A dizzying world of celebration music and revelry dancing around her media tent, difficulty found in deciphering which came first the dancer or the musician, she focuses, fanning the words into the air with ebullient zest and choice intensity. I flutter about in similar form in order to catch the essence of each descriptor, each vivifying verb. In order to give the San Antonio reader a feeling of the creative philosophy that goes into planning and executing this multi-dimensional acknowledgement of all things Crescent City, the following is the captured beauty of my time with one of the leaders and organizers of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, interspersed with my experience of those words. In the spirit of the occasion, and because she asked her name not be used, she will be referred to as Ella Holiday – a combination of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
Ella Holiday: There is so much to see, are you here for both weekends?
Me: Unfortunately not.
Ella: No worries, you still got three days.
Me: So where to start? What is the festival offering this year?
Ella: So, there are twelve main stages of music, each celebrating a unique aspect of New Orleans culture. Incredible stage right next to us is the Fais-Do Do, featuring the musicians of Zydeco, Cajun, and a little bluegrass.
Me: Awesome, really excited to check that out.
Ella: For sure, and right next to that is the Congo Square Stage, which honors music hailing from the Africa Diaspora, a lot of brass bands and traditional New Orleans roots. There is also the Congo Square Crafts, people from all over the world selling their creations. There’s even a dude from Zimbabwe. And they’re selling food, jama jama, and fried plantains. I highly recommend it.
Me: Yeah, I just came from there, phenomenal energy.
Woven of straw from weathered hands, his fedora tilts towards the rays pulsating forth through the clouds, somehow a fitting emulation of the song he sings. “Grab your coat and get your hat, leave your worries on the doorstep. Life can be so sweet, on the sunny side of the street” except he sings “side of the street that’s sunny” but nobody cares because they’re on that side, swaying to the trumpet of Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers.
Chompin’ on some crawfish bread with their smiles all aglow, the audience soaks up the childish humor of the Armstrong-esque Ruffins, scatting away the day and milking the riff so that he can go backstage and get a little more sublime. Take the man off the stage and follow him in a parade and veritably you’ll be dancing the same steps as the swooners of Satchmo did along Canal Street to the pop and circumstance of a New Orleans Funeral.
Me: In Texas we often acknowledge New Orleans with marching and umbrellas and such. Tell me more about what’s going on here with the parades.
Ella: We have Mardi Gras parades and second line parades, the latter of which are celebratory for a lot of reasons. The first line of course is the brass band and the second line is the Social Aid and Pleasure Club members. These are folks who represent neighborhood groups, who pay dues to help support community members when something like a funeral comes around. Then they join the funeral parade, wearing sashes and bright colors and everyone else can join in and dance along.
Me: Yeah, I saw that and did.
Ella: Yeah, of course. This year our cultural exchange partner, Brazil, is taking part in the parade with their gigantes y cabuzedos these giant heads made out of paper-mache. The celebration of Brazil, as it is with the whole festival, is looking at jazz from a bird’s eye view. We have four facets that we concentrate on-music, crafts, food, and culture. When we do the cultural exchange that permeates into the entire festival.
Lines meander about as if mimicking the sway of the samba savoring they will soon sense. A gift of the Brazilian Bahianas, this treat is a concoction made from ground black-eyed peas formed into a taco-esque body that holds a smattering of shrimp, spices, and all around piquant perfection. While best served with a caipirinha, today’s acaraje is accompanied by Rob and Mandy aka Lil Wheezy, two individuals that represent Nawlin’s finest.
Lil Wheezy happens to indeed have a little “magic” as she calls it in her hibiscus tea and we sip and dance and laugh and happenstance along to the Brazilian tent where life transitions to the streets of Brazil, through photos and authentic folk musicians who speak no English and presumably entice potential customers to purchase their hand-carved flutes and such. Outside the giant paper mache heads bob to the beat of the brass bands and the feeling is as cool and laidback and lovely as the beaches of Brazil herself.
Me: What are Mardi Gras Indians?
Miss Holiday: The Mardi Gras Indian tradition consists of black families that have appropriated the culture of Native Americans, built in solidarity through collective experiences of oppression. They sew these brightly colored feathered and beaded suits, feathers everywhere.
They parade on Mardi Gras and the leaders of the tribes known as Big Chiefs will have dance fighting, more of a display of tradition than anything. When they make music there is a lot of percussion and chants come in too, pretty beautiful.
Me: Right on. So that’s at the Jazz and Heritage Stage, there’s still a few more.
Miss Holiday: Always can depend on the Gospel Tent. Just sit down, have an awakening, relax. There are some incredible gospel choirs from all over New Orleans. The other tents are the Jazz Tent and the Blues Tent. So as you can see there are a lot of variations of music, not just jazz.
Me: Yeah, it makes sense. It all comes from the same root.
Miss Holiday: This festival is so natural here as New Orleans is considered the birthplace of jazz, but it’s more than that. All these musicians are so talented. They’re influenced by blues, by roots, by horns, so you walk around and you feel the evolution of American music in a few acres in a couple of days.
Bari sax man give me some more. Just got off the bus and it’s 11:01 and I’m already in the thick of it. In preparation for JazzFest and in celebration of it, the music is not limited to the Fairgrounds or to any time of day. In fact, musicians who grace the stage by day are throwing it down soul-style when the sun shuts her eyes and wakes everybody else up who didn’t get a slice. My stompin’ grounds are Frenchman Street, but Bourbon and Canal and all over the French Quarter you find block parties and underground tastings of jazz’s finest and funky stuff too.
There’s a little bit of lovin’ for everybody no matter what the musical tastebuds may crave, they get it and they get second helpings. Half the joints are free and you just walk on in and grab a beer and enjoy the raw stuff the way it’s meant to be served. To really break it down you can throw down $10-15 and dance the night away to “Iko Iko” and classics drawn straight from the NOLA songbook. For one jazz musician, in the soil of his existence, there is no wrong way to turn.
Me: So what can San Antonio learn from JazzFest?
Miss Holiday: In terms of taking it back to San Antonio, this is about celebrating the culture of this land. These musicians are a part of this little world. You can literally drive an hour in any direction and find all of these cultures, which are unique to this area. It’s all about what your culture is. Find the tradition bearers, put ‘em on a stage and find out what it’s all about.
*Featured/top image: The festival continued into the evening all over the city, and a bluegrass band ensures the charm of NOLA is felt during the 2014 Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Photo by Adam Tutor.