Here’s what you didn’t see on TV:
Nearly an hour after all the wild cheering had died down and the last enthralled $1,000-a-seat ticket holder had left the building, a small bunch of musicians, assorted stragglers and hangers-on still caught up in the festive spirit of this all-star gala kept the party going strong. They convened offstage in one corner, shouting and carrying on, waving white handkerchiefs and singing bits of “Little Liza Jane” and “Feets Can’t Fail Me Now” as drummers Herlin Riley and Ali Jackson kept a second-line groove going on bass drum and snare, respectively. Trombonist Wycliffe Gordon lit up the adrenalized mob with a few raucous blasts from his horn while others joined in on anything that made noise. They clapped hands, slapped knees, stomped their feet on the stage, shook tambourines, banged on cowbells and beat on the side of an upright bass case as dancers whirled around inside the eye of this percussive hurricane. One young man who danced himself into a good-foot trance yelled out to no one in particular, “You feel that spirit? You can’t stop that!”
The whole spontaneous, primal scene brought me back to similar Saturday-night rituals in New Orleans at the old Glass House Uptown with the original Dirty Dozen Brass Band or at Trombone Shorty’s in Treme with the Rebirth Brass Band. It was a fitting close to a most memorable evening.
This Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Benefit, organized to aid the displaced musicians, artists and residents of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, began on an epic note. Instead of kicking off this nationally televised benefit with bells and whistles and big smiles for the viewing audience at home, they played it in strictly dramatic fashion, as if to underscore the gravity of the situation down in the flooded Crescent City. New Orleans’ favorite son Wynton Marsalis led his gang of musicians from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra into the grand Rose Theater from stage left, slowly emerging from an eerie blue-lit haze in a kind of haunting processional. Their somber chants about “water’s rising” were punctuated by dramatic, choreographed foot stomps as they slowly made their way to the bandstand and kicked off the show with a stirring, blues-inflected “Ain’ No.”
Continuing in a spiritual vein, Rene Fleming lent her soaring operatic soprano to a reverent rendition of “Amazing Grace,” accompanied only by violinist Mark O’Connor, a bluegrass fiddler with a classical pedigree. Next up was the wonderful gospel singer Shirley Caesar, who might’ve become a mainstream superstar if she had ever crossed over into secular material as Aretha Franklin did decades ago. Her earth-shaking voice and sanctified fervor on “You’re Next for a Miracle” and “He’s Working It Out for You” galvanized the Rose Theater crowd as it offered healing to everyone in attendance.
In his role as host of the proceedings, actor Laurence Fishburne, the powerful and menacing Morpheus from “The Matrix,” provided several fascinating and little known historical facts throughout the evening about the “savory, spicy cultural gumbo” that is New Orleans and its influence on the rest of the country the world. As a resident of the Crescent City himself (he cited an address on Dauphine Street in the French Quarter), Fishburne had the requisite street credibility to yell from his podium like a Pentacostal preacher addressing his flock: “I’m here to say raise it up! Lift it up! Somebody say yeah you right!” Fishburne also ran down a litany of the famous novelists, poets and playwrights who were either born in New Orleans, came of age there or had deep connections to the place. The eloquent testimonies that he recited from literary giants like Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams and Henry Miller to modern day chroniclers of the Crescent City like Roy Blount further illustrated the spell that this enchanting metropolis below sea level has cast on visitors from Napolean’s time to the present.
In celebrating the diversity of musical expression that has always been a part New Orleans culture, the show shifted from the church to street with brothers Aaron and Art Neville leading a small aggregation of LCJO regulars through an upbeat rendition of Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” Frontman Aaron whipped out a white handkerchief on that hometown anthem and showed the audience just how they do it on Fat Tuesday in his Uptown neighborhood. Another aspect of Louisiana party music was represented by Buckwheat Zydeco, who appeared alongside Paul Simon on “That Was Your Mother” (from Simon’s 1986 Graceland album) and also lit up the audience with his own infectious zydeco ditty “I’m Gonna Love You Anyway.”
Wynton and a small assemblage from his LCJO crew represented the spirit of Louis Armstrong with a rousing rendition of “Dippermouth Blues” while another New Orleans native, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, turned in a contemplative, elegiac piece in “Over There.” Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, another cultural ambassador of New Orleans, delivered a very moving rendition of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” accompanied only by pianist Damien Sneed. Starting out with a lot in reserve, Mayfield slowly built to passionate high-note peaks, culminating in one of his furious “Flight of the Bumblebee” barrages of notes that showcase his remarkable circular breathing technique on the trumpet. Mayfield prefaced the song by explaining how it was the first tune that he ever played in public (in church) and he went on to dedicate it to his father, Irvin Mayfield, Sr., who is still missing down in New Orleans.
