The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was not exempt from the economic downturn that has battered the entertainment industry on all fronts.
Despite perfect weather and the addition of an eighth day to the festival, attendance was down by roughly 50,000. A little over 450,000 people attended this year's event, compared to the 501,000 who came to Jazzfest in 2002.
While festival organizers made the best of what obviously was a disappointing situation, festival-goers ironically welcomed the downturn. The swelling crowds in recent years made it difficult to see and hear a lot of the music and caused people to wait in long lines for food and drink. This year's fest was a return to the halcyon days of the 1980s when you could move about the fairgrounds freely without ever encountering suffocating crowds or lengthy food and drink lines.
Many fans complained when the lineup was released that the "Jazz" in Jazzfest had been given short shrift, but when all was said and done the Jazz tent provided many of the festival's finest moments. The best of those was delivered by Ornette Coleman, who utilized his legendary flair for the dramatic in his remarkable return to New Orleans.
Before he began playing, as the overamped sounds of Joe Cocker rang through the Jazz Tent, Coleman tried to achieve an atmosphere of quiet. He stood on stage and gestured for additional sheet music, then finally was given a fake book he approved of. After paging through the folio, Coleman picked up the book, turned it upside down, then finally began playing.
Coleman lived in New Orleans in 1949. The Texas native settled briefly in the Big Easy after playing there in a minstrel show. The young saxophonist joined forces with local musicians and began playing the Louisiana circuit, but after being beaten up by local thugs and losing his saxophone following a Baton Rouge show, Coleman split to Los Angeles, where he recorded his first groundbreaking records for Contemporary Records in the late 1950s before moving to New York, where he turned the jazz world on its ear.
Coleman's brief New Orleans stay had a profound impact on the city's music. Drummer Ed Blackwell would go on to become one of Coleman's key collaborators. The fiercely talented Harold and Alvin Batiste became Coleman disciples, and pianist Ellis Marsalis joined the Batiste Brothers and Blackwell in Coleman's Los Angeles band in the mid-1950s. Marsalis has gone to become the most influential figure in contemporary New Orleans jazz, and even he wonders what the connection is between the music he plays and what he was attempting to do with Coleman.
"I was trying to figure out what he was doing," Marsalis told Keith O'Brien of the New Orleans Times Picayune. "I don't know if I ever did. I never figured out what a piano could do playing with him."
The "harmelodic" concept central to all of Coleman's recordings allows for greater structural freedom in both composition and improvisation, and at the outset of the explosive decade of creativity in the 1960s Coleman's approach was being heralded as "free jazz." The avant garde music he made then was challenging to many ears, but Coleman has undergone a kind of transubstantiation through harmelodics that makes his current music immune from any charges of being incomprehensible. His playing is lucid and relaxed, his phrasing a primer on melody and economy, the flight of his lines drawn in the image of a sea bird.
Yet the myth of Coleman as iconoclast persists. Before the show the buzz at sponsor radio station WWOZ was, "What will he sound like?" A prominent local musician posed that same question to me, and I thought of all the moments of Coleman in my life when he made time stop -- at Lincoln Center, debuting the great band that made his electric signature, "Dancing In Your Head"; in Pori, Finland, when his astonishing alto tone seemed to be challenging the tops of the lean, graceful birch trees dappling the area; in lower Manhattan's Battery Park, where he engaged in an impromptu duet with the foghorn of a ship in the harbor. I answered: "He'll be lyrical."
And indeed, if ever the Greeks were proved right to insist that poetry and music are the same thing, that proof exists in Coleman's work. Working with a bassist and drummer, he hypnotized the crowd with his shimmering alto playing. His music has become an extended prayer, a ruminative glimpse at the cosmos. By the time Marsalis came out for a reunion with Coleman and Batiste, Coleman had reached a level of sublimeness that fully embraced Marsalis's conception. There was no question about what to do now.