The best quote to come out of this year's Jazz and Heritage Fest, which ended here today, came from a teen-age girl whose friends persuaded her to check out the annual event: "There's nothing to do," she told the New Orleans Times-Picayune in what she figured was a complaint, "except listen to music and eat."
But many others thoroughly enjoyed those two pastimes, which make the Jazz and Heritage Fest -- usually shortened to Jazzfest in these parts -- as entertaining, varied and exhausting a lineup of music as you'll find anywhere in the world. It takes place on the infield of a New Orleans race track and includes performances from about 3,000 musicians over 10 days.
For those with an interest in the roots of American popular music, it is a treasure trove of staggering variety. "This concept hasn't taken hold anywhere except New Orleans," says George T. Wein, who for more than 30 years has promoted jazz and folk festivals around the world. Of the dozens of festivals he works on every year, says Wein, the New Orleans fest has not only the most diverse music but possibly the most music as well: "Over the whole 10-day period I think it draws more than any nonrock music event in the world."
Why New Orleans? "There's just a broadersw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 range of music here than anywhere else I've ever been," says Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers, a local band whose members are among the elder statesmen of the local rock and R&B scene. "Just in the neighborhood we live in," he continues, "there are R&B musicians and gospel singers and reggae cats and all kinds of people who play music."
"To me," adds Cajun band leader Michael Doucet, "the festival is sort of like New Orleans must have been at the turn of the century. Back then, they say you could hear Buddy Bolden's trumpet three miles away, and things like that would mix with the smells of the French Quarter. You couldn't have a festival like this anywhere else -- it's the best festival just in terms of the sights and sounds and smells in one area, plus the fact that you're in New Orleans itself."
The crowds that came out to the race track for this year's festival are believed to have equaled or exceeded last year's total of 300,000. They were drawn by rock 'n' rollers (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jerry Lee Lewis), bluesmen (B.B. King), pop-soul performers (the Temptations, the Miami Sound Machine), jazz artists (Miles Davis, Stanley Clarke), folk singers (Joan Baez, Odetta), plus Cajun bands, African musicians, Dixieland jazz bands, gospel groups and marching bands.
At one point Saturday, for instance, you could stand in one spot and hear the music from three of the 10 stages scattered across the fairground. Off to one side Stevie Ray Vaughan played rough, roaring blues-rock; inside a large tent, the David Murray octet went into one of the stark, affecting improvisations that have made Murray one of modern jazz's most admired band leaders; and on a widely decorated stage tucked behind booths of African and Caribbean decorations, Olatunji and his Drums of Passion pounded out the interlocking rhythms and jubilant vocals of his African music.
Elsewhere across the fairground -- but happily out of earshot of the others -- were an R&B revue including Frankie ("Sea Cruise") Ford, a Cajun band, a tap dance troupe, a blues guitarist and a gospel group. There's almost certainly no other festival in the world that would give listeners that many alternatives. There's probably no other festival that would put together a nighttime concert consisting of blues legend B.B. King, pop-soul singer Natalie Cole and gospel's Andrae Crouch -- and then hire a university marching band as an opening act. And there's certainly no other festival that allows you to listen to all that music while eating red beans and rice or crawfish pie or gumbo or Creole stuffed crabs or alligator sauce piquant.
This has been going on in New Orleans since the early 1970s, and it started small: four stages in a city park where the musicians outnumbered the audience. It has evolved into a musical mecca at which it's not uncommon to run into friends who have made a pilgrimage from across the United States.
That pilgrimage, incidentally, is usually planned even before the year's lineup is announced. "Nobody waits to see who's gonna play," says George Wein. "They know they're gonna hear great music. They know they'll hear things they've heard before that they'll love and things they've never heard that they'll love."
Sure, there are complaints. "It's gotten too big, too cold and too professional," griped a volunteer who worked on some of the early festivals but doesn't like out-of-towners like Joan Baez and Stevie Ray Vaughan stealing the spotlight from local musicians.
But the most common complaint is that Jazzfest simply allows you no time to relax. To be sure, some folks spend the entire day in, say, the Economy Hall Tent listening to traditional New Orleans jazz, or the Jazz Tent, where younger musicians play; many others observe what's informally labeled the Gospel Gravitation, returning at every chance to see another gospel choir catch the spirit.
Most listeners, though, wind up running from one end of the race track to the other, trying to see as much as possible during days when more than 50 different bands perform. It leads to a peculiar state of mind in which you rarely watch anybody for more than half an hour, because however good the music is, there's someone else to see across the grounds and probably two or three terrific musicians you've never heard of along the way.
Because of that state of mind, one's impressions of Jazzfest tend to be fragmentary: lots of quick impressions, meetings and conversations, but not much time to do more than move from one brief scene to another.
George Wein is having breakfast in the lobby of the International Hotel and laughing about the problems of pleasing everybody. "Somebody asked me why we didn't have more parade bands at the festival," he says. "I said, 'But we have a parade every day,' and he said, 'But that's only five bands. There are 10 parade bands in New Orleans. Why not do two parades a day?' "
He sighs. "No matter what you do -- a woman came up to me and said, 'Why don't you have more traditional jazz?' I said, 'Sit in the Economy Mall Tent for six hours a day and you'll hear traditional jazz until it comes out your ears.' She said, 'Yeah. But there are other traditional jazz people I'd like to see.'
"All I could say is, 'Where am I gonna put them?' "
This year at Jazzfest Cajun was hip. But then, this year Cajun is also hip in New York, L.A. and lots of places in between. The rollicking "My Toot Toot," while hardly characteristic of the French-language dance-oriented music, became a hit; Paul Prudhomme's restaurant, K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen, has lines around the block; three Cajun movies are in the works.
"In the early days, this festival was nice because it gave Cajun bands the chance to play with other New Orleans musicians," says Michael Doucet of the traditional Cajun band Beausoleil. "It was a great opportunity for us to play in New Orleans because back then the city was not known for Cajun music. We were sort of . . ." He laughs. "We were the people who lived out of town, out in Cajun country by ourselves."
"Back then," he says, shaking his head, "nobody wanted to be known as a Cajun. Now it's Cajun-this, Cajun-that, Cajun, Cajun, Cajun. It's fun, but I've got to wonder why the Cajun song that won a Grammy was the only one that's ever used a drum machine."
At the end of the festival the stage belonged to the Neville Brothers. The group has played in New Orleans for more than 20 years, backing other musicians and making their own records. They're such an institution that Aaron Neville -- quite possibly the city's finest ballad singer -- sang "Ave Maria" and "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the weekend inauguration of New Orleans' new mayor.
So they closed the festival with a set that ranged from the swamp funk of "Fiyo on the Bayou" to the celebrative funeral music of "Brother John Is Gone" to an angelic version of "Amazing Grace." And then they went back to their neighborhood: a string of small, weathered wooden houses just up the street from a tiny club that Cyril Neville runs.
They'll tour the world and open for the likes of the Rolling Stones and Huey Lewis, but they won't ever move out of New Orleans. "This is the only place where something like this could happen," says Aaron Neville. "This is a party, and if there's anything that New Orleans folks like to do, it's throw a party. There's Mardi Gras, there's this . . . "
He laughs. "They even turn funerals into parties in this city. That's the kind of attitude that makes Jazzfest."