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Jazz Fest refuses to miss a beat

Email|Print| Text size + By Clea Simon
Globe Correspondent / February 26, 2006

The soul of New Orleans is coming back. So are its jazz, R&B, and brass bands. Only slightly diminished by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, the 37th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will once again bring the music of the Crescent City, along with zydeco, Cajun, gospel, blues, and rock, to the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course this spring.

For six days (down from the customary seven), April 28-30 and May 5-7, the annual celebration known as Jazz Fest will host such marquee names as Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello. But its focus, capped by the fest-closing headliner Fats Domino, will be on local artists, with 92 percent of the more than 360 acts hailing from southern Louisiana.

''Jazz Fest heralds the return of the culture," said producer Quint Davis by telephone from the festival's New Orleans headquarters. ''That culture is vital internally as well as externally." With tourism a crucial source of income for the city, the festival -- which last year drew 400,000 visitors -- can provide an important financial boost. But to a city that lost everything, Davis said, the return of community members may mean even more. ''To get that music going, to bring those groups back, is a catalyst" for rebuilding, he said. ''We have 2,000 gospel singers alone. They're not professional touring groups with agents; they're church choirs. That has to come out of the community."

The festival is a high-intensity experience for fans and performers, as well as food vendors and craftspeople working at the site. From 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on festival days, musicians perform virtually nonstop on stages and in tents spread around the Fair Grounds Race Course and in its grandstand. Although this year's festival may have fewer stages than last year's 12, Davis promises a full range of music.

''There will definitely be a gospel tent," said Davis, as well as a Cajun and zydeco stage, and two jazz tents. Even the newest performance area, created last year to showcase the street sounds of brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians, will be back. Two of the smaller areas, the Music Heritage and Lagniappe stages, may be combined, he said.

The lineup (viewable at www.nojazzfest.com) already includes local greats such as Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo, Irma Thomas, and the Dixie Cups. The one notable absence will be the traditional closing set by the Neville Brothers. Singer Aaron Neville, said Davis, has asthma, and is staying out of the city on his doctor's orders.

There was never any danger, said Davis, of the festival not happening. ''We did not want a year to go by when there was no festival, even if it was in Boston," he said. The return to New Orleans, he said, is possible because of new sponsorship from American Express and Shell Oil. In addition, Churchill Downs, which purchased the Fair Grounds Race Course before the 2005 fest, has taken on responsibility for rewiring the infield, which was flooded, and replacing the grandstand roof.

However, finding the regional acts who are the core of Jazz Fest was a challenge.

''We have a fest with 4,000 local musicians and . . . none of them were local anymore," said Davis. Starting in November, his organization began making calls, hooking into what Davis calls ''the musicians' underground." Often that involved putting bands back together. ''Yeah, I can come," was a common response. ''But my drummer is in North Carolina." Davis said the festival is helping transport and house many displaced musicians.

The return of Jazz Fest is ''a morale booster," says Irma Thomas, the singer known as the ''Soul Queen of New Orleans." Flooded out of both her home and her New Orleans club, the Lion's Den, Thomas is living in Gonzales, while her house, once declared ''60 to 100 percent demolished," is rebuilt.

''This will be great therapy to come home and still have the same festival that has been a major event in our careers," she said. ''We're celebrating the fact that we're still around to hone our craft and share our joy."

The effect reaches beyond the performers. Last year, for example, Jazz Fest featured food from 65 restaurants. Earlier this month, Davis said, 55 were committed to coming back. ''For many of them, they'll use that as a springboard to reopen," he said.

Contact Clea Simon, a freelance writer living in Cambridge, at cleas@earthlink.net.

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