Jazz culture spills out in New Orleans each day of every year in many ways, into clubs and concert-hall seasons, onto streets and in the mundane details of daily lives. (Which is why laws and policies that impede or restrict that flow are both insensitive and bad for business).
“Initially, New Orleans jazz was a reflection of a way of life,” clarinetist Michael White told me back in 2006 at his professor’s office at Xavier University, while peering over a jagged pile including the red notebook in which, during the weeks following the floods that resulted from levee breaks following hurricane Katrina, he jotted down the names and whereabouts of friends and colleagues. “It spoke of the way people walk, talk, eat, sleep, dance, drive, think, make jokes, and dress. But I don’t think America ever truly understood New Orleans culture, because the mindset is so different here. So that whole tradition was hidden from most of America.”
One thing Jazz Fest does quite well is bring that tradition into focus, as expressed on stages by musicians, in the Fair Grounds via second-line parades and Mardi Gras Indians, through food and art and, if you make it to the insightful interviews on the Allison Miner stage, with one-to-one conversations. The casual fan of, say, Wilco or John Legend or T.I. will come face-to-face with feathers, beads, chants, second-line rhythms, and the constellation of music that forms New Orleans jazz culture.
It’s a manufactured environment, sure, yet it opens doors and jumps across barriers. And it highlights the very pleasures and pains, the issues and ideas, I’ve been tracking for nearly a decade. Get my two-part reflections from Jazz Fest here and here.