French Quarter Fest Lineup Announced: Astral Project, Irvin Mayfield, Radiators, Bonerama, More

Book dozens of major New Orleans and Louisiana acts, and many of the lesser-known ones, put them on stages throughout the French Quarter, and don’t charge an admission fee.

That’s the successful strategy taken by the French Quarter Fest, the 27th annual edition of which is slated for April 9-11.

The festival again emphasizes a terrific mix of jazz, blues, funk, zydeco, cajun, brass band, gospel and other music, played exclusively by New Orleans artists.

That’s a factor differentiating the fest from the larger, better-known Jazz Fest, which (with some exceptions) features big national acts in the headlining spots while still devoting about 85% of stage time to artists from New Orleans and throughout Louisiana, according to organizers.

While it’s impossible to duplicate the rambunctious, non-stop, feelgood party vibe of Jazz Fest, which returns the last weekend of April and first weekend of May (I’ll be there, for my umpteenth trip), some fans of New Orleans music prefer the lower-key, more intimate setting of French Quarter Fest.

Or, at least, it felt a bit more laidback the last time I visited, about seven years ago.

As mentioned, much of the cream of the NOLA crop is headed to French Quarter Fest, including such personal favorites as Astral Project, Bonerama, Anders Osborne, Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield and the NOJO, Rebirth Brass Band, John Mooney, the Kora Konnection, Alex McMurray (performing with his Tin Men group), the Radiators, Trombone Shorty, the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, John Boutte and Paul Sanchez, and many more.

In addition to performances by more than 150 acts, French Quarter Fest means great local cuisine, with 105 food booths set up by vendors who are required to be dine-in restaurants from the New Orleans region.

The fest offers several new features for 2010, including a BMI-sponsored songwriter showcase, with a dozen up-and-coming talents, and an iPhone application soon to be available through iTunes. And traditional dances — Charleston, Swing, and Second-line — will be taught at the Traditional Jazz stage, which will feature performances by the Jazz Vipers, James Andrews, and others.

For more details, go to http://www.fqfi.org/news/?cat=9

New Orleans Wins, and It’s Not Just About Football

The New Orleans Saints are bound for the Superbowl in Miami. And that reality, after last night’s victory, means something so much larger than football, as several commentators have pointed out.

It’s a big shot in the arm for the confidence of a city just beginning to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And it’s a chance for the city of New Orleans to shine, to show off its pride and, more importantly, its unique indigenous culture, for a global television audience.

Here’s hoping that the Crescent City’s movers and shakers fully avail themselves of the chance — even from a distance — to spotlight the region’s music, art and food in a manner that best represents New Orleans and that that results in bringing droves of tourists back to the city.

That could result in long-term, long-lasting economic benefits for the city. Tourism means dollars, and more dollars can help in vital rebuilding projects.

In the short term, let’s hope that the city — particularly its educational institutions, arts organizations, and initiatives that address unemployment and related housing and hunger issues — benefits immediately from the hundreds of millions of dollars that will cycle through the Superbowl.

The Superbowl is just the first of several high-profile opportunities for New Orleans to shine, including the French Quarter Festival, Jazz Fest, and, perhaps most significantly, the April debut of HBO’s music-driven series “Treme.” How could  a television show starring ebullient trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, as himself, NOT charm audiences?

Opportunity’s knocking. Here’s to a great and productive season for a city poised for an overdue rebound.

New Orleans: Serious About Its Identity As a Music Town?

But of course: New Orleans is a music town, one of the greatest on earth, and in many respects the heart and soul of American music.

It’s the birthplace of jazz, and it would be darn near impossible to gauge how great an impact the city and its indigenous arts culture have had on other forms of musical Americana, including R&B, blues, funk and soul.

And yet because of pesky political obstacles or a lack of imagination, the city’s fathers have never quite been able to capitalize on NOLA’s music/arts culture, which encompasses everything from still-vital brass bands to Mardi Gras Indian groups, great modern jazzers, traditional jazzers, amazing funk/rock groups, inspired singer-songwriters, and soul singers — artists like the Dirty Dozen, Rebirth Brass Band (in photo), New Orleans Nightcrawlers, the Wild Magnolias, Ellis Marsalis, Astral Project, Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Galactic, Paul Sanchez, Alex McMurray and Irma Thomas, just to name a few.

By capitalizing, I mean spending the time and energy, and devoting the appropriate funding and resources to help leverage New Orleans’ amazing music scene — from Frenchman Street to the Uptown clubs — as an essential element driving visitors from all over the world to the city.

No, I don’t mean handouts, although expanding the available arts grants would be entirely appropriate. I’m talking about consistently creating opportunities for musicians to demonstrate their art, and pushing even harder to get that message out to potential tourists from the U.S. as well as those in Canada, Europe, South America, and elsewhere.

Other American cities have accomplished that task more effectively, and two of those cities are in the South – Austin, which has effectively branded itself as “the live music capital of the world” and  Memphis, where blues haven Beale Street does big business.

What would it take for NOLA to become known worldwide as “the home of American music” or “the heart and soul of American music” or something similar, and for hundreds of thousands of additional music-loving tourists to come to the city year-round, not just for the wonders of Jazz Fest?

These were among the topics discussed in a mayoral forum held Monday at Loyola University. Five of the candidates vying to succeed (the largely incompetent) Ray Nagin for the city’s top job met to share ideas during  a gathering sponsored by Music Swings Votes, an organization comprising local music industry professionals.

“The music and cultural community want to be sure that we are recognized by the next mayoral administration, taken seriously, and that we can actually get the mayor to achieve some agreed-upon goals,” said OffBeat magazine publisher Jan Ramsey, an organizer of Music Swings Votes, according to a piece written by Times-Picayune music writer Keith Spera. “We want to emphasize that this is important and they need to include it in their platform and their administration.”

I don’t live in New Orleans, so I’m not familiar enough with the local issues — including those having to do with racial politics — to weigh in on which candidate is best qualified to lead a city still reeling from hurricane devastation. But I will say that Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu (photo, left) has consistently worked to elevate the music and music industry of New Orleans and the entire state, which also boasts regional musical treasures zydeco and cajun.

During a Jazz Fest press reception several years ago, I spoke with Landrieu about his efforts to promote Louisiana music. I’ll link to that piece here as soon as I can track it down.

“The music community stepped up to remind everybody that New Orleans is the soul of America. … I want to trumpet it, no pun intended, to the rest of the world,” Landrieu told the crowd, which included New Orleans-born trumpet great Terence Blanchard.

Boosting the public profile of the city’s music/arts culture would be of huge benefit to all of the city’s people, not  just for the musicians and other artists. A dramatic increase in tourism would help everyone in New Orleans survive, and again thrive, to regain its footing as a major American city.

Here’s hoping that the city’s next mayor possesses the inspiration and determination to make that happen.

HBO’s “Treme” Actually Gets New Orleans Music/Culture Right?

The more I hear about forthcoming HBO series “Treme,” the more I’m encouraged that producer David Simon (“The Wire,” “Homicide”) is going to get it right, in terms of artfully and accurately capturing the homegrown music and idiosyncratic culture at the heart of what makes New Orleans the only city of its kind in the world.

There are some good signs that Simon will do so, as related in jazz journalist Larry Blumenfeld‘s recent Wall Street Journal piece on the series, which takes its name from the neighborhood thought to be the oldest African-American neighborhood in the U.S.:

  1. Irrepressible trumpeter, barbecue maker and raconteur Kermit Ruffins, as New Orleans as New Orleans gets, is playing himself, and reportedly will get substantial screen time in the series, which focuses heavily on Mardi Gras Indian tribes and brass bands.
  2. Eric Overmyer, Simon’s longtime associate and a co-creator of “Treme,” for more than two decades has resided part-time in New Orleans.
  3. The writing staff includes NOLA-based author Tom Piazza, whose short book Why New Orleans Matters was an essential post-Katrina read, and New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Lolis Eric Elie, co-producer of a 2008 documentary on Treme.
  4. Wendell Pierce (“The Wire”), who plays a trombonist, is native to NOLA’s Pontchartrain Park neighborhood.
  5. Underappreciated jazz and funk saxophonist Donald Harrison, Jr. is an advisor on the series. So is pianist and music scenester Davis Rogan. Rogan is working closely with actor Steve Zahn (Rescue Dawn), who portrays a local music devotee and DJ.
  6. Elvis Costello, a huge supporter of NOLA music (he teamed with pianist/composer Allen Toussaint for 2006’s The River in Reverse, and the two collaborated for a terrific performance at Jazz Fest) plays himself.

“It’s easy to get it terribly wrong, and terribly hard to get it right,” Simon told Blumenfeld.  “‘This won’t be ‘The Wire’ with a better soundtrack. It’s a completely different animal.”

I’m holding Simon to his pledge of authenticity. For the rest of the WSJ piece, click here.

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The series’ first 10-episode season will debut in April, according to a Nov. 8 report in the Times-Picayune.

“That this decidedly oddball project – set among the quirky denizens of a floodwall-failed city, it fits no recognizable TV genre – is proceeding at all counts as a small miracle,” Dave Walker wrote in the T-P.

Stay tuned.

(photo, above, left to right: Zahn, Ruffins, Pierce).

Kermit Ruffins has released a holiday single, “Christmas Time is Here,” that’s molasses-slow and just as sweet.

The New Orleans good-time trumpeter is out front, singing, before he turns things over to a solo by his pianist (unsure about personnel on this track). Ruffins later comes back to close out the tune with a muted solo.

The single is on the Basin Street Records label. Check it out here.

By the way, Ruffins recently re-signed with Basin Street. The trumpeter, the first signee to the label, recorded six CDs for Basin Street. His new contract is a three-CD deal, with the first one slated to be released next spring, in time for the 2009 edition of Jazz Fest.

For the full story, check the report in Offbeat magazine.

Jazzfest Grids: New Year’s Eve Edition

The Threadheads (Jazz Fest fans) behind Jazzfest Grids, THE guide to nightclub music during Jazz Fest, have assembled a handy guide to music around NOLA happening on and around New Year’s Eve.

Here it is.

If I were headed to the Crescent City for the occasion, on NYE I’d be seriously torn: Galactic featuring Shamarr Allen, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, are at Tipitina’s; and Astral Project is at Snug Harbor.

And for pre-NYE jamming, I’d head to the Maple Leaf, for the Rebirth Brass Band’s traditional Tuesday night gig.

New Year’s Day? Johnny Vidacovich (Astral Project) is at the Maple Leaf, and Kermit Ruffins is doing his regular Thursday night show (and barbecue?) at Vaughan’s.

Also at the JazzFest Grids site is the ever-intriguing list of artists rumored to play JazzFest. Scheduled to play so far, according to the list: Wynton Marsalis; rising-star jazz bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding (My feature on her was the cover story for the June issue of Bass Player mag);  legendary soul singer Solomon Burke; Juke Joint Duo (Cedric Burnside and Lightnin’ Malcom); and the O’Jays.