It’s the aggregate of all their stories (as well as those who live and thrive outside The Big Easy continue to make the epic history that was made by the slave-now-freeman (and some who helped him get there). And it is revisited every day, year after year. The Canadian-American trombonist, composer and brass-band leader Christopher Butcher has told me (often) that he loves going “home to New Orleans and never packs (his) trombone in its case, carrying it in his hands because so often (he’ll) just be compelled to play with a group of musicians busking on a street.” The fact that there is so much musical activity street-side and in clubs and chicken-shacks and concert halls as well is borne out by the number of new artists like Trombone Shorty and Big Freedia who continue to make music where Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste left off. Much of this has been showcased in the “greatest show on earth” – The New Orleans JazzFest. Over 50 years the phenomenal music and cultural festival curated by the incomparable impresario George Wein has brought together some of the greatest names in the music of Jazz and its spinoffs and all of this is captured on a 5-disc boxed-set produced by The Smithsonian.
JazzFest – The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Smithsonian, 2019) is an epic reflection of the five decades of the JazzFest itself. But listening to it even far away, in one’s living room the spirit of the great city and its second-greatest celebration – the first, is probably the Mardi Gras – is splendidly evoked; even conjured up like some sort of proverbial voudou. Each disc is an hour long and it feels like one is listening to a wall of sound not unlike what one is faced with at the real thing. Each song generates its own heat. The overall effect is a musical fire that is sparked by the opening announcement – curiously – after The Golden Eagles spring into action with “Indian Red”. From then on a proverbial fire rages from song to song and the intensity only grows from a yellow flame to a blue one as one song after other crashes into your senses like an enormous wave after wave of breathtaking music.
You listen to Jazz as it was created in the beginning, played by Danny Barker on “Basin Street Blues”, Donald Harrison on “Free to Be” and Terence Blanchard on “A Streetcar Named Desire” (on disc one) and experience the stomp and the shout all revved and funked up with Allen Toussaint on “Yes We Can”, Snooks Eaglin on “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, Marcia Hall on “Red Beans” and Dr John on the medley “Litanae des Saints/Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya/I Walk on Gilded Splinters” (all on disc two). Disc three opens with a flying “Blackbird Special” by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and continues on with “Summertime” by the Original Liberty Jazz Band featuring Dr. Michael White and the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band playing “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”.
Disc four begins with Buckwheat Zydeco motoring on with a breathtaking intensity on “Hard to Stop” and continues on with The Neville Brothers featuring Aaron Neville high and lonesome falsetto on “Yellow Moon” before coming to a close with “Double Whammy” by Tommy Ridgley. Disc five explodes out of the gates with “Fire on the Bayou” by the legendary Funky Meters, soars with Big Freeida’s “N.O. Bounce” before ending in a rarefied realm with The Neville Brothers and “Amazing Grace” that melts appropriately into Bob Marley’s “One Love”. Notably absent is anything from the Marsalis family of musicians. One might, however take comfort from the fact that Wynton Marsalis who is the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City has recently paid a mighty homage to the place of his birth and the art it has given to the world, with the monumental Swing Symphony a work that opens up a whole different world for the music we love, called “Jazz”.