The 33rd annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival wrapped up its 10-day run last weekend under spectacular sunshine and the generous spirit of a world dedicated to music. The festival's unbridled optimism and ability to tap the wellsprings of human joy provided a stirring lesson in peace, love and understanding that served as a welcome bromide in these troubled, war-torn times.
Over half a million music fans attended the festival. The announced attendance of 501,000 was a sharp drop from last year's record turnout of 618,000, but with tourism off significantly around the country, Jazzfest more than held its own with what has to be deemed a healthy turnout. In fact, it was the second-largest crowd in the festival's history.
Jazz fans in particular had reason to be happy this year as the festival's title was not merely a convenience, as has been the case in some years past. Great jazz performances in a wide variety of styles were in abundance during both weekends on all of the myriad stages of the fest.
Local New Orleans jazz musicians were prominently featured in some of the festival's most memorable moments. Alto saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. performed in several contexts, most notably as part of the Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias Mardi Gras Indians show on the large Sprint stage before an audience of 8,000 people.
Harrison, one of the "young lions" of Wynton Marsalis' generation, studied under Wynton's father Ellis at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. He grew up in the New Orleans tradition of music as not just a discipline or entertainment but a way of life that accompanied birth, death and everything in between. His late father, "Big Chief" Donald Harrison Sr., was the leader of the Guardians of the Flame Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and the young Harrison was deeply influenced by the tradition of the New Orleans black "tribes" who danced and marched on Mardi Gras day each year in the new feathered Indian suits they painstakingly stitched together over the previous year.
Harrison Jr. is also well versed in traditional New Orleans jazz, having played with the Doc Paulin Brass band as a teenager. After attending Berklee, Harrison came to national prominence as part of a hot front line in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers alongside fellow New Orleanian, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, from 1982 to 1986. The two went on to co-lead a group before going their separate ways.
Harrison Jr. has devoted much of his energy in the ensuing years to exploring the roots of New Orleans jazz in relation to the African diaspora chants and rhythms of the Mardi Gras Indians. He recorded a classic album exploring this relationship with his father, "Indian Blues," which blends Mardi Gras chants and rhythms like "Two Way Pocky Way" with jazz arrangements and improvisational solos, including the witty choice of the standard "Cherokee."
Harrison's collaboration with Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias takes the concept a step further. The instrumentation is rudimentary and percussive, a rhythm section and two guitarists augmented by a percussionist and the Indians themselves -- three in full dress plus two small girls and a boy, also in feathered costumes -- all playing percussion instruments. In fact, the audience joined in on percussion as members of the group threw small tambourines and rattlers into the crowd during the performance.
Harrison was joined as the main soloist by the phenomenal guitarist June Yamagishi, a Japanese native who has become one of the hottest players on the New Orleans since moving there a few years ago.
The band burned through Mardi Gras favorites like "Big Chief" and "All On A Mardi Gras Day" before Harrison played his best solo of the set, a driving, blues-drenched series of choruses on "New Suit." As the band closed it out, Dollis dipped into the oral tradition of using these gatherings to comment on news of historical significance, usually reserved for accounts of natural disasters.
"Something terrible happened on 9/11, but we're gonna answer that," Bo Dollis told the crowd, then went into a Mardi Gras Indian chant with the refrain, "We are the U.S.A./ We love the U.S.A./ We're gonna show 'em don't mess with the U.S.A./ Land of the free and the home of the brave/ Don't mess with the U.S.A."
One of the highlights of the second weekend was a celebration of Charles Mingus' 80th birthday by the Mingus Big Band. The Repertory ensemble, dedicated to the concept of the Mingus Jazz Workshops, where the distinction between rehearsals and performances was erased, has been performing every Thursday night at New York's Fez for years and is now embarking on an ambitious tour designed to bring Mingus' music to the world. The Jazzfest set was warmly received, especially the vertiginous, rumbling explication of "Haitian Fight Song."