Essence Fest, for those who don't know, is the largest event celebrating African-American culture and music in the US; sort of a SXSW for the R&B crowd. To give you an idea, Beyonce headlined at the Superdome this year. The main concerts are at the 'Dome, but events are held all around town during the week. Not being too big into R&B, a little into jazz, it was somewhat of a surprise that I'd be watching my nephew, Eliot Guerin, take the stage at Essence Fest. It was even more of a surprise that he'd be trading keys with a celebrity.
Now, he didn't play the Superdome, of course. But on July 4th, the festival held a large outdoor "Family Reunion Day" which took up all of Woldenburg Park on the riverfront, and featured its own music: Biz Markie and Doug E. Fresh among others on the bigger stages. But there was a smaller stage set up, at which my nephew and some friends had arranged a gig for an impromptu jazz combo they had set up.
I already knew my nephew was a damn good piano player. He studies jazz at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts), and he gets better every time I see him play. He's already at least comparable to a young kid named Harry Connick, Jr., whom I saw play at my company's Christmas dinner when he was about Eliot's age (17). But his bandmates, most current or recent products of the NOCCA jazz department, were each accomplished in their own right - drummer Darryl Staves (18) is going to Berklee College of Music, LaTasha Bundy on trumpet studies jazz at Tulane, Noah Albright (17) was on bass, Jeffery Miller (17) on trombone, and Morgan Guerin (16) on sax. Morgan is the son of noted NOLA bassist Roland Guerin, who is - as far as I know - no relation to my dad of the exact same name (or Eliot, or me)... but hey, it was Family Reunion Day!
So listening to great music by a bunch of young jazz cats on the riverfront in NOLA was good enough for me on this steamy July 4th. But then Davell Crawford showed up. Crawford is known as the Piano Prince of New Orleans, "the embodiment of every New Orleans music legend that has ever lived, from Jelly Roll Morton to Dr. John, from Mahalia and Satchmo, to James Booker and Professor Longhair, all rolled up into one musical ball of fire".
This kind of thing happens in New Orleans, you understand. Just the other night (a couple of nights before he played an ampitheater here in the Triangle), Robert Plant showed up and did an impromptu set at BJ's, a local dive in the Big Easy.
So Crawford shows up, chillin' with blonde mohawk and stars & striped shorts, befitting the day. He watches the kids for awhile, and then asks to sit in. The fun begins. He works the crowd, sings along, and starts trading keys with my nephew! They take turns, Eliot takes it in, and shows a little of his own stuff. Davell gives each member a chance to solo and shine. He's a big benefactor of music education, and has made appearances at various jazz camps around town. But this was no humdrum school exercise. It was an on-the-fly jam session, as no doubt Davell often took part in with his elders -- his family -- when he was coming up. He talked about how this was what jazz was all about, a bunch of people who didn't even know each other, some very young, some older, gettin' together and makin' it happen... just jamming.
Then, it got really good. Crawford called out: "Might-aaayy cooty fiyo!" The opening chant to the Mardi Gras Indian classic Indian Red. After a mixed response, he called again:
"Might-aaayy cooty fiyo!!"
"Hey la hey, hey la hey!"
"Here come the Big Chief, Big Chief,
Big Chief of the Nation
Wild, wild creation
He won't bow down, down to the ground
Oh how I LOVE to hear him call Indian red!"
After the chant, he challenged the band, saying "everybody from NOLA should know how to play this song", then slipped behind the keyboard and dove into the classic, Iko Iko!
Oh, you know that song. Even if you're NOT from New Orleans.
But see, Davell Crawford KNOWS that song. His grandfather was James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, who was responsible for the classic Jock-A-Mo (aka Iko Iko) in 1954. So when I say this was an impromptu jam/lesson just like the lessons Crawford probably had growing up, I mean EXACTLY like the lessons he had growing up: same song, same place, same damned bloodline... but with new blood.
And this band of young artists clearly DID knew how to play this song (and everything else they played that day), trading rhythms and solos with a New Orleans jazz great, giving as good as they got. Davell even gave up his seat to Eliot, letting him close it out on keys! (video below)
So what I'd expected was a little outing to see family and take in the Quarter on my last day in town. What I got instead was an improvised melding of old and new, modern and traditional, by a group of very talented musicians doing their thing along the shores of the Mighty Mississippi, among a sea of families, food, culture, and in the sweltering heat.
Pretty much what's been going on in New Orleans for centuries.
Tradition continues, right before our eyes, and moves forward. The vibes and the heart and the soul pass on. The lifeblood of a nation, generations old, picks up and mixes with the flotsam and jetsam of new generations. And the river flows downstream.