Monday, May 01, 2006

LAST OF APRIL

My brother, John Rankin, is a relatively well-known guitarist in New Orleans. One of my favorite’s of his original tunes is an instrumental entitled, “Last of April, First of May.” For those “in the know,” the title needs no explanation, especially once you feel the rhythms of the song, which manage to be laid-back and exciting at the same time. It’s a groove we feel around these parts every year during the last weekend of April through the first weekend of May. It’s JazzFest.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, better known as JazzFest, began in 1970 with a series of night concerts and a two-day “heritage fair,” a celebration of music, food, and crafts, in what was then known as Beauregard Square (it has since reverted to its original name of Congo Square), which can lay claim to being the true birthplace of jazz. It was in Congo Square that, in antebellum days, slaves were allowed to gather in the evening to dance and play the music of their native Africa. They kept the rhythm alive, and it eventually morphed with other musical styles into what we now know as jazz, the single greatest contribution New Orleans made to the world ⎯ and perhaps the greatest cultural contribution any city has ever made.

Well-know JazzFest lore holds that there were more performers than spectators in the first year. But by 1972, the fair grew to the point at which a larger location was necessary, and a move was made to the Fair Grounds, one of the oldest thoroughbred horse racing tracks in the country. The place suited the festival well. My mother, who was a volunteer with the festival for the first several years and who loved it dearly for the rest of her days, often spoke of her feelings about crossing the track onto the infield and feeling like she was stepping into another country. She always felt her description lacked something. Big Mama was not one to use phrases like “parallel universe,” but I think that was the point she was trying to make. The Fair Grounds became a place where magic occurs.

I began attending JazzFest in 1973 at the tender age of 16 (oops, now you know how ancient I am). I had grown up on traditional jazz but had developed a real taste fro the blues, and my mother assured me there would be something to my liking out there. It was a lesson in the real thing; I was introduced to players like Snooks Eaglin and Gatemouth Brown. Everywhere I wandered around the multiple stages, a new sound enticed me over. Then something happened that changed the way I thought of the “last of April” from then on.

Because I was in the right place at the right time to hear the right rumor, I stayed close to a particular stage that was supposed to be empty. What we were treated to was an unannounced jam session, led by B.B. King, featuring Professor Longhair, Roosevelt Sykes, and Bukka White, and ably backed by George Porter and Zigaboo Modeliste (the bassist and drummer for the Meters). To borrow an apt phrase from the liturgy of baptism, I was sealed as JazzFest’s own forever. I learned that the essence of JazzFest was not the music; it was the moment.

Over the years, JazzFest continued to grow to take two weekends. The nighttime concerts were eventually jettisoned altogether. The stages got larger and more numerous, and the people ⎯ meaning both big-name performers and crowds ⎯ came in ever-growing quantities. But throughout it all, it was the moments that defined my JazzFest experiences.

Eight months ago, of course, everything changed in New Orleans. To make JazzFest happen this year, the once unthinkable occurred and a “presenting sponsor” came in to help underwrite the festival (leading to the ubiquitous but relatively tasteful appearance of logos by an oil company). That really wasn’t too difficult a pill to swallow considering the sale of naming rights for the various stages in recent years (you can tell the old-timers who still refer to the “Accura stage” as “Stage Four”). The real changes were to eliminate Thursday from the second week, and the cutting and/or consolidation of some of the stages.

Still, I had faith that I would find at least one good “JazzFest moment” this year. I just didn’t know I would find so many in the first weekend.

There were moments that connected me to Jazzfests past. Clarence “Frogman” Henry has reached the point in life where he now needs a walker to go out onto the stage, but once there he can still “sing like a frog” or “sing like a girl” to the utter delight of an appreciative crowd.

I’m not sure how old Snooks Eaglin actually is, but he is still one of the most inventive masters of the blues guitar anywhere, just as he was at my very first JazzFest. He is certainly the only one I’ve ever heard play flamenco-inspired arpeggios in the middle of a funky R&B song.

Once again, I was able to dance with my wife to the sounds of Rosie Ledet, the Zydeco sweetheart. Rosie may not be that old a performer, but she quickly became a fixture at JazzFest in the mid-nineties. Her recordings have never captured the irresistible charm of her live performances, and she did not disappoint this year.

Then there were the moments that let me know the traditions would outlive any of the performers I saw this year. The Mahogany Jazz Band served notice that the venerable traditions of the New Orleans streets were in good hands. And somewhere up in Zydeco heaven, Clifton Chenier, who was part of a great JazzFest moment in an amazing performance shortly before he died, must have been grinning ear-to-ear as his son, C.J. led the current incarnation of the Red Hot Louisiana Band through a hot set.

Some of the moments were a bit mixed. One of my particular favorites, the subdudes, who provided many great JazzFest moments over the last several years, played an awesome set to a somewhat rude audience of teenagers waiting for Dave Matthews. Scattered around were pockets of true fans who did what we could to make sure the guys knew their efforts were appreciated.

Sometimes the JazzFest moments are just that: mere moments. I recall seeing Babe Stovall back in 1974. Babe was a bluesman who sang on the streets and in the clubs of the French Quarter. He ordinarily played a steel-bodied National resonator guitar, but it was stolen and Babe was playing a cheap pawn-shop special in his JazzFest performance. Halfway through the set, someone passed up a brand new National to Babe. That was a moment that etched itself in my heart as well as my mind: the type of moment one does not expect to experience at every JazzFest. This year there were two.

