Tributes and Tributaries: In and Around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Fan waves an Allen Toussaint banner at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival/ photo; Josh Brasted
Fan waves an Allen Toussaint banner at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival/ photo; Josh Brasted

As I packed my bags to head to the 47th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I felt a pang of sadness.
Allen Toussaint would not be there.
I would not see Toussaint, who died unexpectedly at 77 on November 10, looking resplendent like he always did. Nor would I hear him cycling through songs he wrote or arranged or produced, that were hits for stars of several genres, from Lee Dorsey to the Rolling Stones, Al Hirt to Bonnie Raitt, and that traced a half-century of distinctive and unparalleled music making. In New Orleans, a city known for musical innovation, imponderable dualities, and inscrutable personal style, Toussaint epitomized it all: He was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken creator of classics who drove a cream-colored 1974 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, who could look elegantly complete in a suit jacket, silk tie, and a pair of white athletic socks and sandals, who could say a lot with just few notes or turn a pop song into a symphony.
Since I couldn’t stick around for jazzfest’s second weekend—which begins today and runs through Sunday—I also knew I’d miss the jazzfest tribute to Toussaint (Sunday, May 1, on the fest’s Gentilly Stage). The announced guests that will join Toussaint’s working band include Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett and Jon Batiste, yet Toussaint’s reach was so broad and deep it’s hard to predict who else might show up.
It was some small comfort that right before I left New York, I received “American Tunes,” which will be released June 10 on Nonesuch, and which represents Toussaint’s final studio recordings—solo tracks at his home studio in New Orleans and small ensemble takes from Los Angeles. Here, Toussaint worked with producer Joe Henry, as he did on his 2009 release, “The Bright Mississippi.” Some Toussaint fans I know don’t love that recording, due to its slowed-down tempos and its lack of, well, a certain brand of funk. But I do. It stands alongside Toussaint’s singularly funky achievements across genres and generations as something else, showcasing an aspect of his legacy often overlooked: His prowess as a pianist, which deserves its place within both a particular New Orleans lineage and the wider jazz-piano roll call.
Toussaint was a regular performer at jazzfest. Yet it wasn’t until after the 2005 flood caused by the levee failures that followed Hurricane Katrina, after Toussaint was temporarily displaced to New York City, that Toussaint began to “reclaim my own music,” as he once told me, and to focus more on taking the spotlight as a performer. (I’ll never forget Toussaint’s Sunday shows at Joe’s Pub, the intimate East Village venue, which grew out of a one-off fundraiser, or his 2009 stand at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard.) “American Tunes” lacks the coherent focus of “The Bright Mississippi.” As with the former CD, the new one bears the imprint of Henry, who is an auteur producer; yet Toussaint makes it his own, as he did all that he touched, especially when, on the new CD, he digs into the repertoire of one of his forebears, Professor Longhair. As long as there is a New Orleans, as long as American music gets played, Toussaint will be with us. On that Delta flight to Louis Armstrong airport, it was nice to hear from him again and anew.
This year’s jazzfest took shape under a cloud of loss. Continue reading “Tributes and Tributaries: In and Around the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival”