The Gospel Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which opens today, is where Southern culture achieves an apex.
In a region still addled by race, where a hard white majority marches to the disinformation drumbeat of Fox News, the Gospel Tent is a place of wonder and witness. Southern whites crave a feeling of innocence in the presence of blacks. And I have seen them through the years, Ole Miss and Alabama fraternity boys, acolytes of supply side economics, believers in Reagan, W., and Romney (I’m talkin’ people I know personally) who flood the aisles, as if outside of time, to partake of the rousing rhythms of African-American choirs in color-coordinated outfits on the huge stage. Gospel Tent has more than 1,200 seats and draws a white majority.
“Those folks may not always know it, but they are dipping in the waters with Jesus,” murmured Sherman Washington, a baronial tenor baritone for the Zion Harmonizers, as he gazed across the waves of perspiring whites, in 2006, the first festival after Hurricane Katrina.
“Even the ones that don’t go to church,” Washington whispered to me, ”they can’t help but get some Jesus inside this tent.”
Sherman Washington programmed gospel music at the festival from 1972 until shortly before his death in 2011. His spirit hovers yet as the annual cascade of music lovers to the city at the bottom of America gets underway, out of towners joining diehard locals in the flow of tens of thousands packing the large, grassy infield of the Fair Grounds Race Track where 12 stages feature an average of six acts each day, this weekend and next.
Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Aaron Neville, and Christina Aguilera are among the headliners at the 44th Jazz Fest, which is “presented by Shell” in the world of branding.
For Neville, the singer with the golden pipes and a falsetto reach of angelic heights, his popularity as a close-out act on Sunday May 4 is a return-to-the-roots ritual since he left the city of his birth in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina floodwaters destroyed his home in the suburbs of New Orleans East, large swaths of which have yet to recover.
Gone, too, are the years when Aaron sang with Sherman and the Zion Harmonizers that last Sunday in Gospel Tent sets of poetry in motion.
Sherman’s likeness has joined those of Mahalia Jackson, balladeer Danny Barker, soul food chef Buster Holmes, trumpeter Al Hirt, photographer Jules Cahn, and others in a cluster of wooden figures in a corner of the race track infield set back from the festival stages that rock and thrum—the “ancestors” occupy a small oasis suffused in aromas of crawfish, jambalaya, and fried chicken sold at foodstands, a few steps from the booths selling crafts, folk art, books, and CDs. The memory-display of culture-carriers is not a cemetery, though an ambience of life-transcends-death pervades the painted wooden figures, stored and repositioned each year, memorializing real people whose personalities made enduring contributions to the city’s rare, exotic stamp.
The sheer range of music performed here these two weekends—and at packed music clubs each night—has moved light years beyond the Jazz Fest moniker; yet jazz as a metaphor of democracy applies to the spread of talent, and is appropriate to a city that has absorbed waves of ethnic peoples through its history, and in a Creole process of reblending, continues to defy the great homogenization of American culture.
A short list of those on the runway in days to come:
The great Rubén Blades, who ran for president of Panama, performs Friday with the Roberto Delgado Orchestra in the same time slot as Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Choices, choices. The big closing act that day is Carlos Santana—sí, the Santana—with all the Latin star power, competing against one of the true greats of contemporary New Orleans, Aurora Nealand & the Royal Roses. If you haven’t heard Aurora channel Sidney Bechet, you live in a cave.
The bounce craze with all those shaking bohunkuses drew media lift with Miley Cyrus’s moment of wiggle, but the rap offshoot got its start in New Orleans housing projects, pioneered by Big Freedia, the self-anointed and undisputed Queen of Bounce since s/he released the 2011 breakout anthem “Azz Everywhere.”
On the festival grounds, members of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs in their color-coordinated outfits parade at scheduled times behind brass bands, with Mardi Gras Indian tribes weaving along the walkways at other times, producing a sense of what it’s like in the winter Mardi Gras season.
All of this cultural orchestration is programmed with a military efficiency not normally associated with the persona of these latitudes. In the ’80s, when the Neville Brothers packed the bodies into Tipitina’s for a showtime advertised at 10 p.m., they sometimes began by 11, sometimes later. But we waited, as people do when the parades are late, knowing that when the frontline of four strapping dudes took the stage and launched into “Hey Pocky Way” or “Iko Iko” or “Brother John”—from the songbook of Mardi Gras Indians—the bother of waiting was nada compared to the energy surge when everyone began dancing.
In those days Aaron Neville lived with his wife and kids in a shotgun house on Valence Street, the opposite side occupied by his uncle, George Landry, better known as Big Chief Jolley of The Wild Tchoupitoulas, the fabled Mardi Gras Indian tribe. The 1976 CD Wild Tchoupitoulas featuring Jolley’s bravura voice on the old Indian chants behind the brothers’ shifting harmonies is a New Orleans classic.
The Neville Brothers performances at Jazz Fest from the ’70s through the ’90s drew the largest crowds at the event each year. They were the kings. Now, in programming stars like Springsteen, Billy Joel, and others in recent years, the festival has reached for a broader audience tied to sales and visibility. Purists moan; but the festival, which provides a launch for countless local acts, has its own logic, a rising tide lifting all boats. There’s plenty of trad jazz if you don’t like the Boss.