On Saturday, my brother, John, played his 23rd JazzFest. It was a typically fine performance that produced a moment about halfway through when he sang “Louisiana 1927,” Randy Newman’s song about the suffering of Louisianians as the result of floodwaters pouring through a long-ago break in the levees. The location names are a little different, but it is a song that has been especially poignant for us in what we call “the Post-K era.” I’ve heard John sing the song many times before, but never better. In the midst of a badly damaged neighborhood, the audience knew what it was hearing. There was a collective sharp intake of breath upon the opening verse, respectful silence through the song, and a heartfelt round of applause at the end.

The other moment came the next day at an amazing set by Bruce Springsteen and the Seeger Sessions Band. Just going to that set was quite a decision given that the original Meters were playing at another stage. But in the words I saw on a t-shirt this year, “Judge not your JazzFest by the greatness of what you have seen, but by the greatness of what you have missed to see it.” (Indeed, on Saturday, I passed up seeing the great Hugh Masekela, who I saw performing brilliantly just two years ago at the Fest, to see other acts.) My plan was to start out at the Springsteen set and then high-tail it to catch the end of the Meters’ performance, but I knew I was witnessing something important halfway through the Boss’ performance.

To begin with, I am a big fan of both Bruce Springsteen and Pete Seeger. When I heard that Springsteen was recording an album of traditional folk songs as a tribute to Mr. Seeger, I was naturally intrigued. Booking this act seemed a natural considering the charismatic performances delivered by Mr. Seeger in past JazzFests (talk about your moments). The performance this year by what can only be called a folk orchestra (folkchestra?) exceeded all my expectations.

The Seeger Sessions Band, in addition to Mr. Springsteen, consists of guitars, violins/fiddles, banjo, dobro and steel guitar, keyboards and accordian, upright bass, drums, and a full horn section. The sound was a mixture of bluegrass, zydeco, country, the blues, anglo-american folk music, and traditional jazz. In local parlance, it was a gumbo. In fact, it was all the music that makes for a good JazzFest being played simultaneously in a way that it sounded like one music. Then, we had the rarest of all JazzFest experiences: a moment within a moment.

Throughout the set. Mr. Springsteen made spoken and musical references, some of them overtly political, about our recent experience. It was a nice way of letting us know we weren’t forgotten, but that’s been true of any number of musicians and celebrities. At the beginning of the encore, however, came a song somewhat newer than many that had already been played: Springsteen’s “City of Ruins.” The song, chronicling the urban decay of Asbury Park, New Jersey, became an anthem of sorts for post 9-11 New York. It could just as easily be speaking of post-K New Orleans:

There is a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
And the rain is falling down
The church door’s thrown open
I can hear the organ’s song
But the congregation’s gone
My city of ruins
My city of ruins

Now the sweet bells of mercy
Drift through the evening trees
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves,
The boarded up windows,
The empty streets
While my brother’s down on his knees
My city of ruins
My city of ruins

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!

By the time we were told to “rise up,” more than a few people had tears streaming down their faces. The real moment came on the following lines:
Now with these hands,
With these hands,
With these hands,
I pray Lord

With no prompting, nearly every person in the crowd at that stage, numbering at least 30,000, lifted their hands in prayer for a beloved city.

Looking back at what I just wrote, I realize it sounds hokey or over-the-top. I can’t help that. I was there to see the tears and to feel a shared emotion that was so real as to be palpable.

A couple of songs later, Bruce left us with an unusually mellow version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Quint Davis, who produces JazzFest, took the mike to repeat what has become the motto and mantra of this year’s festival: “Witness the Healing Power of Music!” Sometimes, a lot of healing can occur in just a moment.

7 Comments:

Blogger Kristina Chew said...

I guess April is ending not so cruelly.

Your words send some good sounds across the digital landscape of bytes and blogs.

5/2/06, 12:09 AM  
Blogger Do'C said...

Wade,

I'm jealous, I'd really like to attend JazzFest at least once. Glad you had a great time!

5/2/06, 12:13 AM  
Anonymous Old Man Kuzenski said...

Touching AND enlightening. I wish the photos were bigger, though. Oh, and one question occurs to me: Wayne, are you really THE John Rankin's brother? ;-)

5/2/06, 9:19 AM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

Hey, I was just trying to fit all the pics in. Of course, as an ex-roommate, and ostensible friend, you might have qualified for free copies of all the photos, but after that last sentence . . .

5/2/06, 1:43 PM  
Blogger Wade Rankin said...

A couple of quick comments. First, I need to thank my wonderful wife for letting me go to JazzFest without her on Saturday (I was chaperoned by my daughter), and then letting me stay after she had to leave on Sunday.

Second, for those who are unable to make it to the second week of JazzFest (and unfortunately, that includes me), you can listen to live interviews and performances on the greatest radio station in the world, WWOZ, available on a webcast or at 90.7 on the dial in the New Orleans area.

5/2/06, 6:38 PM  
Anonymous shawn said...

The JazzFest sounds like a total blast! It appears to be filled with 'moments' that make live music such a wonderful experience. And yes, Mr. Springsteen is one of those people who knows how to create them. Maybe create isn't the right word. It sounds more like he simply drew out the feelings and emotion that resonated with many. It sounds like your brother does the same.

5/2/06, 9:41 PM  
Blogger Eileen said...

Great post Wade! Sounds like you had many moments. Form a Jersey Girl who has seen the Boss live in many small Jersey bars (surprise performances following rumors), I have had some moments myself. I am sure none as in comparison as the Jazzfest though.

5/6/06, 7:23 AM  

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