Though hundreds of thousands of tourists flocked to New Orleans a month ago for the Jazz and Heritage Festival, a group of determined locals held an alternative festival called "Chazfest" after local musician Washboard Chaz. Part of this piece ran in OffBeat, but I wanted readers of my blog to be able to read the whole thing.
When "saving" Jazzfest becomes a matter of surrendering its identity to corporate interests neighborhood gatherings such as Chazfest take on added significance. It's more than just a blow against the empire but a way toward self-determination.
It's a no-brainer in post-Katrina New Orleans to be organizing your own community because anybody on the ground can see that the corporate and political institutions around here have left all but the tourist areas for dead. Whatever recovery is happening is the work of individuals and private charities. The big money has all disappeared somewhere else.
Alex McMurray put the festival together three years ago to provide an alternative venue for local bands but now he's got himself a rallying point for the people who actually live in the city. The Truck Farm, where McMurray and other musicians live, has a large but fairly typical Bywater back yard, an offstreet oasis of subtropical plants and perfumed flower gardens intermingled with broken down sheds, stables and rusty garden furniture. It's a beautiful shipwreck of a place festooned with large scale works of art. A chicken coop in the back corner is a reminder of the days when people grew much of the food they ate and kept farm animals out back.
McMurray might not make a profit in this rustic setting but he did prove that New Orleans musicians don't have to be held hostage by Shell oil in order to work and locals don't have to pay tourist prices to go to a festival. There's a delicious irony at work here because Jazzfest sponsor Miller beer has no greater hotbed of support than right here in Bywater, where Miller High Life is the drop dead drink of choice. There were no Miller signs, hospitality tents or "brought to you by..." announcements, but everyone was drinking $2 cans of Miller High Life. And then some, until there was no more left.
The icon of Washboard Chaz, slyly drawn to resemble the Professor Longhair logo hanging over the stage at Tipitina's (and, once upon a time, at the 'Fess stage at Jazzfest), is a powerful symbol, at once a reminder of how much Jazzfest is moving away from its traditional ties to Longhair and how Chaz himself represents the new generation of New Orleans musicians clustered just over the railroad tracks in Bywater. Chaz doesn't loom over this group musically the way Longhair influenced his generation, but he represents his musical peers and provides the loosest kind of conceptual continuity to this genre -- if Chaz can play his washboard with whatever music it is you play, you're automatically part of the scene. Along with his own group, Chaz plays with Chazfest regulars the Tin Men and the Valparaiso Men's chorus, both groups put together by McMurray and sousaphone virtuoso Matt Perrine. And there was Chaz playing with the Happy Talk Band later in the day. Then there was Chaz joining in with headliners Morning 40 Federation for raucous neighborhood tributes like "A&P," which references the PNT Market up the block, and "Chili Cheese Fries," the story of a late night at the Clover Grill.
When Morning 40 Federation finished the last notes of its set, an enormous barking sound eminated from just over the hedges. The otherwordly cheering (or vocal disapproval) was coming from thousands of Bywater frogs who were an unintended part of the Chazfest audience. Everybody wants to get into the act.