New Orleans is a city inexorably linked to jazz.
So it was completely natural to bring in musicians from the Crescent City for the Deer Isle Jazz Festival, which runs tonight through Sunday. But for Larry Blumenfeld, the volunteer producer for the festival over its eight years, the connection to New Orleans goes much deeper than that.
A well-known jazz critic, Blumenfeld, now editor-at-large for Jazziz magazine, has as a matter of course visited New Orleans many times over the past two decades.
Thanks to a Katrina Media Fellowship from the Open Society Institute, Blumenfeld has spent months at a time in New Orleans over the past three years, and in doing so, he has discovered a side of the city that the casual visitor may never see.
“It’ s something that if you don’ t go there, you won’ t understand,” explained Blumenfeld by phone from his base in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“You get drawn back, again and again, deeper and deeper, by learning what New Orleans really is: this country’ s only jazz culture,” he said.
Such a culture goes way beyond the music itself, Blumenfeld added.
“It’ s the church, cuisine, ways of talking and visual arts just as much as the music,” he said.
Featured in the festival, titled “New Orleans: Culture, Crisis & Community,” are alto saxophonist-bandleader Donald Harrison and the Hot 8 Brass Band. Events include two concerts, a film, a panel discussion, a jazz clinic, a fund-raising party-jam session and a second-line parade through downtown Stonington.
The Chicago Tribune called Harrison “one of the more innovative bandleaders New Orleans has produced in the past 20 years.” Currently the Musician in Residence at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Harrison has played with musicians ranging from Art Blakey, Terence Blanchard and Eddie Palmieri to Jazzmatazz, The Notorious B.I.G. and Digable Planets. He originated the Nouveau Swing style, which blends acoustic swing with modern R&B, second-line, hip-hop, New Orleans African-American roots culture and reggae rhythms. At the Stonington Opera House, his quartet will include pianist Victor Gould, bassist Max Moran and drummer Joseph Dyson.
Harrison also serves as Big Chief of the Congo Nation, which is part of the Mardi Gras Indian culture. He is well-known for the beaded and feathered suits he creates, used in the tradition known as “masking.” These rituals are an African-American homage to the American Indians who once sheltered runaway slaves and to the spirit of resistance.
“Donald straddles the worlds of first-class modern jazz and Mardi Gras Indian culture,” Blumenfeld said.
The Hot 8 Brass Band has epitomized New Orleans street music for more than a decade, playing the second-line parades that are a Sunday tradition. The band was featured in the Spike Lee documentary “When the Levees Broke,” and it has released three critically acclaimed recordings. The Hot 8 Brass Band will lead a parade through downtown Stonington on Sunday.
“They’ re the sound and rhythm and flavor of what you hear in New Orleans during a second-line parade,” Blumenfeld said.
With a city full of musicians, why did Blumenfeld choose these two acts?
“They’ re great musicians who exemplify certain styles from New Orleans,” he said. “They’ re also forceful and articulate spokesmen and symbols for what is great about New Orleans.”
The music of New Orleans percolates up from the streets, and Blumenfeld fears that some of this culture may be lost during the rebuilding of New Orleans. For examples, musicians are being barred by government officials from their traditional gathering spots.
“The recovery and rebuilding of New Orleans may not happen in a way that’ s hospitable to its culture,” he said. “It’ s important that it’ s supported and enriched in any rebuilding of New Orleans, but in some cases, it’ s being stomped on.”
Or, as Harrison pondered in a Village Voice article by Blumenfeld, “I’ m going to play my saxophone. If enough people do their part, everything will endure. But that’ s the question: Will people be allowed to do their part?”
From its beginning, jazz festival organizers have sought to do more than just bring in world-class music. This year’ s edition draws a correlation between the two involved regions in its mission statement: “This year’ s festival explores the significance of culture, and especially music, to community development, recovery and sustainability in New Orleans, and asks how some of this knowledge might be used to the advantage of rural communities in Down East Maine as they struggle with the disappearance of the fisheries which are their historic lifeblood, affordable housing and jobs.”
Blumenfeld has made it his mission to spread the word about New Orleans, and the Deer Isle Jazz Festival continues this effort.
“It’ s been almost three years since the flood, and New Orleans has fallen off the agenda for many people,” he said. “But there’ s still a tremendous need in New Orleans and stories that need our attention.”
Tickets for the festival may be obtained at www.operahousearts.org, by calling 367-2788 or visiting the Opera House Arts’ box office at Main and School streets in Stonington.