Reclamation, restoration, renewal: New Orleans was humming with these energies during the last few days of April, which marked the opening weekend of the 36th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. To stroll across the New Orleans Fairgrounds-overlaid with its perennial topography of stages and tents, booths and trailers-was to partake in a profusion of senses and marvel at a triumph of persistence. Thousands of musicians converged on the festival during its six-day run, more than 90 percent of them originally from the area. One such native, the rapper Juvenile, began his sixth appearance at the event by recasting its name as an active verb. “We JazzFessin’ it,” he said onstage, flanked by bulky hype-men. “We JazzFessin’ it, y’all.”
For a handful of months after Hurricane Katrina, it was unclear whether there would be a JazzFest this year, or even much of a city to host it. Producer Quint Davis spent that time locating his staff, establishing contact with musicians and generally putting people back on the grid. The fate of the festival was uncertain until January, when American Express and the Shell Group committed to funding; the latter corporation, headquartered in New Orleans, agreed to become the presenting sponsor. From that point on JazzFest was a go, though nailing down all the logistics was surely a Herculean feat.
One measure of the festival’s success was how easy it often was to forget that feat. The first stage I visited at the fairgrounds was the Economy Hall traditional jazz tent, where the Dukes of Dixieland sounded as buoyant and high-spirited as ever. It was much the same story at my next stop, the Bellsouth WWOZ Jazz Tent, where I heard Jonathan Batiste, a youngblood New Orleans pianist now enrolled at Juilliard in New York. A lanky figure in shirtsleeves and suspenders, Batiste led his trio with articulate panache; I made a mental note to see him again, during one of his weekend gigs around town.
Of course, there is still pain in New Orleans, and apocalyptic history to overcome. Bob Dylan alluded to it in his festival set on Friday. “It’s getting rough out there,” he sang darkly at one point. “High water everywhere.” That was a tune originally for Charley Patton; others were similarly repurposed. Alternately rasping or hissing phrases in his black cowboy hat, Dylan brought new perspective to a familiar couplet: “There’s too much confusion here /I can’t get no relief.”
Those words rattled around in my head the following morning, as I rode into the Lower Ninth Ward with a couple of former New Orleans residents and a first-time visitor to the city. We took St. Claude Avenue, passing a boarded-up Super 10 Mart with a sign that once read “Nothing Over $10.” It had been edited, so to speak, with black spray paint, so the only word left was “Nothing.” Things got much grimmer: Near the levee breach, there were clothes hanging from the branches of dead trees, cars strewn about like aluminum cans, a tangle of kindling and plastic where houses had once stood. The only signs of life we saw in the Lower Ninth and the neighborhood of Gentilly Woods, aside from other cars like our own, were some resolute locals inhabiting trailers on the front lawns of their decimated homes. I counted only a few of these residents, but one was hard at work with a hammer in his hand.
A similar sense of perseverance drove the musicians, at JazzFest and beyond. Displaced Mardi Gras Indians paraded in elaborate costumes they had hurriedly pieced together from scratch. The trumpeter Irwin Mayfield, whose father was a casualty of Katrina, led his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in the jazz tent on Friday. Joseph Lastie Jr., a drummer who lost some uncles and cousins to the storm, played all weekend with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, both at the fairgrounds and in the reopened hall itself. Another traditional jazz artist, clarinetist and historian Dr. Michael White, could be heard one afternoon playing in Tower Records on Decatur Street; what he lost to Katrina were the antique instruments, sheet music and recordings that once comprised a private collection of New Orleans Americana.
Through it all, the music endured. On Saturday, New Orleans trumpeter Leroy Jones played some of the best straightahead jazz I heard all weekend, applying a streamlined modernism to traditional chestnuts like “Bourbon Street Parade.” Appearing just after that, Herbie Hancock featured two Louisiana musicians in his jazz-funk band, drummer Brian Blade and trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who made a cameo during Marcus Miller’s “Tutu.” And then there was Allen Toussaint, who coolly mixed protest with exhortation in his set with Elvis Costello. The two artists delivered an important broadside with their new song “River in Reverse,” but I was more moved by Toussaint’s solo effort “There’s a Party Going On,” a New Orleans funk groove to which he added a closing tag: “Home. Home. Everybody come home.”
The previous night, some friends and I had headed to Snug Harbor on Frenchman Street to catch another dose of Jonathan Batiste. But at the precise moment that we rolled up to the club, the entire neighborhood went dark; the city’s intermittent power failures were just one more reminder of the ongoing challenge of recovery. Another, more literal reminder arrived on Sunday, as an interloper named Bruce Springsteen led his rollicking, Cajun-seasoned Seeger Sessions Band in a set that mirrored the sound of JazzFest. “I saw sights I never thought I’d see in an American city,” Springsteen said of his eye-opening trip to the Ninth Ward, before he performed a powerfully updated version of Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times As These?”
What will happen to the city’s musical community as the warm glow of JazzFest recedes further into memory? That’s a fate that any one of us can help define. Donations are still being accepted for the Musicians’ Village, a Habitat for Humanity project overseen by Marsalis Music (marsalismusic.com) that has produced some of the city’s most tangible recovery results. Of course, there are other ways to contribute, as we should all continue to do. If anything, this JazzFest reinforced two truths: the fight is far from over and there’s something worth fighting for.