mandela” to old-school rhythm and blues.
Saxophonist Kidd Jordan, who performed with his four musical offspring on Saturday, sat in the front row of the Jazz Tent listening to pianist Ellis Marsalis and his hugely talented four sons close out the modern jazz fest mecca on Sunday. The set was dedicated to wife and mother Delores Marsalis, who passed away in 2017. Like the Rocks of Harmony’s lead vocalist, Andrew Jackson Sr. mentioned above, the Marsalis patriarch doesn’t lay back but continues to push the music forward with his improvisations. The show was one of great jazz ability and of the musicians’ visible admiration of each other’s intuitive and educated prowess.
Sunday began with a one-two punch of the blues starting with the Mississippi hill country dynamo singer, drummer and guitarist Cedric Burnside, the grandson of the late, legendary R.L. Burnside. Playing in a duo and switching from guitar to drums, Burnside happily attacked the snare and tom, putting his whole body into the song “Don’t Leave Me Girl.” Burnside’s stripped-down blues style stood in contrast to that of his fellow Mississippi native, guitarist/vocalist Mr. Sipp “The Mississippi Blues Child,” who played fronting a full band with horns in the Blues Tent the previous day. Nonetheless, that the two acts shared a common ancestry was evident. By the way, Mr. Sipp demanded that everyone in the crowd get on their feet, which is just what they always want to do in the often overly restricted Blues Tent.
The commonality shared by Burnside and Mr. Sipp also, unexpectedly, prevailed when Mdou Moctar, a resident of Niger, Africa, who as a guitarist, songwriter and vocalist specializes in electrifying and modernizing the music of the Saharan Tuareg people, performed directly after Burnside. Highly influenced by guitarist Jimi Hendrix with deep roots in the tradition of his people, Moctar demonstrated the full circle of the African diaspora. The music and rhythms were, through those enslaved, brought from the continent to points west including the Southern United States and remain a strong element in the blues. Moctar embraced the influences of Black American artists thus he returned their music to its homeland. Burnside’s drumming and the forceful style of Moctar’s drummer spoke of their rhythmic roots. Music is one world.
This article originally appeared in the Louisiana Weekly.