Well, the eighth annual Deer Isle Jazz Festival, on a tiny island in Down East Maine, was an unqualified success -- a presentation of the beauty and intensity of New Orleans music within a larger context of its social and political implications. The festival itself has been a labor of love for me, as volunteer producer since its start. This year, it blended with my commitment to and passion for New Orleans -- a city I adore, am concerned about, and miss right now, as I sit and write in Brooklyn.
Upon arriving on the island, I headed to Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, where saxophonist and Congo Nation Big Chief Donald Harrison is serving through this week as musician-in-residence. Haystack is a gorgeous waterfront compound of cabins and artist studios, where painters, potters, glassblowers, metalsmiths, and all sorts of craftspeople gather for intense workshops. Harrison's Mardi Gras day suit from this year's Mardi Gras, resplendent with ostrich and turkey feathers dyed golden yellow, leopard-print fur and an intricate beaded portrait of his father Donald Sr., a late Big Chief, was on display in Haystack's exhibition space. At 4pm each after of his residency, Harrison gives hourlong sessions that take a variety of forms. The first day, I was told, he ran through somewhat of a history of American jazz as distilled through his saxophone. On the day I attended, he sat a dozen of us in a circle, each armed with a homemade percussion instrument (tin cans, ersatz wooden frame drums, PVC tubing...) and ran through a variety of rhythms -- African, Brazilian, Cuban, and others. At one point, he broke down the components of the trap-drum rhythm of James Brown tune, assigning snare and bass-drum and hi-hat parts to groups of two or three each. (I thought I nailed the snare beat.) Meanwhile, Harrison was lured into a ceramics workshop during his off time, throwing clay to create what he calls "my wobbly bowl series."
On Thursday night at the Stonington Opera House -- the circa-1912 former vaudeville theater that sits atop a hill overlooking a working waterfront and is the festival's main venue -- we screened Royce Osborn's wonderful documentary, "All on Mardi Gras Day." This was the first chapter in a weekend-long immersion in New Orleans' black culture.
Friday night's concert by Donald Harrison's quartet was preceded by a public reading and panel discussion, "New Orleans: Culture, Crisis, and Community." I read an adaptation of a piece I'd written for Salon, "Band on the Run in New Orleans" (which will appear in Da Capo's Best Music Writing 2008, out in September); it's about how police shut down brass-band processions in Tremé, and the larger culture war since the floods of 2005. The Hot 8 Brass Band's bus from Boston, where the group had been recording, rolled up just in time for a panel discussion I moderated with Harrison, as well as tuba player/Hot 8 leader Bennie Pete and trumpeter Raymond Williams. Pete spoke of the second-line parades he played just after Katrina, when much of the city was still desolate: "It was a little like playing a concert in a haunted house." Williams talked about a new sense of responsibility among musicians in a rebuilding New Orleans. And Deer Isle locals nodded as they found personal reference to Harrison's thoughts about measuring the health of his hometown, "by whether or not I can see pelicans and porpoises on the water." Deer Isle too, is surrounded by water, its pulse dictated by the many coves that fill and empty twice a day, its relative health best observed by fluctuations of nature.
Filmmaker Jonathan Demme was among those in attendance on Friday. He'd been holed up with his wife and dogs in a cabin in Western Maine when he saw a listing for Harrison and the festival. Demme has worked for nearly three years on his ongoing documentary project, "Right to Return: New Home Movies from the Lower Ninth Ward," some of which focuses on the Harrison family. (Segments of Right to Return aired on Tavis Smiley's PBS program last year; look forward to its theatrical release in the near future.) Demme has also tapped Donald Harrison for his forthcoming feature film, "Rachel Getting Married": Harrison wrote original music for the score, and he makes his acting debut.
I was pleased when, during the Q&A portion of my panel, Demme spoke in impassioned toned about the failure of government on all levels during the immediate aftermath of Katrina as well as in the past three years. He brought up the relevance of all this to the coming election campaigns. As I'd hoped, this set off some talk about placing the pressing issues in New Orleans prominently within discussions of party platforms and legislative agendas. Coastal Maine is a place where environmental threats are never far from mind and always deeply tied to economic viability; the need for real commitment to Wetlands restoration and for a better approach to levee fortification made instant sense to this audience. And in general, Opera House Arts, who hosts the festival, draws its mission from the sense that culture and community are inexorably tied, and for the better. (Among the merch for sale at the Opera House are T-Shirts emblazoned with the slogan: "Incite Arts. Create Community."
So the conversation I'd intended to arouse with my panel -- that if we love the culture of New Orleans, we'd best care about and help nurture back to health the communities that gave rise to it -- was resonant as I'd hoped.
