Chasing the blues away.

Author:Powell, Lawrence N.

Letter from New Orleans - Jazz fest to sooth New Orleans - Report


Even though many vital signs remain weak, a feeling of quasi-normality is starting to return to New Orleans. Meter maids armed with Wi-Fi contraptions are writing almost as many parking tickets as they wrote before the storm. The Department of Public Works is finally restoring traffic signals at major intersections and fixing potholes on cratered streets that had begun to resemble the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Mounds of curbside debris in some badly flood-damaged neighborhoods suggest that former residents are gutting their ruined houses to rebuild.

Then there's the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the spring event that ran on two consecutive weekends in April and May. Now in its 38th year, Jazzfest has grown into the largest outdoor musical event in the world and probably the only one with food tents that have received rave reviews from The New York Times. Since Hurricane Katrina landed late in August 2005, Jazzfest has been a harbinger of the future and a metaphor for what's gone right and what's gone wrong in New Orleans. The city's surprisingly competitive National Football League team set an optimistic tone last fall and winter. "You couldn't have asked for a better season out of the Saints," Quint Davis, the Jazzfest's producer and director, told The Times-Picayune on the eve of the festival. "Now it's our turn to go for the Super Bowl of jazz fests."

Boosters of this sort have proliferated after American civic disasters at least as far back as the Chicago fire of 1871, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin is not an exception. He's repeatedly promised a bigger and better New Orleans. And of course President George W. Bush, speaking to a national television audience from a darkened Jackson Square 17 days after Katrina, made a similar pledge: "We will not just rebuild; we will build higher and better." The difference between Quint Davis and elected officials is that the former has delivered on his boast. The festival this year was bigger and more entertaining than many previous ones.

Last year's festival was a minor miracle just for happening, since eight months earlier 80 percent of the city had lain submerged. Flood waters had inundated the New Orleans Fair Grounds--a 10-minute drive from the French Quarter--where the festival has been held since 1972. A scaled-back affair, the 2006 event was pitched mainly to a local audience as a tonic for battered souls. Its festiveness felt forced; like a traditional jazz funeral that can't quite cut loose, the mood was that of a dirge punctuated here and there by outbursts of joy. So many people had lost jobs and opportunities, homes and loved ones. Even Bruce Springsteen's exuberant closing set on the first weekend's final day failed to dispel all lingering Katrina blues. The fate of New Orleans seemed to hang by a thread of federal indifference.

This year was different. There were more stages, the marketing was more aggressive, and more big-name artists performed, among them Rod Stewart, Norah Jones, Brad Paisley, and Ludacris. The crowds were bigger, too, starting with a packed opening day, and the mood more ebullient. A year earlier, performers entreated former residents and visitors to return to New Orleans; this year, mammoth loudspeakers blared "We are back!" The Jazzfest nation turned out in force, parading in all its often...

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