The Festival’s music is mostly about audience participation — whether it’s dancing, sing-a-longs, or shouts of call-and-response.
By Jon Garelick
“This is dance music, not concert music, even if you’re all sitting on your behinds.” That was Fred Starr of the Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, speaking to the audience at Economy Hall on the first day of the 48th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (through May 7), presented by Shell. And it was all too true. The “sitting on your behinds” part that is.
This was the LRJE 35th appearance at the Festival since 1981. Ever since their formation, the LRJE’s intent has been to play “music of the teens and 20s as it was played then,” and not the morphed examples of “trad jazz” that have since emerged, not to mention swing and bebop.
The problem is, pre-swing jazz (which is essentially what this music is) does not give contemporary audiences much to dance to. Put another way: that’s not the beat the kids are dancing to any more.
So it didn’t matter how exquisitely the LRJE played, or how erudite the loquacious Starr’s between-song annotations (telling us, for example how the clarinet solo on the Creole Jazz Band’s 1923 “Camp Meeting Blues” was the source of Ellington’s “Creole Love Call”). The dance floor was empty, the second line (usually a mainstay of the trad-leaning Economy Hall) never emerged. Ovations were hearty, but this was, alas, concert music. Audience members were as likely to take off high-steppin’ as another listener in another time and place might be to swing into a country waltz for the landler in Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.
That’s not to fault Starr, whose music is admirable in every way, and a good break from the non-stop high-volume assault on the Fair Grounds Race Course, where the Fest takes place every year during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May.
But the Fest’s music is mostly about audience participation — whether it’s dancing, sing-a-longs, or shouts of call-and-response. By contrast with the LRJE, the Treme Brass Band had the Economy crowd up and jumping, though in truth, they brought some ringers — their own high-steppers, resplendent in powder pink suits and lime-green straw hats. Some of the music was just as old as the LRJE’s, but the rhythm less “authentic,” informed by swing and even rock and roll.
Dance, call-and-response, the sing-along, were hallmarks of almost every set I was able to catch throughout Jazz Fest’s first weekend, whether it was the Roy Abshire Cajun Band’s two-steps and waltzes, Nas asking “Whose world is this?” (“Its yours!”), Dr. John doing “Good Night, Irene” as danceable funk, or the final encore of “American Girl” in the glorious closing Sunday set by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.” For that one, Petty had the 40-year road-touring smarts to let his two back-up singers croon wordless harmonies while the throngs at the Acura Stage sang the hook: “Oh yeah, all right/ take it easy, baby/make it last all night!”
The purist distillation of the dance beat came from the handful of Cuban groups that played on various stages throughout the first weekend. (There are 13 stages in all scattered throughout the Fair Grounds.) Here were the ancient folkloric Cuban rhythms, delivered with an irresistible gravitational pull. Sometimes, as with Michael Sinkus’s New Orleans-born, Cuban-inspired Moyuba, a piece would start with nothing but the halting syncopations and Santeria invocations of Sinkus’s bata drums and a trio of female vocalists before morphing, with the help of two saxophones, into a Coltrane-like take on Afro-Cuban jazz. Percussionist Pedrito Martinez offered another updated version of the vocal son-montuno tradition, with a heavy emphasis on percussion and vocals, helped along by electric bass and keyboards. And then there was the sublime Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, formed in 1927 by its namesake, with guitar, tres, acoustic bass, singers, and a trumpeter, playing a propulsive son-montuno that blended folkloric roots and the urban sophistication of Cuba’s old-time ballrooms.
The most elemental of these groups was Grupo Caury, comprising three singer-dancers, five percussionists, and another singer who established the all-important clavé beat. One at a time, the singers took turns stepping from their row at stage left to center stage in front of the backline of percussionists, declaiming as much as singing. No one spoke a word of English from the Heritage Stage on Saturday afternoon (one of several shows the band were scheduled to play over these three days), but it didn’t matter to this non-Spanish speaker. When one of their male singers stalked the edge of the stage in the band’s blue T-shirt, khaki engineer’s cap, white sneakers, and white jeans with stylish rips beneath each knee, he gestured with his hands, pointed to the crowd, yelped stentorian high notes, and phrased with his body, a prosaic step or two, a pause, and a little half-step hip-grind, like another word in his musical sentence. By the last number, the crowd were all trading shouts of “baila!” (dance!) with the singers. Their finale was an extended dance sequence with two figures in extraordinary head-to-foot costumes and pointed-hood masks, reminiscent of the “demons” of Cajun mardi gras.
It wasn’t all kinetic ecstasy, of course. NOLA living deity Aaron Neville followed Bob Marley’s “Stir It Up” with the now obligatory (post-Katrina and post-Baton Rouge) rendering of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana, 1927” (“six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline”). But more typical was the tribal beat of the Semolian Warriors Mardi Gras Indians. Here again were vocalists rapping — like their cultural cousins in Grupo Caury— in ritualistic, well-worn forms, to nothing but a backline of percussion: “Spyboy comin’ (oo-nah-ney!)/his tambourine’s ringin’ (oo-nah-ney!)/from way Uptown (oo-nah-ney!)/Indians holler/(oo-nah-ney!).
That beat, that pulse of life, was unstoppable last weekend. On Sunday, a typical Southern Louisiana downpour, as well as a tornado warning, deferred the 11 a.m. opening and washed out most of the day of music, but when the gates reopened at 3 p.m., the crowds poured in (as many as 70,000 can swarm the Fair Grounds on a good day), the punishing heat of Friday and Saturday lifted, and people danced. On the Fais-do-do Stage, the Mavericks pumped out accordion-driven polkas laced with rock-guitar heroics and topped by Raul Malo’s vibrant tenor. When he sang “Dancing in the Moonlight,” and raised his arms, the whole hopping crowd joined in, singing the rising notes of “ah-ah-ah.” As a setting sun began to tint the blue-gray clouds with orange, words became irrelevant.
Jon Garelick is a member of The Boston Globe editorial board. A former arts editor at the Boston Phoenix, he writes frequently about jazz for the Globe, The Arts Fuse, and other publications.