Friday night's concert by Donald Harrison's quartet at the 250-seat Opera House sold out quickly. As I'd mentioned from the stage in my introduction, Harrison's band members -- pianist Victor Gould, bassist Max Moran, and drummer Joe Dyson -- have a cumulative age of 57. That's no big deal; Harrison was 19 when he joined Roy Haynes's band right out of Berklee College of Music. In fact, Harrison's bandmates all attend Berklee. Two of them, Moran and Dyson, have studied with Harrison for years in summer camps and through the Tipitina's music program in New Orleans. Harrison played a broad range of music -- from bebop classics such as "Cherokee" to ballads like "Can't Take That Away From Me," originals such as "Nouveau Swing" to "Hey Pocky Way," a funk favorite built on a Mardi Gras Indian beat. His fluid solos, his deep sense of swing, and his ebullient stage manner captivated the audience. The tune he played from the score of Demme's new film was exquisite. The drum solo Joe Dyson took near the set's end was mind-bogling, filled with one-handed snare rolls and deftly displaced beats.
On Saturday afternoon, members of the Hot 8 Brass Band led a music clinic. Some two dozen musicians attended. Some were island residents, others had driven for hours to make it. The players ranged in age from about 8 to over 70, playing everything from trumpet and tuba to electric bass and bassoon. Bennie Pete and his bandmates began by telling their individual stories-- how they came to play in a brass band, along with some background about jazz funeral and second line traditions. Trombonist Gregory Veals recalled growing up in the Treme neighborhood and found his way as a musician. Jerome Jones recounted the history of the Looney Tunes and Highsteppers bands merging to form the Hot 8. Trumpeter Raymond Williams explained that although he'd mastered bebop through his studes at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, when he finally turned to traditional New Orleans repertoire, "I was struggling to learn this music, to play it right." They played 'Bourbon Street Parade" and other seminal tunes composed by drummer Paul Barbarin. They gradually drew the local musicians into their music. A tuba player stood along with Pete, and traced his bass lines. A teenager sat down at the snare drum and took cues from bass drummer Harry Cook. Some older guys - a clarinetist, and two trumpeters -- displayed real fluency in traditional New Orleans jazz. And Hot 8 tenor saxophonist John Gilbert sidled up to a young boy who was clearly new to his instrument. He coaxed him into soloing for 8 bars on one tune. "Don't be afraid to make mistakes," he said. "Mistakes are beautiful ways to learn."
A few hours later, the Hot 8 returned to the Opera House stage for a Saturday night concert. They moved through classic brass-band repertoire, funky originals, a dirge version of "St. James Infirmary." At one point, Donald Harrison joined in, unannounced. The band played loud and joyous, shaking this theater in a way I'd never heard. And after a brief intermission, they challenged the audience to shake their bodies. Gerard "Soul" Williams danced down one aisle, Harrison the other, and before long it was one big, sweaty dance party, with Terrell Batiste rocking in his wheelchair onstage and blowing big sweet lines and "Big Al" Huntley, trumpet in hand, urging the crowd on, moving from second-line rhythms to hiphop beats and back.
But the festival wasn't done. Sunday, high noon, sun shining, we all -- the Hot 8, assorted local musicians (including that young woman on bassoon), tourists and islanders, and Dr. Stan Bergen, grand marshall for a day, in a tuxedo and shiny gold hat -- assembled in the parking lot of St. Mary's by the Sea Catholic Church, on Thurlow's Hill, right next to the Square Deal Garage, for a genuine second-line parade. An opera house intern had come with the name Lobster Crackers for this ad hoc Social Aid & Pleasure Club, even designed a traditional route-sheet flyer. And as the Hot 8 played, we danced and marched past Fisherman's Friend Restaurant, right by the Island Ad-vantages newspaper office, Ron Watson's art gallery, and Bob's ice cream stand, past Main Street's working dock to the wharf beneath the hill on which the opera house sits. OHA artistic director Judith Jerome danced along in her blue baby-doll dress (inspired by one section of "All on a Mardi Gras Day"), and Gerard Williams, hat held elegantly in his left hand, tore the street up with his high stepping moves.
Over the course of the weekend, many of these Down Easters gained more than a passing knowledge of what a second-line is, what this music means, and why right now it both matters and is embattled more than ever. Through a Saturday night benefit, the festival raised some funds for Sweet Home New Orleans. More importantly, it raised awareness and created connections. Several islanders told me of their efforts to aid New Orleans since 2005, including one local who gathered up supplies from anyone who'd contribute, packed up a truck and drove down just weeks after the flood. More than a few people asked me about organizations to contribute to in New Orleans. The Hot 8 members, who were hosted by island residents for their stay, had made a deep impact. Harry Cook -- who, by the way, can disassemble a lobster as artfully as he can take apart a parade beat -- called his hosts mom and dad as he left. He may have been kidding, but the familial closeness of the second-line seemed to register.
"You really do this for four hours," one woman asked Bennie Pete as she wiped the sweat from her brow. He smiled and nodded. "I gotta get down there," she said.
(Photos and video to come - promise.)