Friday, November 22, 2013

Do you know what it means...

Some day, when I'm feeling more confessional, I'll (maybe) share the story of how Hurricane Katrina changed my life. On the face of it, that's an enormously stupid and self-serving statement, considering that in August of 2005 I was enjoying a typical Chicago summer in a comfortable, well constructed home many miles from any natural and/or man made disaster. For now, though, I'll simply state around that time I began to find my voice as a writer, and the horrible blow that New Orleans suffered and the events that followed played a significant role in unearthing it.

New Orleans. The Big Easy. Nawlins. The Crescent City. NOLA.

I'm heading back there in a couple of weeks for my third post-Katrina visit. It is, far and away, my favorite city in North America. It is, without question, the most unique. It doesn't quite feel like the United States. A Dominican friend of mine told me, over a delicious Creole lunch in the French Quarter, that New Orleans reminded him of Santo Domingo. My own point of reference would be to San Juan, Puerto Rico, a place I go to as often as I can. New Orleans has a Caribbean soul.

Some, like jazz musician and favorite son Irvin Mayfield, say that NOLA is the northernmost tip of the Caribbean. Geographically debatable, perhaps, but culturally true. With its mix of French, Spanish and, most importantly, African influences, New Orleans was thoroughly shaped by the slave trade, just like its Caribbean cousins. Cuban rumba, Dominican merengue, Trinidadian calypso, Jamaican reggae, Puerto Rican bomba, Colombian cumbia, New Orleans jazz. They're all a cultural expression of the African diaspora when it arrived in the Americas and mingled with both European practices and indigenous customs. "Same ship, different ports," is how Mayfield describes it. People from New Orleans like to use the culinary term 'gumbo' when describing this mix of cultures. Every distinct ingredient, flavor and texture is crucial to the whole.

I was fortunate to be able to talk with Irvin Mayfield earlier this week because he was bringing the magnificent New Orleans Jazz Orchestra to the Chicago Theatre and a couple of online publications were kind enough to let me write a preview article.

You can read the whole thing here.

The concert was a sprawling, 3 hour tribute to jazz and the two cities that are crucial to its development; New Orleans, where it was born, and Chicago, where it grew up. The New Orleans Jazz Orchestra (NOJO) is no period piece. It doesn't, as a rule, do traditional stuff. Rather, it's a muscular ensemble that navigates the whole history of jazz. The inclusion of not one, but two selections from Duke Ellington underscored the fact that this music had to journey from New Orleans to Chicago before it reached Duke, inspiring one of America's greatest composers. Original compositions dotted the program, including a blistering Cuban-inspired number from Mayfield's days co-leading Los Hombres Calientes, a NOLA band that explicitly traced African music through the Caribbean and Brazil. Trad was not ignored altogether. In fact, it was prominently featured with the help of guests the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, keeping the tradition alive since the early 60s. The R&B side was ably represented as well by the one and only Allen Toussaint, who's been working even longer.

photo by Lynn Orman
There were plenty of props to Chicago, too, with guest appearances by vocalist Kurt Elling, trumpeter Orbert Davis (who leads the ambitious Chicago Jazz Philharmonic) and a host of journeymen who labor farther from the spotlight: bassist Larry Gray, drummer Robert Shy and the amazing 82-years-young pianist Willie Pickens. "I think it's all a scam so we'll treat him with reverence," joked Mayfield from the stage. "I think he's really 42."

Of course, the whole thing ended in a New Orleans second line parade, the band and its guests streaming up and down the Chicago Theatre aisles while hundreds danced joyfully, waving their handkerchiefs in the air.

My flight leaves in two weeks. NOJO holds court in Mayfield's own Jazz Playhouse in the Quarter every Wednesday evening. That's one stop I have to make. Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment