April 6, 2008 / 4:40 AM / 10 years ago

New Orleans gears up for Jazz Fest

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Eight months after the floods following Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans in 2005, there was at least one hard, good fact regarding a threatened music scene: the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival took place at its customary Mid-City Fair Grounds site.

Familiar favorites, from Buckwheat Zydeco to pheasant-and-quail andouille gumbo were served up. Local heroes like singer John Boutte and national ones like Bruce Springsteen brought audience members to joyful tears.

“I remember talking to Mitch Landrieu, the lieutenant governor,” festival producer Quint Davis says from his office in New Orleans. “It was January, and we weren’t sure if we could mount the event. And he told me, ‘Not having the festival is not an option.’ I knew what he meant. And I knew that if we put this big, soul-generating battery on and, for two weekends, people could plug in, it would mean something.”

The festival also generated $300 million in city revenue last year; that meant something too.

Now, more than two years later, in a city rebuilding only in troubled fits and starts, the festival arrives again (April 25-27 and May 1-4) with another positive jolt. The 2008 Jazz Fest marks the return of the Neville Brothers, who have not played the event since Katrina, and the festival’s full seven-day schedule.

Davis says the festival’s fortunes now draw heavily on the support of its corporate underwriter, Shell Oil, which came onboard as title sponsor in Katrina’s wake. It has also been aligned since 2005 with AEG Live, which has led to the booking of headliners with broad appeal. This year’s crop ranges from Billy Joel to Stevie Wonder, Santana to Diana Krall. Yet for many in attendance, especially New Orleans residents, it’s the local heroes that define the event -- none perhaps more so than the Nevilles.

“There are still over 100,000 people who are estranged from NOLA, whose families are separated,” Davis says. “To me, the Nevilles embody and represent those people.”

And tucked in between Jazz Fest’s two weekends is another soul-generating spark--the two-day Ponderosa Stomp.

“It’s a complete narrative of the roots of American music,” founder Ira Padnos says, “or, more simply, the ultimate jukebox -- all killer, no filler.”

A veteran New Orleans label is also celebrating a milestone as Jazz Fest draws near. In 2006, when the event’s CD tent was in doubt, Mark Samuels, the man behind Basin Street Records, jumped in to fill that void. It was one of many steps along a challenging post-Katrina road for Samuels, his family and the label he founded, whose recording artist family includes trumpeters Kermit Ruffins and Irvin Mayfield, clarinetist Michael White and pianist Henry Butler.

When Samuels returned to New Orleans in 2005, he found his home in the Lakeview section and his office on Canal Street virtually wiped out. Suddenly, all that was up and running was the label’s Web site. Though Samuels relocated with his three children for a while to Texas, he was determined to return. He began issuing missives online. By mid-2006, he had restored the second story of his home and was running the company out of the gutted ground floor, surrounded by whatever inventory had survived.

With four new CDs this spring -- from Mayfield, Butler, White and singer Theresa Andersson -- Basin Street returns to issuing new music and marks its 10th anniversary. It’s an inspiring story of personal tenacity and one more significant piece of the New Orleans cultural puzzle back in place.

Reuters/Billboard

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