"Four years ago people said there would be no 40th anniversary of Jazz Fest," the preacher said in a stentorian cadence to the crowd in the Gospel tent on the first weekend of the festival. "But they don't know that JESUS lives in New Orleans!"
It was news to me as well, but it's certainly clear that the whole range of global spirits are pumping their blessings into New Orleans during this remarkable time. Much of the city is still in ruins, but its culture is unassailable, bolstered by an astonishing array of fellow travelers from around the country and all across the world. Bands from Africa, France and Brazil were among the first weekend highlights, and a new generation of local musicians are stepping into the role of carriers of the flame for New Orleans music and for the emperiled future of southern Louisiana in general.
The death of Snooks Eaglin and Eddie Bo, two of the most iconic Jazz Fest performers, expanded the giant loss of the old school New Orleans legends that has accelerated in the aftermath of the hurricane Katrina flood of 2005, leading OffBeat magazine to raise the heretical question: "Is New Orleans R&B dead?" Though most of the practioners of this cherished tradition are indeed gone their music lives on in younger players who are carrying the spirit of their music forward.
Though he no longer resides in New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis has assumed an elder statesman's role in New orleans music. His masterpiece, Congo Square, will be remembered as one of this festivals' highlights, and he also performed a wonderful Duke Ellington tribute with his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, an organization that continues to spotlight talented young jazz musicians from New Orleans.
Other young players stepped up their game at Jazz Fest to fill the giant shoes of their musical forebearers -- Trombone Shorty, Schatzy, Amanda Shaw, Marc Broussard, Benjy Davis and the Pine Leaf Boys all turned in outstanding sets.
The young artist that has shown the most growth since Katrina, though, is Tab Benoit, the Cajun vocalist and guitarist who has become the leading voice for saving the wetlands that are literally all that's left of all southern Louisiana, a landscape that is rapidly being sucked into the Gulf of Mexico by massive erosion.
The organizers of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival have done an outstanding job of linking the city's indigenous music to related sounds from around the world. The first weekend witnessed great performances from South Africa's Hugh Masakela, who plays the flugelhorn with a bright intensity over a bed of African rhythms that are cousin to the pulses heard in New Orleans R&B.
France contributed two of the most interesting acts of the weekend, Tarace Boulba, a combination brass band and vocal group that created a sound totally suited to the streets of New Orleans (they also played a late night gig at the Blue Nile) and Bombes2Bal, a stripped down rhythm and voice ensemble from France that used call and response chants, an archaic fiddle, accordion and percussion to fashion a hypnotic dance music. They played at the children's tent and induced nearly the entire crowd to form a giant ring dance in front of the stage.
The music drives relentlessy on. Monday night the new Rock & Bowl hosted a tribute to Snooks Eaglin, who played there regularly, curated by one of the city's greatest musical resources, guitarist Brint Anderson. Anderson skillfully led his own group through several sets of Snooks favorites before bringing up Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, George Porter Jr. and finally Big Chief Monk Boudreaux to pay tribute to Snooks.