NOTE: Some names and identifying characteristics have been changed out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved. All situations and quotes are faithfully recounted.
The New Orleans air was electric when I stepped off the train. The skyline glowed against the dark and brooding sky, distant heat lightning flashing amongst the purple clouds. I walked down St. Charles Ave. into the Garden District, clueless, playing phone tag with my host that night. I paused at a corner, waiting for traffic to pass. A bar across the street caught my eye.
Two women—one with dreadlocks—sat out front with a dog between them, which made me think perhaps I had found a hangout for local creative types. The inside of the bar was disappointingly yuppie, however, and I clumsily ordered a NOLA Blonde from the harried bartender before heading outside to assess the situation.
The women with the dog soon engaged me in conversation, asking what I was doing in New Orleans. When I told them I had come to report on Jazz Fest, their interest piqued, and the one with dreads—her name was Kitty—asked, “Do you want to see some real music?”
“Yes. Absolutely yes.”
I left a voicemail with my host not to wait up, and crowded into the backseat of their car with the dog, who alternated between growling and furiously licking my face. We drove a short distance to Zeitgeist Arts Center, where the band had just gotten underway with their set.
The space was almost like a storefront church, chairs arranged in rows around a low stage. I took a seat behind Kitty and a guy in a burgundy leather jacket, who was loosely bobbing his head to every microbeat of the experimental jazzish music.
A trumpet player and flutist seamlessly blended into one another, while a mad scientist looking character played an upright bass, absorbing the instrument into his body and projecting it back out into the ether. He would hang around a low groove for just a moment, the bass rising from the deep like the sound of galaxies being created. Then his fingers would fly around the neck, teetering over the edge of chaos, the notes disappearing like falling rocks. I had never seen anything like it.
The bass player was James Singleton, and the band was his eponymous Orchestra. In their music, I heard traces of everything from Bitches Brew to Thievery Corporation, all repurposed into a new, coherent whole. They abruptly switched gears, playing a raucous tune, more traditionally jazz, at least to my barbarian’s ears. People danced in the aisles, and Zeitgeist felt even more like a church (in a good way).
We headed across town to the Maple Leaf, for a show featuring guitar virtuoso Charlie Hunter, Seattle-based saxophonist Skerik, percussionist Mike Dillon—who had also been playing with the James Singleton Orchestra—and drummer Johnny Vidacovich. People crowded the street outside, where a vendor was slinging cold beers to passerby.
I slept on Kitty’s couch that night, though her roommate and best friend Charlie—the head bobber in the burgundy jacket—was understandably hesitant about having a stranger on the wrong side of the door lock. He generously agreed to let me crash, but not without giving me a look that let me know he was keeping his eye on me.
The next morning, Kitty chauffeured me to meet up with my couchsurfing host: David Hedges, a professional tour guide who lives in the Lower 9th Ward. Next door to Hedges’ house sits a structure that was once a house but now resembles a crushed cardboard box, the roof laying off-kilter atop the remains of the frame. A billboard emerges from the corpse of a house like fungi, the Burger King ad shiny and bright in contrast to the conditions below.
Cold Schlitz in hand, Hedges told me about how the post-Katrina influx of New York money was causing the old landowning guard to lose their grip on the city’s policy machine, with consequences that were just now starting to manifest.
Over the past couple of years, the city authorities have been cracking down on live venue permit violations, forcing local favorites like Mimi’s and St. Roch Tavern to suspend their live music schedules until they get their paperwork in order—often a lengthy process. This has already had serious economic consequences for the people who make their living performing at these venues. In September 2012, the Times-Picayune reported that post-Katrina musician assistance organization Sweet Home New Orleans had experienced a 300 percent increase in aid requests as a result of the crackdown.
“I think the mayor sees himself as a sort of Giuliani opening the city for outside investment,” said Hedges. This rang true, and I had a pretty strong hypothesis as to who exactly was behind the outside money that was reshaping the city.
There is a certain flavor of real estate developer that specializes in packaging authenticity. They find places where culture and creativity grow unchecked like beautiful flowering weeds, and they start landscaping, selling the synthetic facsimile to credulous authenticity seekers, while pricing out the young creative types whose presence made the place desirable to begin with.
They did it to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. They’ve done it to Portland and Austin. And now they’ve got their hooks into New Orleans.
