Feel the Jazz
Photo: Preservation Hall Jazz Band
I was surprised at how many New Orleanians couldn't direct me to
Preservation Hall as I was swept past its humble facade in the momentum of a spring evening crowd wandering down Saint Peter Street.
New Orleans' answer to Carnegie Hall, Preservation Hall has been called one of the last pure musical experiences on earth.
The floorboards creaked as I finally made my way through the door and sandwiched myself between two onlookers in what looked like the living room of a forgotten bayou home. Watching passersby pressing their noses up to the smoky glass windows, I knew I had found something rare.
After getting acoustically walloped by songs like "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" and "Algiers Stomp," I worked my way over to the stage to shake hands with the 10 men of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrated one of New Orleans' best-kept secrets: musical genius unscathed by the rock-star attitude or high-priced exclusivity.
But even in this last bastion of real music, you still have to seek out the gems among such talented (albeit overpublicized) acts like Steely Dan and The Allman Brothers Band.
The two 2007 Jazz Fest promo posters reflected this dichotomy. One any tourist would recognize depicted Jerry Lee Lewis, but the other was of tuba player Phil Frazier, 41, whose brass band Rebirth is as much of a legend to the Big Easy as the Beatles were to the world.
New Orleans boasts many unique styles of music that are wildly popular with the locals, but have been slowly making their mark elsewhere.
Brass bands, for example, came along in the 1800s through post-Civil War military bands and were used at social events ranging from births to funerals. During the 1960s, they began headlining in New Orleans' Sunday street parades.
A far cry from their parade beginnings in the 1980s, Rebirth -- one of the city's premiere brass bands -- now performs as far away as Africa and Japan and records with artists like Lenny Kravitz. Their albums are even available at major music vendors like
Barnes and Noble
Frazier's mother was a gospel player and music runs in his family, but New Orleans' high school brass bands (as popular as the local football teams) really instilled his passion. "I'm glad I was born in New Orleans," says Frazier. "Since I'm a tuba player, I would have probably never gotten a chance to see tuba players do the things they do."
Zydeco, another distinctly New Orleans style of music, originated from the Creole tradition in southwest Louisiana. It's a strange combination of boogie, blues and two-step that's been a staple at any self-respecting Southern house party for decades.
"It's not sit-down music," chuckles
C.J. Chenier, son of the king of zydeco, Clifton Chenier.
Chenier learned from his father, the first Creole musician to win a Grammy Award, and couldn't imagine playing anything else. It's a type of music any generation can relate to, he says, and it's not uncommon to see grandmother and grandson dancing together when it kicks in.
Similarly, world-renowned saxophonist
Branford Marsalis was born into one of New Orleans' most famous musical families, which includes his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis. He has won three Grammy Awards and played with Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Sting, but one of his fondest memories was his first paid gig at his elementary school dance where he only knew seven songs and had to borrow a flute to play the solos.
A New Orleans musician quickly learns that here success is measured in soul, not record sales. "Everybody
else is going for the big bucks," says Frazier. "To me, the big bucks come when you can really play with a lot of passion and it comes form your heart ... because if it's in you it will just flow through you."
Here, music means much more than entertainment. "My favorite part is when I perform and I make people forget about their problems ... ailments ... bills," Frazier explains. "Music brings all generations and races together. ... I almost think music could
bring down walls."
Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Rebirth got back together and served as a rallying point for musicians and the city as a whole. "We gave them some hope," says Frazier. "If Rebirth can get back together, the city can get back together."
As with anything, Frazier says New Orleans' unique music was often taken for granted before the hurricane. "Before Katrina, they had this great music, this great culture, and they could see it every day," he says. "It's a shame it took a tragedy like Katrina to make people realize the kind of music we have back here in New Orleans."
Keeping the Flavor
While Rebirth tours around the world for much of the year, the annual Jazz Fest is a time to sit back and have their fans come to them. "
The audience shows that your hard work paid off," says Frazier. "When we see that crowd, we know we did a good job."
Frazier is glad the festival is back and getting stronger, but, as with all of New Orleans, he doesn't want to see it get too commercialized. "You're still trying to keep that same gumbo flavor. That's why musicians came back to New Orleans
Marsalis loved Jazz Fest when he was a kid and all the music was jazz or Louisiana heritage music. In recent years, however, he believes the focus has widened so much that the name should be changed. "Now it's just a music festival," he says.
"Everybody thinks there should be more New Orleans acts," Frazier adds.
Still, Marsalis concedes that New Orleans needs the festival. "These types of high-profile events are essential in bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the city," he says. "Hopefully, I will live long enough to see that change, and Jazz Fest will be a marvelous addition to a city with a bona fide business structure."
To aid musicians in their biggest struggle -- housing -- Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis and singer Harry Connick Jr. have partnered with
Habitat for Humanity to build projects like
Musicians' Village. Displaced New Orleans musicians live in single-family homes in this complex.
Chenier, who has been playing at Jazz Fest for 28 years, says the festival has stayed pretty much the same, but some familiar faces are missing from the lineup. "We gotta get all the people back," he says. That's why he wants his group's next project to be oozing with N'awlins flavor.
Blues musicians sing about hanging crepe on someone's door when their health looks dire. With talent like this, however, New Orleans' music scene should be staying away from the crepe for a while.
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