Cultural convergence in America

Primaries, Mardi Gras and Chinese New Year align — look who’s coming to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage fest!

How often does the US citizenry go to the polls on the same day acolytes of Dionysis party and Asian-Americans prepare for the Lunar New Year (Feb. 7)? I dunno. But the coincidence is heightened by the music lineup for the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival arriving in the mail.
And the good news is that over two weekends from the end of April through the beginning of May, the sweet, sweaty, rhythmic and highly energized music that has resulted from New Orleans’ past as a capitol of the Caribbean that happens to be in our semi-united nation will emanate from the infield of the Fairgrounds Racetrack. This music can stir all listeners who’ve got ears, anywhere sound waves reach (via recordings and influence, if the actual waves grow faint). Whoever benefits from today’s voting, whoever suffers tomorrow from over-doing Mardi Gras today, whoever lights red firecrackers on Thursday — rest assured that the pulse of America survives a still un-reconstructed city where the river that divides our east from our west but is nonetheless portent of American lifeblood saunters towards the sea.
Excuse me for waxing pseudo-poetic. I just get excited when I read that several thousand musicians across all Central and North America’s popular, vernacular and abstracted idioms convene to entertain all comers (over seven days, in the hundreds of thousands) for modest ticket prices. Here are some of the headliners: Stevie Wonder, Cassandra Wilson, Al Green, Bobby McFerrin with Chick Corea, Robert Plant with Alison Krauss, guitarist Leo Nocentelli of the original Meters wih keyboardist Bernie Worrell from Parliament-Funkadelic, Dr. John, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Irma Thomas, Elvis Costello with Allen Toussaint, BeauSoleil, Gene “Duke of Earl” Chandler, Bela Fleck, Mamadou Diabate, Dianne Reeves, Randy Newman, the Bad Plus, Eddie Kirkland — of course ALL the bands and players native to New Orleans and its surroundings starting with the Neville Brothers and including this year as a first, I believe, less heralded local modernist reedsman Rob Wagner with bouyant Chicago-based drummer Hamid Drake. . . You get the picture: jazz, blues, Cajun, rockabilly, gospel (a whole tent devoted to the sacred), roots and extentions, music (also food, crafts, people galore. . . ten or 11 separate venues operating simultaneously, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., festivities continuing throughout what remains of this once glorious (though — careful — crime-ridden) city . . . a scene without parallel anywhere I’ve been in the world.
Staging the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to its vast residential districts is an act of civic devotion to ideals that the Bush administration has completely ignored. Putting on a multi-stage festival that brings so many strains of American, Hispanic and Afro-Caribbean life together is a positive protest against those fearful and fearsome forces that would keep us apart. I haven’t been to the New Orleans fest since Katrina, and probably won’t go this year (finances, you know?) but having been to Jazz Fest annually during the ’70s and ’80s, and again in 2002, I feel it represents an uplifting vision of a country I’m proud to belong to, where a massive population takes sustenance from spirited creativity to forge a communal ideal of being happy together. Jazz Fest is only symbolic — we can’t live like this everyday, but to glimpse or participate in such a massive, populist gathering of such diverse societies having fun gives hope that consensus can be reached by these same individuals on how to solve the many problems facing us today.
True, reveling in music doesn’t translate directly into making peace, erasing deficits or instituting national health insurace, any more than does voting in primaries, flashing on Bourbon Street or visiting Chinatown. But hey, it’s more than a start. Reveling in music is an example of what many of us would do, if all those other problems were on the way to solved.
Subscribe to Jazz Beyond Jazz by Email

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. Michael J. West says

    Staging the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, two-and-a-half years after Hurricane Katrina laid waste to its vast residential districts is an act of civic devotion to ideals that the Bush administration has completely ignored.
    Thus adding to the Bush Administration’s nearly perfect record of ignoring what’s happened in New Orleans.

  2. Jazz Lunatique` says

    Agreed on all counts but one – What devastated New Orleans was the failure of the federal levees brought on by Katrina. If the levees had been built right, Hurricane Katrina would have left relatively minor damage.
    HM: Ok, the levees are on the Army Corps of Engineers, as I understand — the lack of viable response after the devastation is on the Feds, and to an extent hard to quantify local/state government, too, perhaps going back decades. For a fictional treatment, James Lee Burke’s most recent novel The Tin Roof Blowdown featuring his p.i. Dave Robicheaux is extremely close-up and heartfelt. There’s plenty of blame to go ’round, and New Orleans will not survive on jazz and heritage alone. Will any presidential candidate offer a program to revive this city, preserve and protect our urban centers?