By Frank Moher
NEW ORLEANS — Diana Krall played the annual Jazz Festival in this most congenial of American cities on the weekend, a festival that also featured such stalwarts of the form as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Deacon John, and the Rebirth Brass Band. Mind you, it also featured such distinctly non-jazz acts as Jimmy Buffett and Tim McGraw — but not even New Orleanians can survive on a Dixieland diet alone.
Performing in such august company in the city that birthed jazz is a distinct honour for Krall. I confess, though, that I have always been immune to her appeal. My resistance has nothing to do with her sound, or her sultry blonde looks (which are a turn-off for some who think her success has more to do with sex than music). Instead, for a long time I haven’t been able to get past a basic question: what is a Canadian doing playing jazz in the first place?
This is more-or-less heresy where I live, near the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo, where Krall grew up and where they recently named the civic plaza after her. Nanaimo fancies itself a bit of a jazz town, which leaves me sceptical too, though not as sceptical as I am at Edmonton actually calling itself “Jazz City.” Jazz City? Edmonton? 2000 miles from the bayous? Edmonton has many virtues — it’s where I grew up — but Jazz City? C’mon.
However, my time in New Orleans, where the missus and I have spent the past week, has taught me the error of my ways. New Orleans is such an embracing city — of historical necessity, given the extraordinary collation of cultural influences here — that its citizens wouldn’t think to tell others that they couldn’t play its homegrown music. And if they don’t mind, who am I to argue?
Jazz began, of course, in the black neighbourhoods of New Orleans. If the blues, most likely produced in neighbouring Mississippi, was an expression of African-American grief, jazz was its exuberant flipside: a pure celebration of life, sound, amity, and invention. Both styles seemed inextricably linked to the people and culture that created them, which begged the question: if anyone else played jazz or blues, was it really jazz or blues, or just musical tourism? Was it not, in fact, just another form of blackface?
But the first thing one learns in New Orleans is not to sweat the small stuff — including piddly notions of who gets to do what. New Orleans’ motto is: everyone gets to do everything. That’s certainly true along Bourbon Street from about 6 pm to 4 a.m. seven days a week. And it’s reflected too in such traditions as Mardi Gras. As the current exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum makes clear, Mardi Gras can absorb and turn to its own purposes just about anything you want to throw at it: the classical fixations of the “Mystic Krewe” who started it, the satire of authority that only people who’d been colonized by the French, the Spanish, and the Americans could pull off with such aplomb, through to latest pop culture emissions: a recent edition of Mardi Gras had a “superheroes” theme. It’s a cultural mash-up, the most striking example of which are the Mardi Gras Indians — not Indians at all, but black men who dress in flamboyant versions of Plains Indian regalia that, at this point, have more to do with Vegas glitz than aboriginal custom.
Think they’re worried about being accused of cultural appropriation? What’s the matter with you, son?
New Orleans’ jazz continues to evolve also. On Sunday night at Preservation Hall, the modest, historic music venue to which many aficionados make a beeline as soon as they arrive in town, the midnight act was The New Orleans Bingo Show!
Comprised of seven young New Orleanians, the Bingo Show — which is indeed as much a show as it is a band — incorporates clowning, theremin music, singing through bullhorns, confetti, and, yes, bingo into the more familiar New Orleans mix of jazz, funk, gospel, and Cajun. (Cajun, of course, was itself the product of cross-pollination: Acadian fiddle and accordion music meeting West Africa beats.) It is, the guy tending bar advised me, “the new New Orleans,” though he also told me that when the old-timers from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band sit in with the youngsters, they all get along just fine.
So, I am chastened. Jazz is, like that other great American creation, Walt Whitman, able to contain multitudes. All I’d ask is that Canadian jazz performers find their own way to make it their own: mix it with Inuit throat music, say, or the organ riffs from Hockey Night in Canada. Think that sounds crazy? If you whispered the idea to somebody in New Orleans, they’d be performing it the next night in a bar on Bourbon Street.