It was raining that Sunday evening. We escaped the deluge and grabbed at table at the Maison on Frenchmen Street, a dense collection of venues situated off the eastern boundary of the French Quarter. Dave Easley masterfully worked the pedal steel as the rain poured outside, water running down the sidewalk in great rivulets.
Next, saxophonist Brad Walker led his Quintet through a diverse exploration of groove and melody, once again drawing elements from disparate musical sources and focusing them into a tight improvisational package. Towards the end of the set, a tall, lanky trumpet player joined them on stage and played melodies funky and beautiful atop the Quintet’s intricate grooves. Walker and the trumpet player—his name was James Williams—traded lines for a bit, then played together, perfectly merging the sounds of their respective instruments and styles.
After Williams left the stage to appreciative applause, Walker enthused, “That’s what I love about Jazz Fest. I never met that guy before, he’s never heard us before, but that shit was great.” He paused. “I don’t know if I’m supposed to say shit on the mic.”
Next up, Omaha Diner—consisting of Charlie Hunter and Skerik, joined by slide trumpet player Steve Bernstein and drummer Bobby Previte—took command of the larger stage at the rear of the venue. This group only plays songs that have reached number one on the Billboard charts, digesting them and recreating them in the image of some alternate universe where one-dimensional pop hits become genius compositions from which to launch daring improvisational exploration.
During the last half of their set, a young trombone player named Carly Meyers sat in with the band, her yellow hair falling across her eyes as she easily kept pace with master musicians around her. I joined the crowd in wild applause at the end of their set, then walked a few blocks to get some coffee. The night had just begun.
By the time I got back to the Maison, Meyers had taken the front stage with her band, Yojimbo, where they were tearing the house down. Meyers wailed on the trombone, dancing like a woman possessed, stomping on her various effects pedals.
Doc Sharp manned the synths, delivering thick basslines and melodic foundations for Meyers’ trombone explosions, while drummer Adam Gertner held down the rhythm, performing in a pair of polka dotted boxers. Yojimbo’s set was the perfect blend of aggressive passion, punk rock chaos, and technical expertise.
Meyers’ control over the crowd was undisputable, as she wielded the trombone like a mystical samurai sword, sometimes pausing to unleash wolf howls at the microphone, sometimes dashing out into the audience, blowing shrill notes on the tuning whistle hung around her neck. Her sound was something like if you combined the DNA of Duane Allman and Ol’ Dirty Bastard and reincarnated the result as a trombone lead.
Later, I emerged from Blue Nile following a late Karl Denson set, exhausted and satisfied after one of the best nights of music I had ever experienced. The sky was beginning to lighten, and I decided to walk back to the Lower 9th Ward as the morning took hold of the day.
I caught a few hours of sleep and bid Hedges and friends farewell, borrowing a bicycle to make my way over to Mid-City, where I had reservations for the next few nights at India House Hostel. I grabbed a much-needed hot shower before heading to my first ever crawfish boil with Kitty, who I had begun to view as my New Orleans guardian angel.
After the meal—steaming mountains of the red crustaceans with onions, mushrooms, sausage, and garlic piled along tables, where we all gathered, stuffing our faces—we headed back to Frenchmen Street to catch Charlie Hunter, Mike Dillon, and Skerik at d.b.a. bar.
I was starting to wrap my mind around the peculiar recombinant DNA of New Orleans music. Players arrange themselves in a nearly infinite variety of stage lineups, each with their own flavor and spirit. Most of the time there’s a band name but sometimes they don’t even bother. And there’s almost always a guest or two sitting in.
I was starting to recognize the musicians’ individual ticks—Charlie Hunter’s way of working his jaw, eyes shadowed. Mike Dillon’s subtle grin, like a shaolin master telling a joke. Skerik—somewhat of a Jazz Fest rock star—bent over at the waist, fingers flying over his saxophone, adopting the body language of a lead guitarist.
We left d.b.a. bar and ducked into a place called Vaso Ultra Lounge, where James Williams was playing a gig with his band the Swamp Donkeys.
“If you pay we play,” Williams jokingly exhorted the crowd for tips. “Come on, we tryna get our nut tonight. If you put the request on the back of a 20- or 50-dollar bill, we’ll play it even if we don’t know it. All sales are final.”
We listened for a few minutes, then headed down to the New Orleans Mint to catch the Mike Dillon Band—another combination of musical DNA featuring Dillon and multi-instrumentalist Cliff Hines, along with Carly Meyers and Adam Gertner from Yojimbo.
