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Bill Charlap & Gary Hobbs at the Earshot Jazz Festival

On the day of the concert, Roy was euphoric. He was clapping his hands and tap dancing in the green room. Come showtime, he delivered a sublime performance.

A small but vital new pulse invigorated the 2005 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. A stage dedicated to the city’s unique traditions of Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands and social aid and pleasure club parade organizations sprang up on the Fair Grounds Racetrack’s grassy infield. Key to the original concept of the event itself, the venue was dubbed the Jazz & Heritage Stage.

The importance and delights of the new area were many fold. Though these energizing and culturally significant ensembles had participated at Jazz Fest since its inception, previously their performances were scattered around various festival sites. But at last they’ve found a home where, just as on the streets, they could meet and revel together. These traditions are, after all, kissing cousins of the streets. Black Indians are frequently participants and spectators at the weekly Sunday afternoon second-line parades that roll in New Orleans’ back-of-town neighborhoods. Likewise, members of the pleasure clubs and brass bands often support Mardi Gras Indian activities.

Through the years, many Jazz Fest vets mournfully watched as first the Jazz Tent, then the Gospel Tent and finally the blues venue moved from the green environs of the racetrack’s infield to the parking lot. Most fans held little hope of seeing the erection of another stage where one could dance on the lawn and out in the sun.

Unlike the big stages that flank the infield where superstars like Dave Mathews and Nelly drew uncomfortably large crowds with folks who staked out spots with chairs and blankets, the Jazz & Heritage Stage was about dancing, moving, buck-jumping and community. Fest-goers got down with groups like sousaphonist Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove, who was also back on the job with the Original Dirty Dozen band. Another reunion, the original lineup of the Meters, was greeted with great enthusiasm. Tradition was upheld by the Paulin Brothers Brass Band and at set’s end the siblings were joined by their father, 96-year-old trumpeter and band founder Doc Paulin and his wife, Betty. The spectacular, multicolored, feathered and beaded Indians suits of the Creole Wild West, the oldest gang in the city, sparkled in the sun while the more modernized and electrified Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias got funky. Groups like the Hot 8 and New Birth brass bands took advantage of the stage performance to pump up their new CDs, a promotional opportunity not available to them when hired to just parade.

Undoubtedly, the 2005 Jazz Fest will be most remembered as being blessed by near-perfect weather. Cool temperatures and low humidity — descriptive phrases rarely heard in association with New Orleans in late April and early May — prevailed. These conditions were desperately needed by the festival organizers after last year’s rain-drenched, money-losing event that resulted in Quint Davis’ Festival Production Inc-New Orleans partnering with AEG Live to produce this year’s fest.

While pop and rock fans appeared delighted by the schedule including acts like the Beach Boy’s Brian Wilson, James Taylor and Wilco that appeared at the large stages, many modern jazz enthusiasts questioned whether financial considerations would result in turning jazz into a mere sideshow attraction. Can a festival marketed for its pop stars maintain its jazz image?

Sparse attendance at the Heath Brothers set, an inspired performance on the very day of Percy Heath’s death, proves worrisome. Only pianist Ellis Marsalis and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins really packed the Jazz Tent on the first weekend. Once jazz critics from around the country and world filled the press seats at the modern jazz venue. Their dwindling ranks looms rather ominously. Some blame unimaginative programming — though that’s not to say there weren’t some steaming jazz shows, particularly from New Orleans’ own such as trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonists Donald Harrison and Kidd Jordan as well as 18-year-old pianist Jonathan Batiste. Batiste literally loaded his band with hotshot horns including trumpeters Maurice Brown and Corey Wilkes and saxophonist Quamon Fowler. As expected, veterans like Roy Haynes stunned and the Coltrane tribute, which featured both saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and James Carter, soared.

An oft-heard complaint, however, was the booking of an overabundance of tribute and put-together ensembles at the expense of working bands that present well-rehearsed original material — the musicians creating new jazz today, such as the likes of Jason Moran, Dave Douglas and David Murray. Even some of New Orleans’ finest mysteriously weren’t showcased.

Still, it’s difficult to grumble about a 10-stage festival where you can run from the energy of Roy Haynes to the soul reggae of Toots & the Maytals in under two minutes. It’s a great day when you’re privileged to hear trumpeter Marcus Belgrave teamed with drummer Shannon Powell playing “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” while chomping on a cochon de lait poorboy. Just to hear a vocalist in the Gospel Tent sing the entirety of “Walk Around Heaven” in falsetto and then go up for the high notes remains a goose-pimple raising experience.

While Jazz fans appreciate improvisation they watch with some apprehension as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival reinvents itself. Let Jazz Fest rock, jump, swing, sway and ska like crazy as long as its heart remains loyal to the music of its moniker that was born of this city — jazz.

Originally Published