First of three articles about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
(including one contrarian take by Kelefa Sanneh).
Storm adds depth to '06 New Orleans jazz fest
April 23, 2006
BY DAVE HOEKSTRA Staff Reporter
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will be a different affair
this year. The music will be a little more tender, the Crawfish Monica
will be sweeter and reunions will be poignant.
Thousands of Chicagoans make the annual trip to the biggest New
Orleans tourist draw after Mardi Gras. A 2005 Jazz Fest marketing
survey revealed that Chicago is the festival's sixth biggest market
outside of Louisiana. The Chicago-New Orleans migration embraces the
historic jazz and blues links between the two cities and the resilient
spirit of roots music as Highway 61 dances through Memphis, Tenn.,
Greenville and Natchez, Miss., before collapsing into the warm lap of
the Crescent City.
This year's fest, which opens Friday and runs for two weekends,
includes Bob Dylan, Allen Toussaint with special guest Elvis Costello,
and Bruce Springsteen, who makes his festival debut with his 17-piece
Seeger Sessions Band (April 30). The May 5-7 weekend features Jimmy
Buffett, Paul Simon and what promises to be a riveting homecoming set
by Fats Domino, whose Lower 9th Ward home was destroyed in the floods
following Hurricane Katrina. Domino also is honored on this year's
jazz fest poster.
"Jazz Fest is emotional every year," said New Orleans soul legend Irma
Thomas, who headlines the closing day of the festival. "Some event
takes place that leaves an emotional memory. Maybe it will have more
depth because of Katrina. It will be a very therapeutic festival
because a lot of us who have been displaced will be seeing people whom
we never knew where they were, and we will all discuss how to get
Thomas and her husband, Emile Jackson, now live in Gonzalez, La., near
On Tuesday, Thomas releases "After the Rain" (Rounder Records), a
warm, acoustic record that showcases her straightforward alto. Thomas'
range and control has never sounded better than it does on Doc Pomus'
"I Count the Tears," originally a hit for the Drifters.
Scott Billington, Rounder vice president of A&R, chose Thomas'
material -- such as Arthur Alexander's organic "In the Middle of It
All" and Stevie Wonder's "Shelter in the Rain" -- long before
Hurricane Katrina. Billington also produced "After the Rain," which
was completed a few days before Thomas' 65th birthday on Feb. 18.
"Behind every dark cloud there is a silver lining," she said. "In one
sense, since Katrina, I've been busier than I have in a long time.
Whatever life you have left on this earth you can't dwell on the past.
I'm not about to take a defeatist attitude."
A family, scattered
Conspicuously absent at Jazz Fest will be the Neville Brothers, the
city's first family of funk and soul. Given the city's dust and
pollution, lead singer Aaron Neville's asthma has prohibited him from
returning home. Neville, his wife and Aaron Jr. now live in Nashville,
Tenn. They have not visited New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina hit.
"I still haven't gotten over the shock," Aaron said in an interview
with his brothers before the band's March 31 show at Governor's State
University in University Park. "Every day you wake up you think of
something new. I was talking to Dr. John the other day. We were saying
how if one of us died, there would be nobody to come to our funerals
-- everybody is scattered all over the country."
Keyboardist Art Neville is the only member of the Neville Brothers who
still lives in New Orleans, with his family in Uptown, outside the
Garden District. He will appear at Jazz Fest April 30 with the Meters.
"The street I am on is fine," Art said. "But as far as the rest of New
Orleans, I don't think it's going that good. Money people are moving
in because they see opportunities. Poor people can't afford to move
back. It ain't going to be New Orleans no more. It may be something
smaller, a piece of it may remain. ... It will take 20 years. I don't
think I'll be around."
The show must go on
The grandstand of the Fair Grounds Race Course suffered roof damage in
the storms, but it will be open for the 36th annual jazz fest. But the
second floor of the grandstand will not be used due to storm damage.
In early winter, the festival was in danger of being canceled or
scaled down, but Shell Oil stepped in as the event's presenting
sponsor. Shell, a subsidiary of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, returned
to New Orleans in February. Shell made a commitment to the city that
included the purchase of $32 million in residential properties in the
region to lease to employees. Jazz Fest has never before had a
"We had to start this fest from scratch on every level," said Quint
Davis, the festival's producer. "We had to get sponsorship so we could
afford to do it. Doing it as a normal festival with normal ticket
sales would not have worked. ... We have 5,000 local musicians at this
fest. None of them were here when we started planning. Many of our
food vendors lost their restaurants."
