Spiced by varied strains of music and food, New Orleans' Jazzfest is a movable feast

April 18, 1993|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Contributing Writer

New Orleans -- On a raised stage under a banner bearing a crucifixion scene, five black women in billowing gowns sway and sweat, arms outstretched, as they wail about sinful souls and kingdom come.

"Have you overdosed on the Holy Ghost?" shouts the Baptist minister who is the emcee here in the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

"No," yells the audience in the tightly packed tent. The music swirls like a tonal tornado, bringing the crowd to its feet in a frenzy that seems to have more to do with the music than the Holy Ghost.

That's because at Jazzfest, the music is the message, whether it's gospel, Cajun, zydeco or progressive jazz.

Now in its 24th year, the festival is a feast of Southern cultures and styles celebrating some of the spiciest flavors of the nation's ethnic stew. And where better to hold such a smorgasbord than in New Orleans, home of cultures such as black, Cajun, Creole, French, Spanish, and Native American?

Here, where jazz was born, music is an integral part of the city's soul. Jazzfest brings all this music together for two consecutive weekends each year -- Friday through Sunday, and April 29 to May 2 this year. Some 60 bands entertain daily -- many simultaneously -- at 11 stages and tents. (There's also a kids' tent with musical performances, magicians, clowns and storytellers.)

The lineup for 1993 includes blues legend Gatemouth Brown, Patti LaBelle, Irma Thomas, Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, Grover Washington Jr., Fats Domino, Los Lobos, Bob Dylan, the Indigo Girls and the Allman Brothers Band. Among the local favorites are Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco, Marva Wright and the Radiators.

For the $13 price of a day's admission, festival-goers can gorge on great music from morning until night, with a break for sustenance at one of the food stalls that sell 90 kinds of vittles: jambalaya, deep-fried catfish, alligator sausages, shrimp po-boys (the New Orleans version of a hero sandwich on enormous chunks of soft French bread).

Some people wait all year for the smoky barbecued chicken served by the Second True Love Baptist Church, the coconut confections from Loretta's Authentic Pralines, or a pecan tart from Omar the Pieman.

The event is held on the grassy infield of the 140-acre New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track, about a 10-minute drive northwest from the French Quarter. Technically, the daytime racetrack concerts are called the Louisiana Heritage Fair, while the jazz festival segment refers to evening concerts (which cost extra) held at other local venues during the 10-day period from Friday to May 2. But most people just call everything Jazzfest.

The festival started in 1969 as little more than a backyard jam session andnow draws more people than the city's most famous annual extravaganza, Mardi Gras. Run by the non-profit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, with corporate sponsorship, Jazzfest rivals the Super Bowl and the NCAA basketball tournament as a local moneymaker, bringing in more than $32 million a year to the New Orleans economy, according to festival officials. Last year, the event drew 350,000 people.

Despite the festival's name, it isn't just about jazz, however. You'll hear plenty of Cajun, a regional favorite featuring accordion, rub-board and fiddle. There is also zydeco, a black offshoot of Cajun heavy on rhythm and blues but with no fiddle. Gospel's always a high note here. There's also Afro-Caribbean, blues, ragtime, folk, country and western, bluegrass, and plenty of other sounds that defy traditional labels.

The songs of the home-grown Neville Brothers and Dr. John cross over so many styles -- blues, funk, Cajun -- and evolved so strongly from local influences that they've gotten their own category: New Orleans rhythm. This year, an international accent will be added by performers from Haiti, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Mali.

The 300-plus performers are selected from several thousand applicants. Even the food sellers must compete to get into the act.

The amount of talent is dizzying, and, indeed, most people have to consult the festival program (which has a diagram of the grounds and a schedule of performances at each tent and stage) to navigate through the embarrassment of riches.

Some festival-goers pay the entrance fee, pick a promising stage, and then plunk themselves and their ice chests down on a blanket for the day.

But true Jazzfest connoisseurs plot a course from venue to venue, planning each day like a gourmet meal -- perhaps starting with a sweet-singing country band as an appetizer, followed by a cool brass ensemble as a palate cleanser, then moving to a spicy Cajun or zydeco group for the main course, with a side order of sizzling blues, before heading into the gospel tent for their just desserts.

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