About now, I’m waking up in New Orleans, heading to Jazz Fest.
Some ask me: Isn’t it too much jazz? No such thing. Jazz Fest has great jazz: Roy Ayers today, Nicholas Payton on Friday, Terence Blanchard then the Stanley Clarke-George Duke Project on Saturday and the Wayne Shorter Quartet on Sunday.
But it actually has less jazz than it does many other kinds of music. The Jazz Tent, one of 12 stages, hosts six jazz acts today, for example, with fewer than a dozen other jazz acts elsewhere all day, of 70 sets, total. The variety is astounding, including country, music from other countries, and every variety devised in Louisiana.
Others ask: Who’s headlining? But I don’t care. Fleetwood Mac plays on Saturday, but French popsters Phoenix, hot R & B homeboy Frank Ocean, the seldom-seen jazz superstars Stanley Clarke and George Duke, and Los Lobos, one of our greatest rock bands, all play at the same time.
Last week’s headliners included Billy Joel, John Mayer and the Dave Matthews Band. But why go to New Orleans to see them, when the Jazz Fest’s secret sauce is the tremendous artists who seldom play outside the city?
New Orleans greats Irma Thomas, Henry Butler and Little Freddie King all gave knockout shows last year. Then there’s trumpeter/barbecue chef Kermit Ruffins, who personifies the New Orleans dedication to maximum fun right now. “Everybody loves that cat,” said trumpeter Mario Abney, a Chicago transplant who has twice played Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival and appeared in the HBO drama “Treme.”
“It’s about the feeling that comes out of his horn when he’s playing,” he said. “You hear pure joy. He’s a happy dude, and he makes people feel good around him.”
Too crowded? No, it’s mellow and manageable. Only at the (SPAC-sized) Acura stage — where Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Maroon 5 (they’re opposite Willie Nelson and Jimmy Cliff), John Mayer and other big acts play — do you find that critical mass, big-event feel. There’s room to dance everywhere, and people do: Cajun and Zydeco bands at the Fais Do-Do stage always draw the best dancers.
Some folks stay right there, all day. For specialized-taste fans, a Jazz Fest day is just one show on one stage, so it’s like 12 shows next to each other. I’ve wondered if I was doing it wrong: Shouldn’t I try to stay at one stage all of one day, just to see how that feels? No, no chance; I’d miss too much.
We’ve talked about the “Jazz” of Jazz Fest, and the “Heritage” part suggests tradition. (It’s officially the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell.) But even tradition is changing. The Radiators or the Neville Brothers used to close Jazz Fest on the second Sunday on the Acura Stage. But, the Radiators split shortly after playing The Egg last April, and Aaron Neville recently left the band of his brothers.
This year, Trombone Shorty closes Jazz Fest, as he did the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival last summer; and he plays opposite Aaron Neville, who plays MASS MoCA on May 25. Aaron’s brothers, billed as the Nevilles, played Jazz Fest last Sunday, before Dave Matthews.
If these changes represent the end of an era at Jazz Fest, day by day Jazz Fest is just the beginning for many. Once Jazz Fest wraps at 7 p.m., it’s back to the hotel for showers and naps, then out for dinner and more music at many, many clubs, ending in daybreak sets.
On the town
My friend Mike’s after-hours spreadsheet recommends Kermit Ruffins tonight at Vaughn’s, followed by George Porter Jr. at dba at 2 a.m. Tomorrow: maybe Joe Krown at Bon Temps or Bonerama at Publiq House. Saturday, how about the Royal Rounders led by New Yorker David Roe at Buffa’s, or Allen Toussaint at Snug Harbor? And on Sunday, last night of this year’s (44th) Jazz Fest: the 10th anniversary of Dumpstaphunk at Tipitina’s. We’ll see.
So can you, even if you can’t make it. Radio WWOZ (www.wwoz.org) covers Jazz Fest well, as does the New Orleans Times Picayune (www.nola.com), and AXS TV (www.axstv/jazzfest) broadcasts from 3 p.m. to midnight here, tomorrow through Sunday.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.