GET OUT: Souls on Fire

By on May 24, 2016

Jazz Fest illuminates the resilience of the Big Easy.

Left: Festivalgoers dance to the drums of Mark Vaughn. Middle: CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana band school the crowd in zydeco. Right: Soul Rebels heat up the house at Les Bon Temp Roulé. (Photo: robyn vincent)

Left: Festivalgoers dance to the drums of Mark Vaughn. Middle: CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana band school the crowd in zydeco. Right: Soul Rebels heat up the house at Les Bon Temp Roulé. (Photos: Robyn Vincent)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – On the hunt for the Gentilly Stage, where My Morning Jacket was performing, I hurried across the soggy grass as mud lodged deeper between my sandaled toes. Amid the sounds of New Orleans brass spilling into the air from one stage and acoustic guitar escaping another, I discerned a faint percussive rhythm that rerouted my trajectory.

In a wooden shack—set off from the labyrinth of large stages with walls of speakers, food tents with crawfish étouffée and fried plantains, and artisans slinging everything from fine art to African jewelry—a sweaty mess of men and women sat in a row slapping their hands against their drums, swaying in imperfect unison. The drummers had commanded a small cluster of people to their feet. Dancing barefoot before the musicians, the possessed crowd seemed to be offering up alms to the gods of rhythm.

This unsuspecting drum circle set the tone for my inaugural New Orleans Jazz Fest. Because while thousands of people were sitting mesmerized by Paul Simon’s enduring performance chops or My Morning Jacket’s moody rock, I found that some of the most memorable moments came from the least suspecting performers. People like Barbados drum carver and musician Larry Vaughn. Tucked away in that unassuming shack, alternating between playing the drums with his group and jumping into the beguiled crowd, Vaughn encapsulated the kind of intimate performance that has become a rarity at large-scale festivals. But alas, Jazz Fest is not a typical large-scale music festival.

Moments after Vaughn’s performance, I found myself receiving a Big Easy dance lesson. Thanks to CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, I learned how to dance to zydeco with a small crowd of revelers. Taking a few cues from my fellow festivalgoers, I gingerly synced my hips and my feet, stepping each foot in and out of the gooey, muddy ground. Meanwhile, on the next stage over, former Fugees songstress Lauryn Hill was gearing up to belt “Killing Me Softly.”

“You got a great step,” one man told me in a heavy Louisiana patois. That was all the encouragement I needed to stay right where I was.

Much like the storied history of the Big Easy, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival comes with a rich history, too. According to festival organizers: Mahalia Jackson, often coined the greatest gospel singer, returned to her hometown to appear at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. While attending the Louisiana Heritage Fair in Congo Square, she and Duke Ellington, who also appeared at the festival, came upon the Eureka Brass Band leading a crowd of second-line revelers through the festival grounds. Fest producer George Wein wasted no time handing Jackson a microphone. So she sang along with the band and joined the parade. And they say that unforgettable moment is how the true spirit of Jazz Fest was born.

When you’re in the Big Easy, something about the undying spirit of New Orleans works its way into you and wont let go. The first time I fell in love with New Orleans I was with 11 strangers from Jackson Hole. We were in Nola to help rebuild homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. During our two-week trip, we peeled off New Orleans’ celebratory layers—after much of our own celebrating of course—to discover a very different place.

Beyond the pulsating 24-hour jazz joints on Frenchmen Street and inebriated tourists stumbling down Bourbon, New Orleans is rife with police corruption and violent crime, a place where gunshots are fired each night just blocks from the French Quarter; a place where people lost their families and their homes as a result of the federal mismanagement of Hurricane Katrina.

While I will proudly proclaim New Orleans as the greatest American city, I find that knowing the city intimately—in all its glory, pain and anguish—has helped me foster reverence for its rawness and its indomitable residents, those who refuse to turn their backs on the Big Easy no matter the battle.

When the torrential downpours arrived on the last Saturday of Jazz Fest, festivalgoers could be found wading through thigh-deep puddles. It was the day that Stevie Wonder, Beck and Snoop Dogg were slated to perform. My audacious friend Jenelle by my side, I sprinted with half an umbrella through blinding sideways rain to investigate the rumors that the entire festival was slated for impending shutdown. Jenelle and I found our way to one of the music tents just before the festival did in fact shutter. Dripping from head to toe, we were a curious sight to dry folks sitting inside the tent who seemed completely unaware of the near hurricane conditions happening just outside. (I even detected a few gasps as I wrung out my dress.)

While throngs of people were pouring out of the fair grounds, we arrived just in time for the strut worthy jazz of Jamil Sharif, where an eraptured audience was transported to another time and place. Afterwards, organizers pulled the plug completely, but not without a Stevie Wonder standoff. Before he was reportedly ushered off the stage and back to safety, Stevie sang “Purple Rain” through a megaphone to the stalwart festivalgoers still holding out. (Check it out on YouTube.)

Back in the French Quarter, as we hopped through subterranean puddles, the hard rain unrelenting, I announced I knew a shortcut to the 200-year-old Spanish home my friends and I were renting. Instead I sent us on a detour.

Turning the corner, we almost collided with a brass band, the musicians slouched against a storefront taking shelter from the storm. Suddenly the band members awakened, like someone had flipped their switch. I clumsily skidded to a halt and watched as the musicians breathed life into their instruments filling the street with boisterous jazz.

Yes, it’s the people of New Orleans who triumph with their undying soul; with each trumpet, tuba and saxophone, the Crescent City resonates with hope. PJH

About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Planet Jackson Hole and Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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