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

Trombone Shorty performs. (Getty Images)
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?


And anyway, why would anybody want to see pictures of folks wearing what slaves might have worn during the time of the real Congo Square?

In the Louisiana Folklife and Native American Village section of the festival, Houma and Choctaw Indians demonstrated traditional jewelry and tool-making. In the notes about the village, I learned that there are only a dozen fluent speakers of the Choctaw language left in Louisiana. This is not the most crowded section of the festival, to be sure. But where else would average New Orleanians even have an opportunity to witness the weaving tradition of the Chitimacha people, or the restoration of stained glass as practiced by Albert Lips Jr. down the road from New Orleans in St. Bernard Parish?


While music gets the headlines at the festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is one of the world's great food festivals. That's not just because there are a lot of good cooks in Louisiana. It's because the festival consciously works at it. There are 66 food vendors selling a total of 210 food items, many of which are only available commercially during the 10 days of the festival.

''We have a representative from the health department on the grounds for the entire festival,'' Michelle Nugent, the festival's food director and chef, told me. That's reassuring since muddy conditions are a feature of the festival in many years including this one. Nugent has years of experience in some of the best kitchens in the city; here at the festival, she oversees everything from the consistency of the food to the logistics of constructing the booths from when the vendors sell their wares.


You can find two or three different types of gumbo and bread pudding here, along with such staples as fried chicken, sweet potato pie and boiled crawfish. But in addition to the Louisiana staples, you have Vietnamese, Gambian, Tunisian, Mexican and Japanese food, too.

''We try to be representative of our culture, both here in the city and in the state,'' Nugent told me as she drove around the grounds in her golf cart. ''We also try to be representative of all of the cultures that are in Louisiana, which is why we have so many international vendors here.''


As she was saying that, oil from a deep water well was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico threatening much of the food and culture on which this city and its festival are based. It often seems that the oil companies own Louisiana. They have a titular hold on this festival as well. When I started working as a columnist at the Times-Picayune roughly 15 years ago, we seldom included the sponsor's name in mentioning an event. These days, even the newspaper refers to this event as ''the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell.''

Still, performers are under no obligation to honor the oil companies. As a plane flew by, trailing a sign that read, ''Stop Oil Drills Txt Oil 69866,'' Dr. John endorsed the sentiment from the bandstand.


During Pearl Jam's set, Eddie Vedder said, ''I'd like to make a toast to the fine folks at BP: Send your sons and daughters to clean up your fucking mess.''

It's a nice thought, if only it had the force of law.

The widening of the spill, the shrinking of government oversight, the oil-induced deaths of our flora and fauna are grounds for pessimism. The culture of Louisiana has survived coastal erosion, faulty levees, corporate rape, government and the most powerful force of all, homogenization. But I wonder how long we can keep it up. I wonder how long it will be before this festival is no longer a tribute to the culture that surrounds it and becomes a museum to the people and practices that used to live here.


Lolis Eric Elie is a writer whose credits include the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans and the new HBO television series, Treme.