August 8, 2022

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Jazz Fest Is Back. Let’s Dance. (But It’s Complicated.)

8 min read


New Orleans, La.—The crush of fans pressing their way into Gentilly Boulevard gate at 11 am last Friday revealed a pent-up desire, at last satisfied: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was back.

Owing to the pandemic, the festival was canceled in 2020 and ’21—the first dark years of its 53-year history. Even in 2006, just eight months after the floods resulting from the levee failures following Hurricane Katrina, the show went on. “We knew that if we put this big, soul-generating battery on and people could plug in, it’ll mean something,” festival producer Quint Davis told me then. At the time, New Orleans endured what David Winkler-Schmidt of the local Gambit Weekly called “the horrible unending of not knowing.” Now the festival, whose second weekend runs through May 8, returns as we all crawl out from unending feelings of not knowing.

At the first Jazz Fest, in 1970, Duke Ellington, the only out-of-town artist, played his “New Orleans Suite.” Tickets were $3, and about 350 people showed up. The event lost money. Now, some 650 bands, from local heroes to pop stars, perform at 14 stages at the Fair Grounds, the horse-racing track that becomes a music stadium once a year. A typical one-day ticket costs $90. In 2019, 450,000 people attended. The Fair Grounds infield is filled with local cuisine and crafts, through which Social Aid & Pleasure Club second-liners wearing Sunday finery regularly parade and Mardi Gras Indians, local culture-bearers who mask in elaborate feathered-and-beaded suits accompanied by hand drums and chants, form dynamic processions. On this year’s opening day, a mock jazz funeral honored the festival’s founder, George Wein, who died in September. A Sunday Jazz Tent set paid tribute to pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis, who died last year from complications of Covid-19.

In New Orleans, local culture resonates safely within the confines of the Fair Grounds. The city beyond, where spirits of ancestors echo through various forms of music and dance, is a more complicated story. In 2007, three days before members of the Nine Times Social Aid & Pleasure Club danced their way through the festival’s Fair Grounds, mock second-lining with the Mahogany Brass Band, they were represented in federal court. A consortium of clubs, aided by the ACLU, defeated jacked-up city permit fees for their Sunday brass-band-led second-line parades in federal court, on First Amendment grounds. Later that year, police busted up a memorial procession for a beloved tuba player in dramatic fashion in the Tremé, after a resident complained about the noise, reigniting a long-standing fight over who owns the streets. This narrative unfolded despite the city’s pervasive reliance on these traditions to rekindle a tourism business that, according to one recent report, welcomed 19.75 million visitors in 2019.





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