New Orleans Jazz Fest Returns Bursting with Live Showcases


DakhaBrakha performs at New Orleans Jazz Fest

(Photo: Adam McCullough)

“When I was staying down here, people asked me do you want to come here and do a festival like Newport,” George Wein recalled in a documentary clip screened just before the Newport All-Stars hit the Jazz Tent stage and played a heartfelt tribute to the late founder of both the Newport Jazz Festival and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

“I said no, no, no man! New Orleans is something very, very special,” Wein responded, during an interview shot at the last pre-pandemic festival in 2019. “There’s no city in the world like New Orleans. From the jazz to the blues to the funk, we just put it all together with the food and the culture, and we created the greatest festival in the world.”

Wein was right. More than a half-century after he intuited the magic formula — using an outdoor festival as the roux that brings together all the music, food and culture bubbling up from the streets of New Orleans and nearby Acadiana — there’s nothing in the world quite like Jazz Fest. Though he didn’t live to attend his own “George Fest” commemorations, Wein’s spirit was everywhere from the moment crowds began streaming through the gates of the New Orleans Fair Grounds for the thrice-delayed 51st annual Jazz Fest — an event as eagerly anticipated by the thousands of mostly local performers as the tens of thousands of attendees, all parched for the communal healing power of live music.

“I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” beamed Cubano big-band leader Arturo Sandoval, whose exuberant trumpet blasts closed out opening day in the Jazz Tent. So did almost everyone at the festival, on stage or off stage, during a seven-day musical marathon, which was only briefly delayed by two early-morning showers that barely dampened the ground with Jazz Fest’s traditional mud. And though the heat could be daunting, especially for a recovering cancer patient seeking refuge from the sun, this veteran fester and longtime New Orleanian was able to hit so many sweet spots hobbling around with a cane that this report reflects only the highest of personal highlights during the first six days of the festival.

The Blues Tent delivered a one-two punch on day one, when the ageless and always spiffy Little Freddy King evoked a standing ovation with his down-and-dirty New Orleans blues drone, which segued into a roof-raising set by Bombino, Niger’s whirling dervish of the guitar. Later, in the Jazz Tent, vigorous septuagenarian Arturo Sandoval recounted the 14-hour motorcycle trip from Miami that first brought him to New Orleans before revving into overdrive with his hot “Viva Cubano” band.

One of the most inspiring sets of the entire festival came on day two, when hundreds of festers crowded into the Cultural Exchange Pavilion to watch the rousing Ukrainian band Drakha Brakha celebrate the spirit and determination of Ukraine against a backdrop emblazoned with the credo of New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians: Won’t Bow Down. Later that afternoon, The Cookers — a formidable octet of ascended post-bop masters including the unflinching tenor saxophonist Billy Harper — dug deep into the music they helped create, before Jose Felicano offered a lovely benediction looking and sounding as beautiful today as he did when his star was first rising a half-century ago.

Native New Orleanian and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra drummer Herlin Riley ruled Locals Thursday in the Jazz Tent, where he called down the spirits of Congo Square on his drums during an impassioned, invigorating set punctuated by several ovations when he stepped to the front of the stage and got the whole crowd dancing. And “George Fest” moved into high gear on second Friday to honor one of the world’s great mensches of this music: Jazz Fest founder George Wein.

“George was family” was the prevailing sentiment expressed during a Lagniappe stage interview with many of the Newport Jazz Festival players he mentored. And, unlike most festival producers, “George was a [piano] player himself and knew what happened onstage.” He was also generous with his time and the motherlode of information he gleaned from early giants like Duke Ellington and Count Basie — an investment paid back with compound interest when the Newport All-Stars made a joyful noise to man who made it all possible.

For this fest-goer, the heart of second Saturday was Rickie Lee Jones, who’s become as deeply rooted in New Orleans as the live oaks on Ursuline Avenue in the near-decade she’s lived here. Shaking a tambourine to summon the spirits on the other side of the veil, Jones hit the Gentilly Stage for her first Jazz Fest gig as a local in a feathered top hat and red hot pants that got a real workout. “I’m happy to be playing with so many local people,” enthused Jones, who tossed a single rose to the crowd before delivering a bounteous bouquet of soulful, funky, and jazzy songs from her catalog in an exuberantly joyful show with her musical soulmate, percussionist Mike Dillon, and a hot horn section that made her 1979 hit “Chuck E.’s In Love” sound as fresh as the day it was minted.

To recharge after the only act I caught in the blazing sun (which was so, so worth it), I hobbled over to to the shaded oasis of Economy Hall and capped off my final festival day with Preservation Brass, the take-it-to-the-streets division of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. And before too long, lo and behold, I started second-lining with my cane, waving my Ernie K. Doe fan, and pausing for duos with one of the Undefeated Divas and a gracefully gangly Good Fella waving his feathered flag.

Then, like so many fellow festers throughout the years, I left the fairgrounds healed by the power of Jazz Fest’s music, post-pandemic reconnections with old friends and the kindness of strangers encountered along the way. DB

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