Of course, a New Orleans that’s all luxury condos wouldn’t be New Orleans any more. Jazzfest has always given its audiences the home-grown along with the big names — this year Billy Joel, Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss & Robert Plant, Tim McGraw, Jimmy Buffett, Stevie Wonder. What New Orleans has — what fosters its special culture — is community and continuity: the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass bands, the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. These traditions have emerged from some of the city’s most desperate neighborhoods. As local WWOZ radio announcer and historian Tom Morgan told me two years before Katrina, “If you say you’re from the Seventh Ward, that means something. The Ninth Ward is where Fats Domino is from — and everyone knows that.”
The names of ancestors mean something too. Not just Fats but also Danny Barker, Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana. These weren’t just musicians, bandleaders, and Indian chiefs — they were teachers who passed on traditions. Playing on the WWOZ broadcast of its annual “Piano Night” from the House of Blues the Monday after the first weekend of Jazzfest, pianist David Torkanowsky dedicated a song “honoring one of the village elders who passed away last year, Alvin Batiste.”
Now, many of the living names and generations are scattered from Houston to Western Mass, and bands on stage often give an inventory of their members — who’s moved back, who will move back, and who’s still living in Dallas. On stage at the festival, the Indians in their elaborate feathered and beaded suits were represented by multiple generations, from the ancient to pre-teens. In the Fair Grounds grandstand on Saturday afternoon, Tootie Montana’s son Darryl — now himself Big Chief of his father’s Yellow Pocahontas — stood by an exhibit of suits and photographs and talked to a handful of tourists while the relentless Louisiana rain poured down outside: “I learned how to sew from my father when I was six. I made my first suit when I was 11. I’m 53 years old now.” His elaborate Mardi Gras costumes are sought by museums.
Just about all the young brass bands routinely pay tribute to Tuba Fats, who died in 2004. Carrying on a tradition, they’re also some of the most up-to-date bands on the Fair Grounds, with strong links to hip-hop. The Hot 8 Brass Band played a souped-up version of Suzanne’s Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” And in the serendipity of Jazzfest, a few moments later at the Congo Square stage, Green himself sang it. Former Rebirth Brass Band trumpeter Shamarr Allen played “Crazy,” inserting Katrina-appropriate lyrics (“I remember when I lost my house/There was something unpleasant about that day”) and nailing his instrumental take on Cee-lo’s vocals with fierce precision. At the Instruments A Comin’ benefit at Tipitina’s on Monday night, Rebirth themselves gave an electrifying performance running from Cab Calloway’s “Heidi-heidi-heidi-ho” to a mash-up of their own “Rebirth Got Fire” with George Clinton’s “The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire. . . . ” Instruments A Comin’ provides funds to buy instruments for New Orleans school children — “When they grow up,” said the MC, “they become Rebirth.”