When the rains finally came to the 37th annual Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans - as they will do at least once during the two-weekend event - Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias, aka, the Mardi Gras Indians, wearing the most ornate, most outrageous feathered costumes you’ll ever live to see, just finished their set, a robust and spirited hour especially since Big Chief Bo, singing in his 37th Jazzfest and wearing a new suit as he does for every Jazzfest, had just got out of the hospital.
The rain was coming hard, almost like hail, at a wicked angle from a glowering sky, but no one moved. No one panicked. We knew it would blow over soon.
With no umbrella, no nearby covering, I did what everyone else did who forgot to bring a rain outfit. I took my folded chair and held it over my head.
“Aren’t we something?” said the woman named Greg standing next to me, a grin as wide as the oyster po’boy we had downed the night before at a bar outside the Fairgrounds, which houses the event. “Isn’t this the best?”
By the time the venerable and popular Irma Thomas came on stage, Greg, my new best friend, instead of offering a beer or a smoke, like many others in this joyous crowd, where I did not witness one confrontation, one act of aggression, was drawing diagrams, talking topography and showing me why the Ninth Ward didn’t have a chance when the levees broke.
She wasn’t wearing a Katrina-related T-shirt but others were. Eight months later, there’s still trash, still tacked signs for roofers, still tick-tack-toe images of coded numbers and letters chalked on front doors, still sentiment, strong sentiment.
“Make levees, not war” is popular - in English and Yiddish (“Makht gut levees, nischt milkhomos”).
“FEMA,” reads another shirt. “Find Every Mexican Available.”
Not too far away are signs offering Spanish lessons. Spanish is big.
Spanish is important. So are Mexicans. In future visits, I’ll be looking for new Mexican-Cajun restaurants, new skin hues of Latin-African-American-Caucasian marriages, new saffron pork po-boys.
“OPRAHHELPUS,” read another hand-penned sign, modest but effective.
But for all the emotion toward FEMA, the insurance companies, all the soggy sofas and piles of new plaster from people who have just returned to town, all the shotgun houses waiting to be gutted or bulldozed, all the estimated seven million tons of trash waiting to be picked up and deposited - now it looks as if the designated landfill is near the Vietnamese community, where a seven-story landfill is planned - there is the music.
The night before Jazzfest we roll into town around 10, venture into the French Quarter, find a parking space (from then on we rent bikes) and fall into The Spotted Calf on Frenchmen Street, where most of the clubs seem to cluster.
These are not fancy clubs. The paint is peeling. There is no charge to get in. Most people stand eyeball-to-eyeball with the musicians. You walk in and out with a drink in hand. What a concept.
At The Spotted Calf we hear a Gypsy jazz band, Vavaroom. That night I buy the band’s CD and leave a $5 tip to the bartender. It only seemed right.
There is no explaining New Orleans. Post-Katrina, it’s different yet the same. I feel aquiver when we drive in and smell the fragrant yet moldy air. We are nearly below sea level, after all. Something makes me nervous. The possibilities. The past.
In Roy Blount Jr.’s excellent book, Feet on the Street, he writes, “In New Orleans, craps, cafe au lait, and the cocktail were invented, and the following were introduced to America: cocaine, tomato sauce, the free lunch. A New Orleans’s invention made sugar a common household item.”
“New Orleans,” he continues, “is where Walt Whitman (he said) first tasted sin, where Abraham Lincoln got his first full sense of the scope and the primary shame of the nation.”
Add Jazzfest to the list of firsts and bests. Picture this; Ten venues, each with five to six acts, one following the other,very little bleeding of sound. All day. The Fairgrounds, which still hosts racing, is huge. The grass and outer track are soft and easy to walk on. The food is local, softshell crab po’boys, crawfish Monica, curry chicken patties, andouille gumbo. The security on the way in is a quick glance, a hand waving you on.
The acts are set but it’s the unexpected that excites. At Little Feat, Jimmy Buffet takes the stage. For Paul Simon, Alan Toussaint sits at the piano.
Waiting in line for a second crawfish Monica, I ask to borrow a man’s phone. He’s the tuba player for the Rebirth Brass Band.
And when I leave Paul Simon for the drive home, my new friend Greg hands me a hardcover book, “Time and Place in New Orleans” by Richard Campanella.
“Take this and read it,” she said. “I want you to have it.”
They’re generous to a fault, these people. They know the meaning of joy. They love their city.
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"And you deserve better."
Thanks, Jim, for my new campaign slogan.