New Orleans' Jazz Fest: Gospel, Gumbo and the Gulf Coast Spill

Louisiana's culture has survived Katrina, faulty levees, soil erosion and a host of other calamities. But will it survive corporate interests and homogenization? How long can it keep up?

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Trombone Shorty performs. (Getty Images)

Veterans of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival talk about certain magic moments they've witnessed on the fairgrounds: Wynton Marsalis playing an arrangement of all four movements of John Coltrane's ''A Love Supreme.'' Bruce Springsteen playing an uplifting set of Pete Seeger songs after the 2005 federal levee failures. Old timers also remember those moments when the festival was a smaller event and you could see headliners like Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson taking the stage.

This time around, the ever-widening Gulf Coast oil spill, spreading rapidly toward Louisiana, cast a bit of a pall over Jazz Fest's final weekend. But still, there were magical moments to be found.

For me, the magic is found in those times when I happen on a great performance in an attempt to get out of the rain and manage to be perfectly positioned for the next great act to take the stage. Such was the case last Thursday, the first day of the second weekend of the festival when inside the Gospel Tent it felt like an old-fashioned revival meeting. The Inspirational Souls of Chicago, a vocal quintet clad in tan, short-sleeved leisure suits, was accompanied by a five-person backing band. These men of a certain age eschewed the current trend of secular-sounding sacred music in favor of a combination of play acting, preaching and singing.

The tent was only half-full. By the time the singers preached old Lazarus back to life, most of the full seats were empty as the crowd was standing and clapping, moving and much moved.

''I know they got the blues over there. I know they got jazz and rock and roll over there. But I want you to pray with me right now. How many of you know that Jesus in right here right now?'' one of the singers preached, and he was right. Since it only takes two or three gathered in His name, the magic number had been exceeded by a factor of 100.

Outside, away from the stage is the city that gave birth to all of this. It's my hometown, and I can't forget about it even during festival season. I left the fairgrounds before Elvis Costello took the stage because I wanted to hear Roberta Brandes Gratz deliver a lecture entitled, ''The Battle for New Orleans.'' It was largely about a new hospital proposal that threatens to destroy a large, old New Orleans neighborhood, foster blocks of urban blight and abandon a perfectly upgradable hospital all in favor of constructing a large, suburban-style hospital that would be an affront to good taste, food sense and fiscal responsibility.

New Orleans is at war with its culture, no less so than it was in the days of slavery or segregation. Despite being blessed with one of the greatest cities in the world, our mayor, governor and city council are working tirelessly to see to it that this place looks more like generic America.

So this ''jazz'' festival, so dominated by Pearl Jam, Widespread Panic, Maze, the Black Crowes, Lionel Richie, My Morning Jacket, Juvenile, Anita Baker and Van Morrison, both mirrors and preserves the city. The jazz underpinnings are there. But when you look at the performer pictures featured on the festival website, it's hard to tell how the event is related to New Orleans, jazz or heritage.

This inclination toward the generic drove a friend of mine into conniption.

The festival has a Congo Square stage in tribute to that place and time in New Orleans where black citizens were able sing the songs, dance the dances and cook the food of their home countries. It might also be seen as something of a tribute to one of the African countries whose people helped build antebellum New Orleans culture. But the two noble Africans pictured at the entrances to Congo Square are dressed in the distinctive beaded jewelry and red robes of the Maasai, who live in Kenya and Tanzania, primarily. They have little to do with Congo, the Atlantic slave trade or the culture of New Orleans. But they look ''African,'' and that's what's important, right?