Day 6 / The Daze Between ... Tuesday, April 30


Sleeping in felt good yesterday; today it was almost essential. We left the Staybridge around 11, and this time we went to the PJ's located in the DoubleTree hotel at Canal and South Peters, across the street from Harrah's casino. We thought we would try this one because it has a shady outdoor seating area. 

Laurie got a muffin and I got a croissant to go along with our coffee, which as usual was au lait for me and black for her. 

Our plans for today started out pretty vague. One thing about the festival-going experience is that if you want to take maximum advantage of all it has to offer, you do need some planning. At least the OCD in me does. So we discovered that not planning anything for the daytime in the the three daze between worked out very well.

As we sipped the coffee and woke up, we talked over activities within walking distance, and decided that we would pay a visit to the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. I would be willing to bet that you didn't know that there was a national park devoted to jazz. Well, there sort of is and there sort of isn't. 

We walked to the park's visitor center, in an alley off of North Peters Street between Jackson Square and the French Market. Inside was a friendly ranger.

[Soapbox time: I have been to an enormous number of National Park Service sites. The rangers and other employees at all of these sites, no matter where or of what type are always friendly, helpful, and dedicated to their service. However, they are woefully underpaid and unappreciated. Plus they serve in facilities that are habitually underfunded, with a maintenance backlog stretching back years if not decades. It's a national embarrassment ... in my humble opinion.]

The ranger explained that the park exists primarily for interpretation and information rather than physical structures. They do have some buildings in Armstrong Park that are awaiting renovation, and these will become their permanent home. The first of these is Perseverance Hall. The park also has entered into a partnership with the Louisiana State Museum to house exhibits and a performance space in the Old U.S. Mint. 

The small visitor center had a couple of exhibits on the roots of jazz and its influence in other music genres. There were some audio stations set up to hear the various forms of jazz and a wide selection of books on jazz. There were also a few rows of chairs and a small stage where a daily concert is presented, which for today we had missed. Who listens to jazz in New Orleans before noon, for crying out loud?

Anyway, the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park's web site has a lot of content on the history of jazz and its role in the unique music of New Orleans, which has a lot to do with the music that we hear and enjoy so much at Jazz Fest. It also led me to discover Tulane University's Hogan Jazz Archives, full of incredible articles.

The ranger at the visitor center enthusiastically recommended that we go to the Old U.S. Mint to see the exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. As we left, we decided that that might be the best course of action because, guess what? The skies were getting dark ... very dark ... and rumbly. So we headed downriver the few blocks to the museum, and if we didn't need to go all the way around the building to get to the entrance we would have made it in time. Fortunately, we didn't get too wet. This was a wild thunderstorm, with frequent lightning and huge thunderclaps. While we were in the exhibit, the power even went out for about 15 minutes. Museums are very dark when the power goes out!

When you walk in to the Old U.S. Mint, it looks like an old U.S. mint; the entry level contains exhibits about the buiding's history and its function as a mint in the late 1800's to early 1900's. You have to go up the ornate double staircase to get to the Music at the Mint section of the building. We were thrilled with what we saw. 

In the entry/exit area is Louis Armstrong's cornet, just to set the mood. The Preservation Hall exhibit was comprehensive, educational, fun, and moving. It covered the history of the building and how the Preservation Hall Jazz Band almost improbably came to be guardians of and ambassadors for New Orleans jazz from the 1960's on. There were tons of artifacts, photographs, posters, handbills, newspaper articles, phonograph records, film and audio clips, interviews, and even oral histories to listen to. Here's a video promoting the exhibit, which sadly isn't there any longer.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band derives its name from Preservation Hall, the venerable music venue located in the heart of the French Quarter, founded in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe. Under the auspices of its current director, their son Ben Jaffe, Preservation Hall continues with a deep reverence for and consciousness of its role as a venue, band, and record label.

The building that houses Preservation Hall has served many businesses over the years. It was a tavern during the war of 1812, then a photo studio and an art gallery. It was during the years of the art gallery that its owner at the time, Larry Borenstein, began holding informal jam sessions for his close friends. These sessions featured classic New Orleans jazz, and it is hard to believe, but this music was very close to extinct at this time. Out of these jam sessions grew the concept of Preservation Hall. The intimate venue, whose weathered exterior has been untouched over its history, is a living embodiment of its original vision. To this day, Preservation Hall has no drinks, air conditioning, or other typical accoutrements. It's one of the last pure music experiences left on Earth.

The Jaffes nurtured the concept of Preservation Hall and organized the band, which began touring in 1963. Many of its charter members had performed with the pioneers who invented jazz in the early 20th century, including Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, and Bunk Johnson. Band leaders over the its history include the brothers Willie and Percy Humphrey, husband and wife Billie and De De Pierce, famed pianist Sweet Emma Barrett, and in the modern day Wendall and John Brunious. These founding artists and dozens of others passed on the lessons of their music to a younger generation who now follow in their footsteps ... like the current lineup, which includes Ben Jaffe. Here's a half hour of the current band. And here's a quick one of them playing in Preservation Hall itself.

