Where else in the world but the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival could Paul Simon, Mystikal, the Dave Matthews Band, Celia Cruz, Femi Kuti, the Neville Brothers, Van Morrison, Al Green, Lucinda Williams and more than 400 other acts mix it up with pheasant gumbo, crawfish bread, oyster po-boys and Cajun boudin?
If music is the food of love, and Jazzfest is ground zero for the music-as-feast truism, the 32nd annual event which takes place over seven days between April 27 and May 6 at the city's Fair Grounds Race Course will serve up a veritable senses-reeling orgy of sounds, eats and revelry.
Although Jazzfest has become increasingly eclectic over the years (the Wallflowers?!), this year the festival will return to its roots by paying tribute to New Orleans' most famous and influential native son, Louis Armstrong, whose 100th birthday will be celebrated. In addition to a special pavilion devoted to exhibits and discussions concerning the trumpeter, performers giving it up to Satchmo include the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra Tribute to Louis Armstrong with trumpeters Jon Faddis and Clark Terry (April 28-29), Dr. Michael White's Armstrong Hot Five and Hot Seven with trumpeter Nicholas Payton (April 27), and Payton's own Armstrong Centennial Celebration (April 28).
A strong lineup of jazz musicians will appear throughout the festival, too, both on its 10 stages and tents and during special evening concerts. These include legendary drummers Max Roach (April 28) and Elvin Jones (May 5), pianists Ramsey Lewis (May 4) and Randy Weston (May 3), saxophonists Donald Harrison Jr. (April 27) and James Moody (May 5) and trumpeter Roy Hargrove (April 27-28).
Big rock and pop acts, such as the Dave Matthews Band (May 5) and Paul Simon (May 4-5), are certainly responsible for many of the 450,000 to 500,000 people expected to attend the festival. Fortunately for some, they also draw the masses away from the smaller stages where Jazzfest's multicultural and heritage aspects flourish with afropop, blues, Cajun, zydeco and gospel sounds.
"I listen to jazz, I love classical music, and I listen to reggae," Nigerian afrobeat star Kuti said when asked how he felt about performing at Jazzfest (April 29) for the first time, "so I'll fit right in."
Other African bands appearing include South Africa's Mahotella Queens (May 5), who recently released Sebai Bai, and Mali's Super Rail Band (April 27), making their first American appearance in more than a decade. Fans can check the Rail Band's Cuban influences against the real thing in the form of salsa queen Cruz (May 4-5).
Local New Orleans and Louisiana music in all its forms will of course be represented. Festival-goers will get a virtual history of Crescent City sounds before the Neville Brothers close the show, as they do each year, on May 6. Eddie Bo (May 6) of "Check Mr. Popeye" fame will be the subject of an April 30 nonfestival tribute at Generation Hall during WWOZ-FM's annual Piano Night. Bo will be regaled by fellow piano legends Huey "Piano" Smith and Dr. John (April 29) along with Earl "Big Chief" King (May 6) and other New Orleans R&B greats.
Jazzfest's secret gravitational center for many turns out to be the Rhodes Gospel Tent, where weary festival-goers can take a load off while recharging their spiritual batteries. Groups such as the Leviticus Gospel Singers (April 27), Dynamic Smooth Family Gospel Singers (April 27), the Humble Travelers (May 3), Rocks of Harmony (May 6) and even gospel-soul crooner Aaron Neville (May 6) will all tell it to the mountain.
Other hometowners range from festival regulars such as R&B writer/producer/pianist Allen Toussaint (May 6) and hankie-waving singer Irma Thomas (April 29) to their funky descendant, hardcore rapper Mystikal (May 5), making his Jazzfest debut. The Marsalises, represented here by pianist Ellis (May 5) and drummer Jason (May 6), are the Nevilles of the local jazz scene, with Jason's former band, Los Hombres Calientes (April 28), strong contenders for most popular local jazz band.
The French-language charm exuded by Cajun groups such as the progressive Beausoleil (April 27) and the venerable Hackberry Ramblers (May 4) will provoke dancers to waltz and two-step, while R&B-influenced zydeco bands such as the Creole Zydeco Farmers (April 27) and Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas (May 6) will crank up the heat (and speaking of heat, don't forget your sunscreen since the temperature can easily rise into the humid 80s) with steamy accordion stomps.
In recent years Jazzfest has begun to attract ever more second- and third-generation jam bands. Atlanta's Widespread Panic (May 3), upstate New York's Moe (May 6) and local group Galactic (May 5) will unleash the X factor at the fairgrounds, while other notable improv-rockers including the Disco Biscuits (April 28), String Cheese Incident (May 4-5) and Steve Kimock (May 6) can be seen elsewhere in town, usually at late-night venues, over the course of Jazzfest.
All this, of course, represents barely the tip of the Jazzfest iceberg. Visit the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival's Web site for the complete menu.