JazzFest, Tears and the Renewal of New Orleans


A year ago I wrote a somewhat self-congratulatory column about attending my 30th consecutive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The column was full of remembrances of "Jazz Fest moments," the close circle of friends from all over the country I’ve made over the years (although we see each other only this one week), and a few tips for new-comers about how to negotiate crowds that can exceed 100,000 people at the ten stages scattered around the Fairgrounds race track.

This year, of course, the NOJHF, where providence willing, I am spending the third day of an 11-day celebration of music, food and associated good times, is/will be different, and, indeed, more important. Hurricane Katrina did more than just devastate the physical New Orleans, empty it of half its citizens, and wreak havoc with its economy. It also struck a major blow at the soul of the city where Jazz was born. This festival, like none before it, is to renew that soul.

Since this is being written before we strike out for New Orleans Friday morning, I have no idea how different the first post-Katrina Fest will be or exactly what to expect.

The organizers have moved heaven and earth to keep the festival at the same site, despite the damage the hurricane did to the horserace track grandstands and have managed to attract a stellar lineup in hopes of luring the crowds of yore. Bob Dylan, Dr. John, the Dave Mathews Band and Juvenile are on the schedule for Friday and Saturday and I am looking forward to closing down the first weekend late this afternoon with Bruce Springsteen and his new Seeger Sessions Band.

The Boss will be kicking off a worldwide tour today behind his new album dedicated to the music and inspiration of legendary folkie Pete Seeger. The album, featuring an 18 piece band including horns, strings, an accordion and choir, is entitled "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions." And I will be very surprised if sometime around 7 p.m. this afternoon 40,000 or so of us will be joining in an encore of that hymn to the Civil Rights Movement that all of a sudden seems just an appropriate to the mess the Crescent City finds itself in today. I will also be surprised if there aren’t plenty of tears flowing. See, that’s one of the things I anticipate will be a part of this Jazz Fest that.

Will old friends, like the ones I only see once a year, fall into each other’s arms weeping upon meeting up here, on our sacred ground, once again? Will just "being here now" be such an overwhelming experience as to leave some overwhelmed? And will the music carry with it tragic, yet hopeful and deeply enduring meaning after all this city has had to endure?

I have no doubt the softshell crab po’boys will be just as delicious, the clubs (or at least the ones that have managed to reopen) will be rocking until dawn, and the restaurants (again, the ones that managed reopen) will be packed. But beyond that, I have this strange sense of trepidation and anxiety about the unknown, here before I actually get to the Big Easy.

Oh well, I’m sure it will pass with the first hot trumpet lick. And, as always, if you want to drop by and say hi next weekend, I’ll be the long-haired guy in the hat, shorts, sunglasses and Hawaiian shirt, smoking the cigar and standing stage right, down in front of the speakers. Whether my cheeks will be wet with tears remains to be seen.

TOMMY STEVENSON is associate editor of The Tuscaloosa News. He can be reached at tommy.stevenson@tuscaloosanews.com


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