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MUSIC CITY : Raucous, Racy New Orleans Offers Great Food and Music Year Round--but During Jazzfest, the Volume Really Goes Up

March 06, 1994|Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds is The Times' travel writer. His last piece for this magazine was "Class Act," about Oxford, England.

THE FIRST PROBLEM IS THAT YOU, SITTING AT home, can't hear the drummers. They stand in loose formation onstage--one of the 11 stages that the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival's organizers put up every spring at the city's fairgrounds--and when they've settled properly into a groove, time bends into a repeating loop. Their energy and yours multiply. Even the humidity, greatest of all natural forces in these parts, begins to seem irrelevant. And while the "Mardi Gras Indian" drummers (black New Orleanians who dress in fanciful Native American costumes for public events) pound and paradiddle, a clutch of dancers shimmies in sequined costumes. Red. Green. Gold. Blue. Silver. A bare-bellied woman, ample and undulating. A prancing boy with doe's eyes. All in thrall to those drummers.

You can't smell the gumbo, either. On a late April afternoon, the aroma hangs around the long row of food booths on the grassy fairgrounds infield, mingling with whiffs of red beans and rice, alligator sausage, peanut soup, fried plantains, artichoke-spinach casserole, sweet potato pie, jambalaya, oysters, crawfish, soft-shell crab, strawberries dipped in chocolate. On a typical day at Jazzfest--as the event is known in local shorthand--perhaps 30,000 customers converge on the fairgrounds, beginning about 11 a.m., their pockets stuffed with dollar bills to spend on such snacks. When the music stops at 7 p.m., they leave, ears ringing and bellies bulging, to confront an evening in the single American city most likely to exacerbate those conditions.

So sound and smell are problems, and until word processors can directly deliver those sensations in full glory and subtlety, typing will remain a crudely inefficient way of communicating the appeal of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Which is why I'm resorting to props.

Can we have the evidence out front, please? Exhibits A, B and C are three smiling faces: one black, one British, one mud-caked.


EXHIBIT A IS MAHALIA JACKSON--A WOMAN WITH A ROUND FACE WITH kind eyes and formidable mouth, seen in a snatch of old black-and-white video footage.

Jackson grew up in New Orleans. Before she died in 1972, her loud, sure voice made her the nation's most famous singer of black gospel music. Thus in 1970, when jazz impresario George Wein set about organizing the first Jazzfest (originally known as the Louisiana Heritage Fair) as a musical celebration of that region's rich cultural mix, jazz and otherwise, he called Jackson. She came in for an evening solo concert, which came off as planned. But on the day after her performance, Jackson appeared again, as a member of the audience at Congo Square, then the venue of the festival's daytime events. Congo Square is where slaves and laborers gathered in centuries past to make some of the first African-American music heard on this continent. It was, and is, near some dispiriting slums, and on this day in 1970, the scene was not auspicious. The audience amounted to fewer than 1,000 people, gathered to hear the uniformed men of the Eureka Brass Band. Jackson, spotted in the crowd, was soon urged to join them in "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Given the secular and fledgling nature of the event, she might have declined. Instead, Jackson beamed, raised her famous voice amid the strains of several white-hatted brass players and set a precedent of cooperation and informality that endures a generation later.

"To me," festival producer-director Quint Davis said later, "that was the eternal spark of what the whole festival was going to be about."

This year, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a run from April 22 through May 1. The program, which includes the Neville Brothers, Little Feat, Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, the Allman Brothers and Wynton Marsalis, will follow a much-beloved pattern: Performing outdoors, indoors, alone and in 150-voice choirs, about 5,000 well-known and unknown musicians will deliver rhythm and blues, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, Latin, rock, country and bluegrass music to audiences assembled from around the world.

The busiest stages will be the 11 at the fairgrounds. Beneath one tent near the fairgrounds entrance, only gospel music is heard; in another, the emphasis is folk. Jazz has a stage of its own, but despite the festival's name, that type of music is only one ingredient in this recipe, and not the dominant one. Each performer's set usually lasts 45 to 90 minutes, and the single greatest achievement of festival organizers may be their effectiveness in cajoling those thousands of musicians through such a precise program.

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