Jazz Fest will be the city's first major music event since hurricanes
Katrina and Rita. Organizers say 85 percent of last year's arts and
crafts exhibitors are returning. And 90 percent of the food vendors
are back, including Prejean's, a legendary festival pitstop for
crawfish enchiladas and andouille gumbo. Prejean's Restaurant is in
Lafayette, La,, just off Interstate 10, about 130 miles west of New
"I told my staff to prep for three-fourths of what we normally do
[3,000 fest customers daily]," Prejean's owner Bob Guilbeau said last
week. "Two weeks ago, I changed that and said to go full prep. The
only thing different is that I won't be furnishing hotel rooms for my
staff as in years past. Everyone will secure their own places and get
a per diem. Or they will commute. Half our [20-person] fest staff is
from the restaurant and half is from New Orleans, and that will work
out the same this year. We didn't have trouble finding help."
Last week the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau reported that
70 percent of downtown restaurants have reopened. "There aren't nearly
as many restaurants open as there were before," Guilbeau said. "But
all the good ones are open. [Commander's Palace will reopen in
mid-May.] I see nothing but good things coming out of this fest."
Another Jazz Fest test will be to bring children back into the fold.
This year, children 12 and under will be admitted to Jazz Fest for $5.
A special "Kids Day" will be held May 5, when children from 20 New
Orleans-area schools will be bussed to Jazz Fest and admitted free.
Returning to mixed feelings
"I was stupid to come back," Art Neville said. "I was with Aaron in
Nashville, and I should have stayed there. But Vallance Street is the
street I was born on. If my grandmother and great aunt could see that
place now, they'd be turning over in their graves."
Art Neville, 68, said he is still negotiating for insurance claims on
his home. "We had wind and rain damage," he said. "FEMA looked at our
house and said we didn't need a roof. They didn't even get up on the
roof. We do need a roof. We have ceilings falling in, so where does
the water come from? Everybody is playing trickery."
Irma Thomas feels exiled. "I want to go back to New Orleans," she
said. "Everything that has happened in my life in terms of my career
happened in New Orleans. I would love to be able to live in the house
I was in [Lakewood East, on the east side of the city], depending on
when they make up their mind if they have to raze it. We lived in that
house for 20 years. If they tear it down, I will start from scratch."
Art Neville said New Orleans residents feel national attention has
moved away from the city. Aaron added, "That's one thing I like about
[CNN's] Anderson Cooper. He was there from day one, and he hasn't
lightened up. If people stop talking about New Orleans, it will be
forgotten. We'll continue to enjoy what we're doing onstage. But deep
down inside you're tore up."
Tell it like it is?
The Neville Brothers are split on whether they will confront the
shadow of Hurricane Katrina in future music. Cyril Neville wants to
address the life-changing event. "As a songwriter," he said, "it
inspired me to write quite a few things already. Every musician in New
Orleans has a tale to tell. I hope we can do another record where we
can express some of the things we went through. But I don't know if
that will happen."
Sitting across a table from Cyril, Art said, "I don't want to sing
about the storm. I see no reason to do that. It came, it went and you
better be thinking about what's going to happen next. Katrina might
bring her cousins and it might be worse."
Irma Thomas added, "I'm taking the same attitude I had before Katrina
hit. I will look at a song and if it tells a good story and has a good
musical beat, I will choose it. You can't change what Katrina has
done. I'm not a woe-is-me person. I've had enough trouble in my life
to keep dwelling on problems.
"I want to move forward."
NEW ORLEANS JAZZ & HERITAGE FESTIVAL 2006
11 a.m.-7 p.m. Friday through April 30
Friday: Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Keb' Mo, Ani DiFranco, Terreance Simien &
the Zydeco Experience, Charmaine Neville and others
Saturday: Dave Matthews Band, Etta James, Herbie Hancock, Hugh
Masekela and others
April 30: The Meters, Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band,
Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello, Dave Bartholomew, Rebirth Brass
Band, Sonny Landreth and others
11 a.m.-7 p.m. May 5-7
May 5: Keith Urban, Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine, Marcia Ball and others
May 6: The Radiators, Jimmy Buffett, Ohio Players, Robert Randolph and
the Family Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Buckwheat Zydeco and others
May 7: Fats Domino, Paul Simon, Lionel Richie, Irma Thomas, Sam Moore,
Slick Rick, Pete Fountain and others
Individual Jazz Fest tickets are $30 in advance, $40 at the gate.
Children's tickets (under 12) are $5 in advance or at the gate. Visit
www.nojazzfest.com or call (800) 488-5252.
Some spots also remain in the "Fans of the Fest" package, in
conjunction with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation.
An all-inclusive $1,499 fee per couple for either weekend of Jazz Fest
($250 of which will help resettle Gulf Coast area musicians) includes
accommodations, festival admission and perks. Visit www.nojhf.org for
details and reservaitons.