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The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

USA | Thursday, 23 April 2009 | Views [614]

Rebecca meets her hero, Trombone Shorty, at Jazz Fest '09 in New Orleans, LA.

Rebecca meets her hero, Trombone Shorty, at Jazz Fest '09 in New Orleans, LA.

Just after my 39th birthday, Rebecca and I decided we were going to fly south for the early spring and attend the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans. I hadn't been there since Katrina struck; Rebecca had never been and had always wanted to attend the Jazz Festival. It was also a prime opportunity to visit my brother and meet his wife and son, so why wouldn't we go? We found some cheap tickets online, flew into Gulfport, MS, and drove our rental car along the coast into the Big Easy.

It really was a fantastic drive. The weather was a stark change from whatever crappiness Minnesota was going through, which lifted our spirits right off the bat. We pulled over at one point for a lunch of an authentic slow-roasted pork sandwich (my wife can't tolerate gluten and isn't used to pork, so she just asked me to describe the experience in detail). It really was fantastic, smoky and tangy with a homemade BBQ sauce--exactly the kind of thing one hopes to experience when wandering through the South.

Things got a little darker, then, as we drove through the wreckage Hurricane Katrina left behind. Ancient trees were uprooted and knocked over with seeming effortlessness. Houses and estates, if not dismantled, were flooded and ruined beyond all hope of restoration. My brother called to check on us as we drove through Pass Christian, and when he heard where we were he warned us to stay away from the shore: the water was still quite toxic from everything that got washed up in the storm. My wife and I regarded each other grimly: we were going to enjoy our time in New Orleans, but clearly a measure of darkness was inescapable.

We stayed at a very nice hotel near the convention center, near enough the French Quarter to justify a healthy walk. My brother was just over the river from us, accessible by a not-too-convenient bridge. He told me about the rioting when the city flooded, how you couldn't tell which neighbors were going to help you and which were waiting with a shotgun if you wandered too close to their property. It was a very grim time, underscoring how badly the people here need traditions like the Jazz Fest to bring them back up and establish some normalcy.

Getting to the Fest was a bit of a tangle: it wasn't hard to find the bus stop that would have us shuttled out to the fairgrounds, but we weren't clear on the procedure. We handed our passes to the fair over to the attendee escorting us aboard the buses, just like everyone else seemed to be doing. I inferred, therefore, that this was how admission was validated and we'd just show up, unload, and enjoy the festival. Not so! Apparently we were supposed to buy a bus ticket, which looks very much like the Jazz Fest pass, and then you use your pass to get into the fairgrounds. Consequently, when we showed up at the front gate, empty-handed, my wife began to despair. The depression of the surrounding area and the various setbacks we'd encountered this weekend had taken their toll on her, and she was ready to pack it in, just give up and go home.

I refused to do this. I asked her to look surprised and let me do the talking, and I approached the security desk (some distance from the front gate) and very politely explained that I gave our Jazz Fest passes to the bus driver by mistake. She said this happens all the time, and she got out of her seat to escort us through the front gate. I thanked her very much--sometimes it's just best to act clueless, be polite, and let other people come up with the answers. If I'd gone up to Security and demanded to be let in, there's no doubt in my mind we'd have been heading back up to Mississippi that evening, Jazz Fest unseen.

As it was, we had a fantastic time. It's like everything turned around and a tide of joy came washing over everything. We saw traditional brass bands, popular rockers, and heart-brightening gospel choirs. I was on a mad dash to sample as many different and unheard-of dishes as possible (reported with journalistic fidelity to my wife), indulging in deep-fried shrimp, various forms of gumbo, and a dozen other things, all downed with unbridled enthusiasm.

The unquestionable highlight was the live performance of Trombone Shorty and his band. We discovered him by accident at the State Fair up in our neck of the woods, St. Paul, MN. There, we were taken aback at his talent and the raw power of his performance, and it's no exaggeration to stress how much of an influence his appearance at the Jazz Fest had on our decision to fly down this weekend. Up at the State Fair, he kept reminding the audience how they were from New Orleans, straight from New Orleans; down at the Jazz Fest, his address of origin changed to "Ninth Ward! Straight outta the Ninth Ward for you!" On his home turf, his bravado and skill were that much more electric, with strong waves of soul and hope pulsing through everyone, keeping them on their feet for the entire show. (This was a relief to us, as he had a harder time in St. Paul--Minnesotans are profoundly difficult to get dancing.)

As the picture shows, my wife had the grand fortune of running into Trombone Shorty himself after the show. She'd purchased a postcard made from one of his album covers, and this he autographed happily. It was amazing to see how far the pendulum of events could swing from the darker, colder end and on into these warmer, happier moments.

Tags: cajun, creole, dancing, dining, gospel, jazz fest, live music, louisiana, new orleans

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