Dillon’s presence in the music scene is something like a shamanistic Tom Waits. The other musicians seem to warm in his presence, and I would imagine there isn’t a stage in New Orleans on which he’d be unwelcome. He plays like a kid surrounded by toys, one moment crouched down among his hand drums and shakers, the next savaging the vibraphone, two mallets in each hand, and then he’s on a drum kit going crazy before crouching down again.
In the band that shares his namesake, there was absolutely zero musical snobbery or predefined boundaries, going from wild double-time aggression to tight syncopated groove and back again, taking a detour into spoken word and experimental jamming along the way. They call their music “New Orleans punk rock”; somehow an apt description, though admittedly it wasn’t like any kind of punk rock I had ever encountered.
It was something new and different, like most of the music I heard during my time in New Orleans. Some kind of fresh sonic gumbo made from all the energy and influence that flows down the mighty Mississippi River, from the farthest reaches of the North American continent, swirling and changing, deposited in layer after layer upon the cultural silt of the Delta.
It was jazz—in the broadest sense—but some kind of new, not-yet-named, evolution of the venerable American musical form. Given its roots in the innovation-as-necessity atmosphere of the Katrina aftermath and its temporal presence in these strange and uncertain times, I’ve taken to calling it post-apocalyptic jazz.
When Kitty dropped me off at the hostel that night, there were several police vehicles outside, blue lights flashing. Small clumps of people stood around with somber expressions. I wondered if someone had been shot.
The next morning, I learned that a small group of travelers had been mugged a few blocks from the hostel. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. By lunchtime that day, the robbery was the gossip of the hostel, the somber expressions discarded in favor of eyes that gleamed in the retelling, the incident lending an air of danger and drama to the hostel guests’ visit to the Crescent City.
Later that day, I took the streetcar into town, heading to Blue Nile’s Balcony Room, where the Open Ears Music Series—a weekly improvisational performance series organized by trombone virtuoso and music teacher Jeff Albert—was hosting a set of round-robin improvised duets.
Guitarist Chris Combs opened things up, layering beautiful melody atop rich soundscape for a few minutes before being joined by Carly Meyers for the first duet of the evening. Meyers’ manner at the round-robin was focused and disciplined, in contrast to the bombastic and wild performances she had turned in with Yojimbo and Mike Dillon Band.
As Meyers did her thing, trumpet player Michael Ray of Sun Ra fame walked past, briefly pausing to listen to Meyers blow before nodding in respect and going outside to sit on the balcony. The round-robin continued in this way, as the elite musicians took the stage, one after the other, rotating every five minutes.
Marco Benevento was joined by Brad Walker, who was joined by James Singleton, who was in turn joined by Delfeayo Marsalis. Mike Dillon came up next, and as he and Marsalis interplayed rhythm and melody, an obviously intoxicated jerk started clapping his hands and yelling—not accepted practice at an event like Open Ears. He was politely—and quietly—escorted from the room by a couple of bartenders, and the performance continued uninterrupted.
Ray collaborated with Cliff Hines and saxophonist Dan Oestreicher (who contributed the most creative offering of the evening, verbal gibberish combined with furious instrumentation). Keyboardist Will Thompson closed out the night, building sound upon sound into a crescendo that roared and faded away like the aftermath of a tsunami.
After Open Ears, we ended up at a venue called Dragon’s Den to see Skerik, James Singleton, and Mike Dillon—a configuration known as the Illuminasti Trio. The music was a hodgepodge of ingredients from metal to free jazz. Dillon created his innovative rhythms, while Singleton became the constantly evolving bassline. Through it all, Skerik blew his horn through his effects rig, using his sax to own pretty much every guitar player ever.
During the set, Skerik asked the audience, “You ready for a punk rock free jazz explosion? Except get rid of the word jazz.” He then led the audience in a chant, repeating the words “audio visual psychic music.”
The next afternoon, I once again took the streetcar into town, walking around, dodging the drunken tourists—I was beginning to resent the shifty-eyed pink skins with their preppy clothes—in search of more good music. After encountering several mediocre jazz funk bands, I used a lifeline and called Kitty to locate the good stuff. She rode her bike down to where I was on Frenchmen, and made me follow her several blocks away to Art Klub, where experimental jazz band Bodhi3 was performing to a small but appreciative crowd.
