Each year, for our Jazz Appreciation Month issue, we ask Nanette Ledet, our correspondent in New Orleans, to give us her take on the state of jazz there. This year marks the seventh anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
As I began the process of assembling my latest New Orleans update for the Jazz Appreciation Month issue of Allegro, I realized that it has been seven years since my first contribution. While the reconstruction and renovation of our city is still in progress, there has been a significant surge of fresh energy and creativity, provided by the more recent artists and residents who now call New Orleans home. In fact, there is so much going on here now that it is difficult to know just where to begin.
As I write these words, a sale of sets and costumes from the last season of “Treme” is happening nearby. The HBO series has provided many local musicians, actors, extras and crew with some well-paid gigs during its existence here. Some (like my friend Tom McDermott, a pianist, composer, and traditional jazz wiz) have been featured in dual capacities, literally “playing” themselves, for a few episodes.
I spoke to cornetist Jack Fine recently (whom I wrote about in these pages last November) and he informed me that he would be featured in an independently-produced documentary, scheduled to begin production soon. The film industry (and several television projects) has provided considerable revenue to the city and many employment opportunities to its citizens, earning us the moniker “Hollywood South.”
In January, the annual “Best of the Beat” awards were distributed, in an event sponsored by Offbeat magazine (www.offbeat.com). Some of the local jazz legends were honored: the award for best contemporary jazz artist went to Irvin Mayfield and his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; best traditional jazz artist was Kermit Ruffins (trumpet); the Rebirth Brass Band took home the award for best brass band, and the best traditional jazz album, “St. Peter and 57th Street,” went to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The Lifetime Achievement Award was given to Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, who composed the ubiquitous Mardi Gras tune, and who is still performing locally. Trombone Shorty won artist of the year and the great Dr. John won album of the year (for “Locked Down”). The evening included many performances and the usual mayhem of partying, New Orleans-style.
There are several new music venues in operation now; one of my personal favorites is the long-anticipated reopening of the downtown Joy Theater. I had the great pleasure of hearing the Cuban piano powerhouse Chucho Valdez and his outstanding orchestra there. The acoustics are perfectly balanced, and the room is very elegant but not overwhelming to the senses. The incredible percussionist Alexi Marti was also featured at that concert. Another smaller but equally historic venue is the Little Gem Saloon, located on North Rampart Street in what was formerly a jazz district. It’s another example of the attempts to preserve and restore the little jewels of our town, which had been neglected and empty for too long.
Of course, the power of football could not be ignored, as the Superbowl activities caused the parade schedules for some Mardi Gras krewes to be revised during the month of February. The tourists and their spending were really flowing – and welcomed! Planning for next year’s productions is already under way.
On the subject of new CDs soon to be available, I would like to recommend checking out the latest offering by the magnificent Henry Butler, who has just finished recording it at Avatar studios. One of my all-time favorite New Orleans drummers, Herlin Riley, is also featured on it.
Dr. John has a new band and new management, and some new sounds; he began touring with them in February, starting out in Sacramento. Jason Marsalis (son of Ellis, of the legendary Marsalis clan) lays down his vibe rhythms in “In a World of Mallets”; I have heard several of his earlier efforts, and found his work to be fresh and a good listen.
Of course, no update would be complete without reference to the French Quarter Festival, celebrating its 30th year, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The French Quarter Festival runs from April 11 to 14, and has always been one of my best music experiences here. Smaller in scale than JazzFest (and free!) it offers so many tasty musical choices, both traditional and contemporary, and is set in the inimitable ambiance of the French Quarter.
As a young dancer and percussionist, I performed in the now-gargantuan Jazz and Heritage Festival, which runs on the last weekend in April and the first weekend in May. In addition to the many acts featured in the main site on the fairgrounds, there are many opportunities to catch the after-hours shows in local clubs.
Some of my personal picks are: John Boutte (a regular at DBA on Saturday nights; he sings the theme song from “Treme”); Norbert Slama, accordion and piano at Miss Sophie Lee’s place; the venue Three Muses (also great food!); and anywhere these musicians are playing: Herlin Riley, Roland Guerin, Loren Pickford, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Papa Grows Funk, and Evan Christopher…(I could make a much longer list!)
No one is more surprised than me, that I am still living here in this impossible, dangerous, seductively wonderful great city of the world. New Orleans will never return to its pre-Katrina condition; it has become its own future self, and that has produced a fascinating evolution in its rebirthing process. The music and its makers also continue to evolve, within its setting.
This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the New York City musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For more information, see www.Local802afm.org.