I can remember seeing the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on the Ed Sullivan show when I was young, while waiting for performances by the Rolling Stones, the Animals, or the Doors. I found a lot of acts on Sullivan's show to be really square, but I do remember the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as pretty cool. In addition to liking the music, I recall that I liked the artwork on the drum, the fact that most of the performers sat down while they played, and that they appeared to be having great fun while performing.

Of course, last year at Jazz Fest, we decided at the last second to see their 50th anniversary celebration at the Gentilly Stage in the final cube of the final day. That's a decision we have been patting ourselves on the back for ever since, because the show, packed with special guests, was just so much fun. Jump ahead to the last day of this trip and you'll see that Preservation Hall played a large role in this year's Jazz Fest, too. Here's an interesting article about the Hall at 50, including an interview with Ben Jaffe.

Including the power failure, we were at this exhibit for almost three hours! A highlight of the trip, and it didn't even take place at the Fair Grounds. Who would've thought?

When we left the Mint we were ready (really ready) for a late lunch. We enjoyed the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen on Thursday evening, and it was right across the street from the Mint, so in we went. We had draft Abitas, I had wild mushroom fettuccini, and Laurie had the Four Season pizza (artichoke hearts, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, asparagus, and parmesan and mozzarella cheeses). We also gave in to the dessert menu and split a bread pudding. 

We took a slow walk back to the hotel by way of the river to rest for a few hours. On the way back, I saw the sign for Central Grocery, originators of the famous muffuletta sandwich, and I thought that would be perfect to take back to the room for dinner. So we walk in and the guy behind the counter says, "jawannamufala" or something like that and I go, "What?" and he says, "Did you want a muffuletta?" and I say, "Oh ... Why yes." And he says, "We're all out for today." That ended the Central Grocery muffuletta experience (until next time). 

Instead, for a seven-ish dinner, Laurie had leftovers from yesterday's omelette while I bopped over to Mother's for a fresh-baked ham po'boy. Mother's purportedly has the best baked ham in the world. I don't know how one would judge such a thing. But it was good, no denying that.

The evening activity tonight was yet another walk along Decatur Street across the French Quarter back to Frenchmen Street and back to the Blue Nile. Performing tonite were Hammond B-3 master Dr. Lonnie Smith with Will Bernard on guitar, Donald Harrison on alto sax, Herlin Riley on drums, and Wil Blades on keyboards. The reservation said said the show started at 8:15 sharp. But we are learning. We got into the will-call line around 8:30. When we got into the club around 9, Smith was on the stage, but he was working with a technician trying to make something or another work and not having much luck. We visited the bar and once again Laurie staked out a good spot near the stage. We soaked up the ambience while enjoying beverages and watching the technical work continue. After a while, Smith seemed to be satisfied and headed backstage. 

It's now getting on toward 9:30 and the place is really crowded. We're standing in front of a sort of ad hoc aisle leading to the restrooms and backstage. None of these places appear to have stage entrances, so along comes Donald Harrison (the great Donald Harrison I might say) with a couple of people with him, and he gets to where we are and where he can see the stage. He sees that it is empty, looks at one of his companions and says, "Are they through already?" 

To which I could only say (not to him, of course), Are you kidding?  

In time, the band took the stage, and they laid down a couple of hours of some of the most groovealicious music I've ever heard. Smith orchestrated it all through soulful peaks and mellow valleys and allowed all of the others plenty of time to solo. Harrison just sat on a stool in the background until Smith pointed at him, and then he would walk to the front, play a few minutes of stupendous sax, and then walk back and sit back down on the stool. Riley was superb, and Blades and Bernard solid.

You probably should understand how I came to really want to see this show. I had been hoping to see Smith for years. I am a real afficianado of the Hammond B-3, and I have been since the early 1960's when I first heard Booker T. Jones and the MG's and Hip Hug Her on my transistor radio when I was a teen. Then came the Spencer Davis Group and Procol Harum. In the 1970's, one of my favorites was Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Amid all the prog-rock bombast, Keith Emerson was laying down some really cool post-bop jazz on his Hammond. And don't forget Deep Purple. In the 1980's, the instrument faded from rock, but I began to discover it in jazz in the 1990's with the likes of Joey DeFrancesco, which opened me up to the music of Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff, Richard "Groove" Holmes, Charles Earland, and ... Dr. Lonnie Smith. Not to mention acid jazz with the likes of Medeski, Martin and Wood and guys like Robert Walter and Wil Blades.

"The organ is like the sunlight, rain and thunder ... it's all the worldly sounds to me!" Master of the Hammond organ for more than 50 years, Dr. Lonnie Smith (who is not the jazz organist Lonnie Liston Smith) is originally from Buffalo, New York. His mother immersed him in gospel, blues, and jazz at an early age, and in his teens he sang in several vocal groups. He also played trumpet and other instruments at school and was a featured soloist. In the late 1950's, the owner of a local music store gave young Lonnie the opportunity to learn how to play a Hammond organ. By studying the records of organists such as Wild Bill Davis, Bill Doggett, and Jimmy Smith, as well as paying rapt attention to the church organ, he began to find his musical voice. "Even though I didn't know how, I was able to play right from the beginning. I learned how to work the stops and that was it. It's a passion for me, so everything else came naturally."

Lonnie first got noticed when he gigged at Buffalo's hottest jazz club, the Pine Grill (long gone, but honored with an annual outdoor festival) and he soon was noticed by and joined George Benson's quartet and relocated to New York City. He was recorded on several Benson albums before recording his first solo album in 1966. Blue Note signed him, and his careeer was established. His unpredictable, insatiable musical taste illustrates that no genre is safe, as he has recorded everything from covers of the Beatles, the Stylistics, and the Eurythmics; to tribute albums of Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, and Beck; and employing ensembles ranging from a trio to a 15-piece big band. By the way, he gave himself the title Dr. for "no particular reason," the same reason he gives for why he almost always wears a turban (although tonight he didn't).

What a thrill it was to see Donald Harrison Jr. perform in this setting. Donald was born in New Orleans in 1960 and grew up in a home saturated with the city’s brass bands, parades, modern jazz, R&B, funk, and dance music. His father was a legendary New Orleans folklorist and, during his lifetime, the Big Chief of four different Mardi Gras Indian tribes. The younger Harrison studied with Ellis Marsalis at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, then went on to the Berklee College of Music. His talent led him to the bands of Roy Haynes, Jack McDuff, and, most famously, Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers.

In the 1990's, Harrison actively engaged his New Orleans musical heritage on a large scale. He combined Mardis Gras Indian tunes and chanting with funky New Orleans R&B and modern jazz. Strangely (to me anyway), he also dabbled in smooth jazz but soon returned to straight-ahead jazz concepts, combining them with Caribbean and Latin rhythms to establish what he calls nouveau swing.

In 1999, Harrison officially became a Big Chief and founded the Congo Square Nation Mardi Gras Indians to honor his father and further New Orleans African roots culture. To close out the century, he recorded The New Sounds of Mardi Gras, which merged New Orleans traditional music with hip-hop, and Spirits of Congo Square, which featured parade rhythms and hard-bop solos.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Harrison began to give back to New Orleans as an educator. He began employing high school students in his bands and getting them dates with other professional musicians in order to foster the New Orleans musical heritage and give the younger players more professional exposure. Many musicians had left the city due to Katrina's aftermath, and Harrison sees it as his duty to keep the flame alive.

Herlin Riley was born in New Orleans in 1957 and, not surprisingly, he was always surrounded by music. He began playing the drums at age three. While he studied trumpet in high school and college, his true love was the drums. His art developed to the point where he became a member of Ahmad Jamal’s group from 1984 through 1987 and recorded with Marcus Roberts, Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr., and George Benson. He was in Wynton Marsalis’ touring and recording group and performed with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.

Will Bernard we saw on Thursday with Stanton Moore and Robert Walter on this same stage. He was adept at laying down an outstanding groove with the occasional solo. He is an excellent guitarist in this genre and added to the proceedings immeasurably.

Wil Blades was also on keyboards, and may I just say right up front that it takes a keyboard artist with a lot of confidence to add another keyboard artist to the combo, so kudos to Dr. Lonnie Smith for this treat. Born in Chicago in 1979, Wil began playing drums at the age of 8, guitar at 13, and then found his true calling on Hammond B-3 at 19. While studying jazz in California, he landed weekly gigs at John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room in San Francisco. Being self-taught on organ, the weekly gigs proved to be the best lessons of all. In the years since, Dr. Lonnie Smith has been a mentor, so Wil has kept the traditional sounds of Jimmy Smith, Larry Young, and "Groove" Holmes alive while creating a more personal, modern sound. In Wil’s words, "I feel indebted to the tradition and masters of the Hammond, but while trying to keep it going I’m also focused on bringing my contemporary influences to the table." His playing is rhythmic, funky, and bluesy, yet his original compositions are harmonically intriguing and unique. He currently leads his own groups and is teaching the Hammond B-3 Organ privately.

Here's a video of this same lineup perfoming Pilgimage at the Blue Nile in 2011. This was a highlight of the show we saw, too. And here's another video, this one from the show we were at. 

After the show ended a little after midnight, we had the opportunity to stay and see Afromassive do the late show. It would have been pretty cool, but we opted to walk back across the French Quarter on a beautiful night and retire at a reasonable hour (meaning before 2 a.m.) It was another completely enjoyable day.  



© Jeff Mangold 2012