In a world and a nation split on many issues, especially evident in an election year, it’s hard to find places where people come together from different creeds in a spirit of oneness.
Little did I know that I would find it for several days during an international celebration of music.
My wife and I were at the 43rd New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a cultural feast taking place over two weekends in late April/early May and attended by a reported 400,000 visitors each year. It celebrates, with its 12 simultaneously running stages each day, the indigenous music and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana, including Cajun, zydeco, Afro-Caribbean, and especially contemporary and traditional jazz and the blues.
People of every race, religion (or no religion), political belief (there were pro- and anti-Obama T-shirts in evidence), ages (we were on the older end of the demographic – by a lot!) and mobility capabilities (motorized and non-motorized chairs for those mobility challenged were evidenced at every venue) were all gathered together to celebrate the variety of styles of music, the quality of the musicians (the best in the world were drawn there in their respective disciplines) and the joy of watching live music performed.
The food featured such New Orleans delicacies as boiled crawfish, shrimp etouffée, alligator pie, fried green tomatoes, sweet potato pone, muffuletta, fried oyster spinach salad, and, my favorites, catfish po-boy and mango freeze. Beyond the food, there is a cultural sharing. For instance, feathers flew during the noon parades of the Mardi Gras Indians, who were animated in this embracing of traditional African music and dance.
But the music was what drew people together. The themes addressed, not surprisingly, included love, relationships, the blues caused by love lost, job loss, death of someone close, and societal problems (and, in NOLA, living through the aftermath of Katrina and the oil spill in the gulf was not far from the minds of the musicians and audience).
Aaron Neville sang “God Really Loves You” in the Gospel Tent. The 2011 Grammy Award-winning best new artist, Esperanza Spaulding, reminded the packed outdoor stage “to sing out with love in your heart.”
The UNESCO General Conference created an International Jazz Day to proclaim how jazz is a force for peace, unity, dialogue, and enhanced cooperation among different peoples. “From its roots in slavery, this music has raised a passionate voice against all forms of oppression. It speaks a language of freedom that is meaningful to all cultures.” We had a chance to celebrate that day, April 30, there in the birthplace of jazz, led by musician Herbie Hancock. What a moment!
I was reminded of the 2009 face-to-face interview I had done for St. Anthony Messenger magazine of iconic jazz pianist and band leader Dave Brubeck, who stressed that “music crosses any boundaries that outline a different country. The music becomes very universal.”
“Jazz represents freedom, freedom musically and politically,” he said.
For us, a chance to be with others unified by celebrating artistic expression and freedom was a great antidote to much of what passes for political and cultural discourse today.
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Photo top: Roger Lewis, a founder of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, wails on his baritone saxophone as part of the Baritone Blast performance at the Zatarains/WWOZ Jazz Tent on May 4 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. (Photo by Mark Lombard)
Photo middle: A Mardi Gras Indian dances during the noon parade May 4 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. (Photo by Mark Lombard)