I kicked it at Art Klub with Charlie for a while, before heading over to the Maison for Snarky Puppy—a band that had been on my “must-see” list for some time. Austin-based Brownout was the opener, pumping up the crowd with their energetic, Latin-flavored funk rock.
Finally, Snarky Puppy took the stage before a fully packed house, the aroma of patchouli and high-quality reefer rising from the crowd. It would be impossible to convey through written word just how good their set was, but it involved crazy time signatures and intricate rhythm, basslines with the force of a freight train to the chest, rich organ textures, and manic yet graceful horn melodies riding atop it all. You really had to be there.
The incredible music continued over the next several days. I caught another killer Karl Denson set to close out Fiya Fest at Mardi Gras World. At Café Istanbul, Michael Ray & The Cosmic Krewe—including Jeff Albert of the Open Ears Music Series—explored creative and passionate improvisation.
At one point Ray stopped, exclaiming, “Alright, alright. This place is toast. Energize!” The Cosmic Krewe responded, vaulting into the distant, funky reaches of the improvisational universe.
On Friday, I finally made it over to the muddy fairgrounds—it had rained nearly every day—where Shell Oil Company was trying to improve their corporate reputation by sponsoring the festival. They had even set up a tent where festivalgoers could get their picture taken—complete with Shell logo!—for free.
If they agreed to also wear a logo sticker, the Shell representatives promised them a chance to win a free tank of gas. Thus, the oil company successfully turned people who had come to enjoy some of the best music in the world into walking manifestations of insidious viral marketing. Even their memories were transformed into branding, the orange logo forever part of their Jazz Fest experience.
It normally wouldn’t have bothered me. Nothing happens for free, especially not huge music festivals, and the educational and economic work performed by the Jazz & Heritage Foundation is important. I would love to live in a world where they didn’t have to go to organizations like the Shell Oil Company, hat in hand, but that’s the way the game is played. I would rather they sell out than die.
All the same, I couldn’t help but think of another great delta, over 6,000 miles away in Nigeria, where the name Shell means wholesale ecological destruction. Torture. Murder.
Over the past 50 years, an estimated 1.5 million tons of oil has spilled into the Niger Delta, amounting to the equivalent of one Exxon-Valdez spill every year. The company openly flouts attempts by the Nigerian government to regulate their activities, often choosing to pay the negligible fines instead of changing their practices. In 1995, nine activists were tortured and hung by the Nigerian military junta, allegedly at the behest of Shell Oil.
In April of this year, the United States Supreme Court ended decades of litigation over the deaths of the activists, ruling that there was no standing for foreign citizens to sue foreign companies in U.S. courts, despite the longstanding legal principle that foreign companies doing business in the U.S. must abide by our legal standards.
And thousands of festivalgoers became unwitting accomplices in Shell Oil’s efforts to “greenwash” their image, burying their sins beneath sponsorships and bullshit about “cleaner electricity.”
Please don’t misunderstand. There was some great music happening at the fairgrounds. On the final Sunday, I had the privilege to watch the Wayne Shorter Quartet engage in a process I can only describe as “beautifulizing” their music. Following that amazing experience, I joined Kitty and friends to close out the fairgrounds with the high-energy performance of the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, whose reinvention of traditional Yiddish music into an improvisational funk rock format was a highlight.
But that night, as I returned to Café Istanbul to once again watch Skerik, James Singleton, and Mike Dillon perform—this time joined by pianist Larry Sieberth and calling themselves the Illuminasti Quartet—I realized that the real Jazz Fest exists independently of the fairgrounds.
What Jazz Fest fundamentally represents, in 2013, is a celebration of the musicians who keep the flame burning down in the delta. They commune with the spirits on our behalf, taking the pieces of us that flow down the river and merging them with their own energy to create the art from which we all draw life and inspiration. They are the spirit of New Orleans.
Shell can’t buy it, not with a billion dollars worth of stickers and sponsorships. Clever real estate developers can’t gentrify it. Even the hordes of drunken hipsters invading Frenchmen Street can’t appropriate it, because it was there long before them. It was there long before the United States of America. It’s been there ever since human beings first took up residence on the elevated land crescent rising out of the delta swamps.
Babylon’s palaces will be washed away in time. But the music will remain, distilled, ever rising from the deep.