I returned in ’79.
For personal reasons, I wasn’t able to make it back until ’88. I’ve been down for at least one weekend, sometimes both, every year since, except for 1991. I had an excuse that year. I’d been hit by a car the previous November and wouldn’t heal for another year.
If you’re keeping score at home, you will have figured out that 2011 will mark my Silver Anniversary visit. It’s way too late to stop now.
So, I’ve tried to tap into my fading memory through the smoke rings of my mind. I’ve researched old Offbeats, official guides and the 2005 edition of a book that chronicles each year of the fest, titled “The Incomplete, Year-By-Year, Selectively Quirky, Prime Facts Edition of the History of The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.” I’ve tapped into Guru Swag’s great website.
So here’s Part I of a list, as best I can conjure, of my favorite musical moments of my 24 previous JazzFests. It’s the first in a series of blogs leading up to the festival which starts this year on April 29.
A quick note. In trying to compile this list, I realized that it’s more about the annual experience of JazzFest than any particular musical moments. Of which there are many. It’s the food. And the grand, gloriosity that is New Orleans itself. It’s the vibe. It’s friendships made, friendships enhanced through shared experience. For each of these five and the five to come, there have been a hundred more magical JazzFest musical moments.
Before the list, the lagniappe.
Allen Toussaint/ Professor Longhair/ Gatemouth Brown, Riverboat President, 1976.
This is the concert that started it all. The festival used to sponsor evening shows. On the riverboat, they wer transcendent. I had maybe heard of Gatemouth Brown before this experience. As well as I knew many of Toussaint’s songs, I don’t know that I knew his name or importance. I’d never heard of Longhair at all.
Standing in the crowd next to Dr. John near the stage, listening to Fess, my life, frankly, was changed. My long held but unrecognized affinity for the Crescent City’s music seeded in. I’ve never looked back.
Toussaint played with a big band, horns, backup singers, the whole schmear. The version of “Sweet Touch of Love” played that night is transcendent.
I could have put this moment in the Top Ten. But, since it was the first, the one that hooked me forever, it stands alone.
So does Fess.
10) Mandingo Griot Society, 1976. Foday Musa Suso plays kora. It’s an African instrument, a large gourd, I guess, with a long fret with metal strings that are plucked. It sounds somewhat like a harpsichord. Wanda Landowska, his music is not. Rhythmic, lilting. Hearing his group at my first festival in a small tent opened my ears to the sounds of Africa, powerful yet harmonic, gentle but propulsive.
How about a little of the kora master to whet your appetite?
9) Mighty Chariots of Fire, ????. I’m not sure what year, and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. I do recall it was Easter Sunday . . . I think. While this set in the gospel tent was a cut way above, it stands in for many more. There is good reason for the logic of longtime fest goers, who when they aren’t sure what stage to visit next, follow this rule: “When in doubt, go to the Gospel Tent.”
What I remember about this incredibly righteous moment is that I thought it was possible that the spirit force would actually lift the tent, crowd, musicians and all into a state of hovering levitation. No, it wasn’t the pot either.
8) Ernie K-Doe, Dew Drop Inn Revisted, 1993 or ’94. Born Ernie Kador, he is most famous as a one hit wonder for the Allen Toussaint-penned, “Mother In Law.” But this New Orleans legend, in his mind and that of all who love the wackiness of this town and rock & roll, was about more than one song. Here’s how his gravestone reads:
ERNIE K-DOE (1936-2001)
“AFTER ME, THERE WILL BE NO OTHER”
EMPEROR OF THE UNIVERSE AND FRIENDS
OF NEW ORLEANS CEMETERIES GRAND
MARSHALL ERNIE K-DOE WAS BURIED IN
THIS TOMB ON JULY 13, 2001. ALONG WITH
THE “STAR SPANGLED BANNER”, HIS
SIGNATURE R&B CLASSIC “MOTHER IN
LAW” WILL BE ONE OF ONLY TWO SONGS
TO ULTIMATELY BE REMEMBERED. HIS
WAKE AND FUNERAL COMPRISED THE
MOST SPECTACULAR SEND-OFF NEW ORLEANS HAS EVER EXPERIENCED. TOMB
OWNER HEATHER TWICHELL OF THE
DUVAL FAMILY GRACIOUSLY DONATED
THIS BURIAL SPACE.
The Dew Drop Inn was THE New Orleans R & B club in he 40s and 50s. Through the mid 90s, the festival would have a Daze Between revue featuring the local stars that played the joint. Usually in a hotel ballroom or similar setting. Some years, they’d trot out K-Doe to vamp his way through his song.
The year I’m talking about he came out in his usual state of lovable, but inebriated self adulation. He sang the verses, then while the band was soloing, K-Doe went through this sequence to involve the crowd.
“If you love Ernie K-Doe,” he shouted, “get on your feet.” Which I and the accountants from Milwaukee and nurses from Dallas and all others in the crowd dutifully did.
“If you love Ernie K-Doe,” he continued, “wave your hands.” Which we did.
“If you love Ernie K-Doe,” he implored, “wave a handkerchief.” Many of us used napkins instead, but we remained faithful to his commands.
“If you love Ernie K-Doe,” he demanded, “down on your knees.”
At which point, they walked the endearing presence that was Ernie K-Doe off the stage.
It was a moment like no other, and probably should be higher on my list.
Here’s a taste of Ernie K-Doe at another JazzFest appearance.
7) Little Feat w/ Bonnie Raitt, Riverboat President, 1988. Like I said above I didn’t feel comfortable at JazzFest for a number of years in the early to mid 80s. Had to clean up my act and get my life in order in a real, palpable way.
I came to New Orleans for the ’76 festival at the insistence of an old college chum, Marc Winston. Before the festival in ’88, knowing how I’d loved Little Feat when Lowell George was still alive, he invited me to hear them at their first reunion gig. Bonnie Raitt — who taught George, who was by then dead, how to play slide — was going to join the band.
I remember it as not being primo Little Feat, though they would once again become one of the great rock bands ever. But I was yet again taken in by the vibe, realized what it meant to me. Realizing I could survive a weekend or two in New Orleans without self destructing, I vowed never to miss again.
6) Mahalathini & Mahatolla Queens, 1990. Those who are relatively new to the festival might not realize that every stage and all the food and all the port-o-lets used to be inside the racetrack itself. True. Congo Square was a much smaller space, hemmed in by Fais Do Do and the Jazz Tent, where there is now much more room along the backstretch to roam.
These African singers and their amazing back up band played the most contagious dance music I can recall. I remember literally every single soul jammed in at Congo Square was up and dancing. For every song. Until we were a sweaty, protoplasmic music-infused mass.
This is what I’m talkin’ about. (Even if you haven’t played any of the other clips, don’t miss this one.)
I was so tired, it was hard to walk to the car.
Coming Soon, JazzFest Musical Moments 1-5.