NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana — Decade after decade, a few key men put the “jazz” in the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Thank goodness they’re still going strong.
The Jazz Fest, as it’s usually known, always spans musical genres, with nationally known headliners such as Stevie Nicks, The Who, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ziggy Marley, Lionel Richie, Ludacris, and Jimmy Buffett. Still, it wouldn’t be the extravaganza it is, in the city where it is, with the unique feel that it has, if it weren’t for New Orleans having birthed traditional jazz.
And as the Jazz Fest returned for the last weekend of April and first weekend of May — after missing two years, plus two planned fall makeup sessions, due to the pandemic — its very heart seemed to reside in the Economy Hall traditional jazz tent, in one particular show.
Dr. Michael White’s Original Liberty Jazz Band had the patrons alternately hopping and wiping away tears on May 7 as the band played some of the oldest songs in the trad jazz repertoire and what surely is the very newest composition. For the genre’s aficionados, the clarinetist White is a modern legend, working tirelessly to keep trad jazz alive as an art form and respected as history and art. The emotional center of a wonderful documentary released last year, White at age 67 and his 68-year-old friend Gregg Stafford, the trumpeter nonpareil, have starred separately and apart in countless Jazz Fest sessions for the past 40 years.
Often with them, including on May 7, are banjoist Detroit Brooks and pianist Steve Pistorius. These four are so well attuned to each other, both in sync and in syncopation (two very different things), that whatever mood they evoke is doubly powerful.
With White providing sometimes scholarly introductions to each number and with Stafford occasionally providing vocals in addition to his unmatched horn, the event is both a history lesson and experiential immersion. Here’s a song allegedly performed by the mysterious Buddy Bolden; there’s one that was a favorite of Kid Ory, the trombonist featured on the first-ever recording of a black musical artist in history, exactly 100 years ago this spring. Then, a virtuoso performance by White of a clarinet composition by the late, great George Lewis, one requiring all of White’s breathtaking range.
Yet what left goosebumps was when the band moved from the oldest, the Bolden piece, to the newest. White said that when he played at the Jazz Fest’s first weekend this year and visited with longtime fans and friends, he was struck by how many had suffered grievous losses during the coronavirus pandemic — which, infamously, hit New Orleans particularly hard. They said, he told them, that the return of the Jazz Fest after four cancellations — two springs, two falls — was the salve they needed.
“I was so inspired by them,” White said, “that I went home and started writing.”
And behold! In the intervening week, White composed a brand-new musical piece in the old, classic style and debuted it right there, less than a week after he created it. It was somber and soulful, wistful and grace-filled, not quite a dirge but certainly not one of those fast pieces to dance a second-line to. Yet as the piece proceeded, it took on a sweetness, a lightness, a hopefulness, a sense of relief, release, and refreshment.
White named the piece “Endurance.” Aptly so. As a tribute to the hardiness of New Orleanians who so often survive tough times and also as a lilting ode to the return of a grand tradition, “Endurance” was just perfect: a high note, lingering in the air.