In the years when the Jazz Fest was a major date for the Nevilles,
Art, the eldest brother, lived just down the street from Aaron. They started together in the ’60s as Art and Aaron Neville. Art led the family starship on keyboard and did his own good share of singing. Charles played saxophone, and Cyril, the youngest, played congas and sang like no tomorrow. The brothers had spent early years in the Calliope housing project before Big Arthur, the daddy, moved the tribe to Uptown, on Valence Street, where their presence made it known as “singer’s row.”
In the ’80s a small club on Valence called Benny’s Bar was about a hundred yards from Aaron’s porch. Benny’s had live music, oysters at 10 cents each, cheap beer, and few seats. At night the walls bulged as people danced toward dawn. I once did a piece for the New York Times travel section on what to do in town during Jazz Fest. A copy desk editor called, incredulous that Benny’s had no cover charge. “All clubs in New York charge covers,” she lectured me. Well, sure, I countered, but New Orleans is, ah, different. Ordered to double-check, I called the club and got the man himself. ”Hmph!” said Benny. “You tell ‘em this in New York: Not never no cover at Benny’s!” I faxed his answer; the quote was not included in the published version.
I never learned why Benny closed the club; maybe those lost covers added up. Today it is a handsomely renovated private residence.
Art is now well into his 70s and the only Neville still in the neighborhood. Aaron soared to Grammy stardom on the 1989 CD with Linda Ronstadt, Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind, and as his career accelerated he bought a big house in the suburbs of New Orleans East. After he lost the house in the Katrina flood, bouts with asthma, and concerns for his voice in a city where the mold count in the debris-blanketed areas was off the charts, drove his decision to move to Nashville; he has since relocated to New York.
As Aaron became the Neville Brothers headliner, the band kept traveling (they once played under a full moon in a bullfighting stadium in Barcelona with the Rolling Stones); but to balance the demands on his own career, Aaron peeled off from the family band several years ago.
His Jazz Fest appearances with the Zion Harmonizers that began in the mid-‘90s showcased Aaron at his purest, on a deeper spiritual trail. The dagger tattooed on his cheek conveys a menacing persona. As he once told me in an interview, “Some people think I look thuggish.” In a long struggle with a smack addiction, he made novenas at the Shrine of St. Jude, patron of hopeless cases. “And believe, I was a hopeless case.”
As he shook the addiction, he often sang, impromptu, tunes of his childhood, like “The Mousketeers Song” from the ’50s’ Mickey Mouse Club TV show and “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” Holding onto those tunes was part of his recovery, and equally, of his evolution toward gospel. His 2008 CD Aaron Neville Greatest Gospel Hits is a shorter version of a CD called Believe. They are stunning records. The best cut on both is a composition credited to him and family members. “Steer Me Right.” It opens with a refrain “Steer me right, sweet Jesus ... don’t let me fall” that in Aaron’s sweeping falsetto achieves a sweetness of its own, a soothing quality that makes a dagger-sharp turn:
I’ve been runnin’ behind a train
Never could, keep satisfied
Appetite, for destruction
Keep a man, bound and tied
Oh, shine your goodness down on me
Oh Lord, from above
In my darkest hour,
Show me, it’s your turn to love
The undulations of his voice and raw force of the song come from what he lived. You can feel the loss and surrender in the tremolo as he sings
Mama and Jolley
Used to tell me,
‘Son, don’t waste your youth.’
But I was blinded
By fear and hatred
And I never
saw the truth.
Joining the Harmonizers in that string of Gospel Tent appearances matched Aaron with Sherman Washington’s rocking boom of a baritone, Sherman crying on “Jesus on the Mainline”—‘Call him! Call him! Call him up!—as Aaron sang on a floating cloud, “and tell him what you-want, oh-Jesus!”
The Zion Harmonizers formed in 1939 and through several incarnations reached the ’60s with Sherman and his brother Nolan summoning the a cappella quartet singing of Southern churches, a style that flourished up until the years of World War II. Zion Harmonizers’ CDs are a marvelous bridge to that music of the past. Many of the older tunes traveled from the pews to the stiff reading cards of New Orleans marching bands in the funerals that transcended a profane street life to a sacred essence of the hereafter—“Over in the Gloryland” and “Walk Through Streets of the City,” to name but two.
The post-war gospel train used horns and drums and soon expanded with mass choirs, taking the old songs on a different trip, adding new songs along the way. Aaron met the Harmonizers, in a sense, as his own purifying journey had found its reward—being clean, stardom, record sales, high-dollar bookings, a voice preserved—and when he sang in the gospel tent you really got the sense that he was not just giving back, but offering up. And to the people jammed into the tent, of all backgrounds, it was a rock of ages they could share.
I do wonder what Sherman Washington would think of Bounce. Gospel artists are surprisingly flexible in their view of how music changes; the jazzy chords that infiltrated churches in the ’60s gave way to R&B pulsations by the ’70s. But all that ass-shaking as part of the showpersonship—mm, one could guess what the gospel maestro might be muttering.
But when Aaron Neville closes out the festival on Sunday, May 4, the 70-something soul stirrer will be going up against James “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, the cutting-edge player in the evolution of New Orleans brass band music. Not yet 30, Shorty has a driving charisma and tone to beat the band. When they play on stages a mile or so apart as the sun goes down, the beauty of voice competes with the power of the horn. Such are the ways of the city where jazz began and runs through it still like a mighty river.
Jason Berry’s books include Up From the Cradle of Jazz: New Orleans Music Since World War II. www.JasonBerryAuthor.com