The two sides of Jazz Fest
Editor’s Note: For the past 10 years, local Crawford Byers has traveled to New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival, spending two weeks at a time in the city. Here is a memoir of his latest trip, depicting the festival and current state of New Orleans.NEW ORLEANS – This year’s Jazz Festival meant everything to New Orleans. Music is the heart and soul of the city, and officials were counting on music lovers from all over the world to help bring back the spirit that separates “N’Awlins” from any other place on earth.
The two-weekend event, which took place April 28-30 and May 5-7, was a resounding success, featuring big acts like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band, Herbie Hancock and Elvis Costello – musicians who love the city and wanted to bring people back to it. It is heartbreaking to report, however, that the city is still in shambles. Recovery is happening at a snail’s pace. For many tourists, Jazz Fest was a chance to witness firsthand the devastation wrought when the levees failed. For those who didn’t attend, I want to describe the two sides of New Orleans I saw during the festival.
Jazz Fest organizers pulled a lot of big national names this year, and it worked. The festival saw big crowds each day.But I think everyone who loves Jazz Fest really attends to hear all the great local musicians. Some of the finest musicians in the world get so comfortable playing in New Orleans, the rest of the world hardly ever gets to see them perform.Ninety percent of the bands at the festival are from Louisiana: Pete Fountain, The Meters, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Deacon John, Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Ellis Marsalis, Astral Project, Eddie Bo, CJ Chenier and Henry Butler to name a few. These acts draw huge crowds when they play – and if you haven’t heard of them, I suggest you Google their names.One of the great tragedies of Katrina is that so many of these local musicians are now spread across the country, scrambling for gigs to make a living. The spirit of New Orleans is displaced. Jazz Fest was an overdue homecoming – 4,000 local musicians returned. Many had not seen each other since the storm, and everyone had tragic stories to tell. You could tell for the musicians that being around one another – like it had been every day before Katrina – meant everything. The music was emotional, uplifting and healing. The crowds danced nonstop. It was powerful to be around so many people who truly love music.
No matter how much fun was had, the misery that lies just blocks away from every party gave this year’s Jazz Fest a very sobering feel.The biggest misconception I had going down to New Orleans was that progress was being made on cleaning the city. The impression I got from the news is that the city is busy rebuilding. And if you just visit the French Quarter and Garden District, this is mostly true. Sure, there’s still heaps of rodent-infested garbage everywhere and lots of boarded-up stores. But for the most part, things are returning to normal downtown. New Orleans has not lost the ability to throw a party.It’s when you drive away from downtown that one begins to realize just how widespread the destruction is and how little progress is being made to clean it up. The first thing I saw was thousands of crippled, destroyed cars piled under Interstate 10 over passes, still covered in floodwater silt. Scrap metal that will take years to remove is scattered for miles.
When we arrived in the lower 9th Ward, my friends and I were speechless. It’s as if the levees broke yesterday. Cars are on top of houses, houses are on top of cars, and boats are sitting in living rooms. Front steps lead to foundations of vanished houses. I saw a house with a 5200 street address perched on top of a car on the 2800 block. Many streets are unrecognizable because houses, rooftops, electrical wires and debris now litter the pavement. These scenes are repeated for mile after mile across the city in neighborhoods like Chaumette, Lakeview, Delacroix, St. Bernard Parish. No progress has been made to fix these neighborhoods. They are absolutely destroyed.While looking at these empty neighborhoods, I couldn’t help but think what is going to happen to the culture of New Orleans. Developers are poised to bulldoze the land and rebuild as they see fit, which means loss of tradition. New Orleans is hands down the most unique city in the world. The blend of African, Caribbean, French and Spanish cultures is found no other place in the world. Traditions are handed down through generations, and neighborhoods are strengthened by large family units. But currently, there are no children in New Orleans. Most schools remain closed. What’s being done to help these people? My greatest hope is that for President Bush’s next photo-op in New Orleans (he’s visited 10 times so far), rather than hammering a nail at a work site, he could lead 2,000 garbage trucks from all over the country into the city and stay until every last 9-month-old garbage pile has been removed.
But in the meantime, I want to remember New Orleans for its spectacular musical moments. Here are some highlights from the 2006 Jazz Festival:- Local soul queen Irma Thomas singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” with Paul Simon, who also invited Buckwheat Zydeco to jam on stage.- U2’s The Edge joined the Preservation Hall Jazz Band during a set at its namesake club.
– Bruce Springsteen kicked off his U.S. tour with his new Seeger Sessions Band at the fairgrounds. He played “City of Ruins” and rededicated it to New Orleans, which brought the house down. – Elvis Costello performed with New Orleans songwriting legend Allen Toussaint.- Bob Dylan returned to the city that inspired so many of his famous tales.
Crawford Byers books music for 8150 in Vail Village, State Bridge Lodge in Bond and Sherpa and Yeti’s in Breckenridge.Vail, Colorado
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