One of my annual traditions was calling my mother from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Gospel Tent to give her a gospel fix over the phone. The last year she could hold a phone, she listened along for awhile then asked: "Is that you? You sound good!" If it made her happy for me to be a gospel choir, then yes. Yes I was.
This year I would have called her for the Selvy Singers' transcendent chorus of Oh Happy Day. The Selvys' CD Get Up and Live, You Ain't Dead No More! could apply to New Orleans, where death sometimes feels like a technicality. Our second line mourners dance from funeral services to cemeteries known as cities of the dead. And musical references from over 100 years ago fly freely, something you wouldn't hear at many other festivals.
For the Kid Ory Tribute, jazz trombonists including Freddie Lonzo, Lucien Barbarin, Craig Klein and Ronell Johnson swung into a tune from 1902, Under the Bamboo Tree, which Ory helped popularize with his Creole jazz band. It's not all jazz at Jazz Fest, day three included headliners Dave Matthews and Earth Wind & Fire who played gamely in the rain.
But we were tent-bound after the Ory tribute, with clouds gathering and a distant rumble. Kermit Ruffins exhorted a crowd of fans so large it looked like a massive camp-out to do "the Palm Court Strut, Swing your Butt." Many did.
Satin-smooth jazz singer Diane Reeves told us that she missed her last scheduled Jazz Fest performance because her mother was "making her transition. And when you lose someone you love, the thing that I found to be most healing is she comes in so many ways," Reeves said. "If I'm in a place where I'm not feeling good about something and somebody gives me a hug, I know that it's her."
The theme of loss and love continued with the Treme Brass Band and its all-star guests leading a dedication to their band member "Uncle" Lionel Batiste, a ladies' man with impeccable style. As they started to wind down, the skies lit up with a lightning bolt and fierce whomp of thunder. Bandleader Benny Jones reassured the huddled tent's audience: "Don't worry. We gonna play all night."
The Selvy Singers
Photos by Jeff Beninato