Monday, May 23, 2011

New Orleans…Alive with (or Because of) Music

For the last 41 years, the City of New Orleans has hosted the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in late April and early May; my husband and I have attended every year since 1996 and just returned from this year’s event. During the festival, the race track at the New Orleans fair grounds is alive with the sounds of traditional and contemporary jazz, Cajun, zydeco, blues, R&B, folk, Latin, country, bluegrass, rock and roll and gospel. There are ten venues throughout the grounds where music is presented from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day of the festival. Some stages are in the open while others are in huge tents equipped with overhead misting hoses to combat the often blistering heat. In addition, there are cooking and craft demonstrations, regional and contemporary craft sales, food to die for (no hamburgers and hot dogs but every kind of shrimp, crawfish and oyster concoction that you can imagine), and the best people-watching anywhere. But it’s the music that brings tens of thousands of us back year after year.

In the early years of the festival, there were fewer stages filled primarily with musicians of local origin or regional connections, including Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, the Marsalis Family, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John and the great Dixieland bands that populated Bourbon Street, as well as other regional Cajun, blues, gospel, rock, and zydeco artists. In recent years, big name acts like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, James Taylor, Van Morrison, and Tony Bennett have been added to the mix, but to many—including me—the most fun is still provided by the local musicians. Not necessarily the ones who have attained national fame, but those who have spent their entire careers on the streets and in the clubs of New Orleans, or are just beginning that career.

I’ve attended a lot of concerts and musical performances in a variety of places, but nothing compares to the magical connection between performer and audience in New Orleans, whether it’s among tens of thousands at the festival, hundreds at Wednesday Music in the Park, 50 people in a club the size of a two-car garage, or a dozen people standing on the sidewalk on Royal Street. It makes strangers dance together in the aisles, the streets, or between tables.

While glued to the cable news channels during Katrina, I remember hearing words to the song American Pie in my head—“the day the music died.” Watching the devastation on TV, I wondered if New Orleans would ever be the same. We visited only four months after Katrina. Most of the city was still inaccessible and we were confined largely to the French Quarter. Although this area did not flood, it was nevertheless the victim of wind, loss of utilities (water and electricity were off for at least two weeks), and the loss of people. Business owners manned their own shops, restaurants served limited menus and there was no public transportation. The streets were lined with debris including hundreds of dead refrigerators and freezers. Tired owners of businesses and residences fought with city inspectors, claims adjusters, and FEMA. There were no conventions. No tourists. But there was music.

Musicians were some of the first to come back to the city and were active in rescue, clean-up and rebuilding efforts. And they played music. They kept the music alive and have had a huge impact in bringing New Orleans back to life. Sure, things have changed. Some things are better, some are worse, and some are just different. But the music continues to enchant. And although I am too buttoned-up to dance, I can’t help but tap my toe and bop my head. I can forget for a brief time that I can’t solve every legal problem, my basement floor needs to be torn up, my friend has cancer and one of my dogs is dying. I can listen to the music and enjoy the moment.

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