Wynton united with his brothers Delfaeyo and Jason Marsalis, along with the proud patriarch of the family, pianist Ellis Marsalis, for an uptempo bop-flavored offering in “Twelve’s It.” Another renowned New Orleans family, the Jordans, escaped Katrina, dispersed to different cities and reunited at this Higher Ground benefit. Featuring Marlon on trumpet, Kent on flute, Rachel on violin and Stephanie on vocals accompanied by LCJO members Ali Jackson on drums, Carlos Henriquez on bass and Dan Nimmer, the children of New Orleans tenor sax titan and educator Kidd Jordan delighted the Rose Theater crowd with an affecting rendition of “Here’s to Life.” Singer Stephanie Jordan, a standout here, was the real discovery of the evening. Her haunting rendition of this bittersweet ode associated with Shirley Horn was delivered with uncanny poise and a depth of understated soul that mesmerized the crowd and registered to the back rows. Singing with a clarity of diction that recalled Nat “King” Cole, she offered an uplifting message of hope in her heartfelt reading.
The “Spanish tinge” that Jellyroll Morton pointed to as a fundamental element in New Orleans music was represented by the Lincoln Center Afro-Jazz Orchestra led by pianist Arturo O’Farrill, the son of Latin jazz legend Chico O’Farrill. With guest soloist Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet, they ran through a spirited rendition of Chico O’Farrill’s “Havana Blues,” with Paquito playfully dropping in quotes from Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” along the way. Pianist Robert Marcus further conjured up the jaunty spirit of Jellyroll with his rousing solo rendition of Morton’s “New Orleans Blues.”
Tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, accompanied by a regal rhythm section of bassist Reginald Veal and New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad, turned in a strong performance on “Message to Blackwell,” his tribute to the late, great New Orleans drummer Ed Blackwell. Veal and Muhammad also accompanied jazz heavyweight Herbie Hancock on a stirring piano trio rendition of his “Eye of the Hurricane” and McCoy Tyner summoned up his signature pianistic thunder on “Trane Like,” with Al Foster on drums and Charnett Moffett on bass.
Diana Krall delivered an appropriately laidback rendition of “Basin Street,” accompanied by Cyrus Chestnut on piano together with a small ensemble featuring Wynton on trumpet, Don Vappie on guitar and Victor Goines on clarinet. Her relaxed, behind the beat phrasing and loose scatting perfectly fit the mood of that lazy Crescent City anthem.
On the pop end of the spectrum, James Taylor performed an affecting ballad, “Never Die Young,” accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, while Norah Jones’ solo take on Randy Newman’s thoughtful ballad “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today” was simultaneously calming and powerful. Elvis Costello joined with pianist Allen Toussaint on the legendary New Orleans songwriter’s “Freedom for the Stallion” and consummate pro Bette Midler brought smiles with her ebullient reading of “Is That All There Is,” backed by a large ensemble conducted by Don Sebesky.
One of the emotional highpoints of the evening came with Abbey Lincoln’s raw, cathartic take of “For All We Know,” backed by drummer Ali Jackson, bassist Veal and pianist Marc Cary. Toward the end of that melancholy song, Lincoln followed her own dramatic instincts by calling off Cary on mike. “Let me have it! Marc, let me have it,” she insisted, before launching into an a cappella climax that sent shivers up our collective spine.
Pianist Peter Cincotti revealed some authentic N’awlins-styled ivory tickling on “Bring Back New Orleans,” a hopeful new anthem he composed in the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation of the Crescent City. Jon Hendricks contributed a lovely bossa nova in “This Love of Mine” and a politically-tinged rap about hypocrisy in government and religion on “Tell Me The Truth.” Other stinging political messages were delivered by celebrities Bill Cosby, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, who pulled no punches in aiming their pointed indictments directly at the Bush Administration
Mississippi native Cassandra Wilson performed a gorgeous, prayerful rendition of Duke Ellington’s spiritual, “Come Sunday,” accompanied by the full LCJO. Wynton’s septet then summed up the evening with a funereal “Death Of Jazz” that erupted into a joyous parade number — a traditional New Orleans way of both honoring the dead and rejoicing for them. Marsalis led a contingent of alto saxophonist Wessell Anderson, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, clarinetist Victor Goines, bass drummer Herlin Riley, snare drummer Ali Jackson and banjoist Don Vappie through the crowd, marching parade band style as a crew of second-liners followed close behind, waving their white handkerchiefs and getting down like it was Mardi Gras day. Even Cassandra Wilson and Laurence Fishburne got into the action as the line of musicians and dancers made its way up into the second tier and around the expanse of Rose Theater before returning to the stage to officially bring the proceedings to a close.
But it didn’t end there. Long after the TV cameras had shut off and Rose Theater had emptied, the music (and spirit) of New Orleans played on.
This Higher Ground concert, seen nationally on PBS affiliates around the country, was also simultaneously broadcast on WBGO Jazz 88.3 FM and WNYC, New York Public Radio 93.9 FM, in the New York City area, and internationally via National Public Radio Worldwide. XM Satellite Radio carried concert live on its network from coast to coast on channel 70, the Real Jazz channel. The concert was also streamed live on www.npr.org, www.wbgo.org, and www.xmradio.com.
Here’s what you didn’t see on TV: