With sweat pouring down the ebony face of the elderly woman, soaking her Sunday frock, her hefty frame convulses with the fervor of the Lord and the beat. As the gospel choir behind her joins in a rocking chorus of heavenly praise, the woman emits an unearthly but perfectly in-tune howl that billows to the roof of the huge tent. Her eyelids flutter and her eyeballs roll back in her head as she swoons backward and is caught by three scrambling male choir members in suits. They drag her -- now oblivious -- to a chair at the side of the stage, where several women in white dresses and flowered hats fan her madly with white handkerchiefs.
The thunderous cascade of gospel music, meanwhile, thumps on, the choir and a good portion of the audience clapping hands and dancing to rhythms at once venerable and bristling with vitality.
The scene is inside the Gospel Tent at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an event that has grown from relatively modest beginnings in 1970 into one of the world's great music festivals.
Outside, a brass band chugs through the crowd, the sunlight gleaming on trumpets, trombones and tubas blaring toward the blazing Louisiana sun. A sizable contingent of dancers, known as second liners, trails the band, churning to the syncopated beat of the snare and bass drums, while they twirl banners and umbrellas festooned with gaily colored ribbons and beads.
Nearby, a zydeco accordionist pumps out the wheezing R&B; of southwestern Louisiana, a Cajun fiddler spews out wild two-steps for hotfooted couples, be-bop drifts out of a far-off tent, rockers hold forth at one end of the 34-acre Fair Grounds racetrack while some neglected icon of classic New Orleans R&B; like Irma Thomas or Earl King or Allen Toussaint commands the other.
In the Crescent City, only Mardi Gras rivals the Jazz Fest in the amount of money pumped into the local economy and as a celebration of the unique and eccentric culture that entrances the most distinctly European city in the United States. For the thousands of music fanatics who flock to the city every April to indulge in a satiating ritual of phenomenal music, spicy cuisine and communing with the spirits of Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton and Professor Longhair, it is an essential pilgrimage that renews faith in the power of music as expression, community, art and exultation, not commercial product.
Experiencing the Jazz Fest, this year April 26 to May 5, is vastly different from simply trudging off to some anonymous arena for a bout of lip-syncing.
It is breathing the same muggy elixir that drives musicians to the brink of unconsciousness, like the gospel singer. It is getting caught up in parading second liners and letting the music entwine your soul and electrify your backbone. It is indulging in boiled crawfish, oyster po' boys and beer, and spurring yourself to exhaustion in futile pursuit of every note played by the 60-odd acts a day onstage at the Fair Grounds.
In a broader sense, it is immersing yourself in the peculiar rhythms and idiosyncratic charms of New Orleans, a city whose very soul is defined by music: Stumbling out into the morning sun after an all-night blues session at Tipitina's, the uptown club named for the signature tune of the late Professor Longhair, patron saint of the New Orleans music scene; crowding into Preservation Hall, a dingy, poorly lit, sparsely furnished room packed elbow to elbow with loud, Hurricane-guzzling Rotarians from Texas to hear the "Muskrat Ramble," "St. James Infirmary" or other traditional jazz played by octogenarians who still blow superbly; sipping potent daiquiris or mint juleps at an outdoor table in the French Market while a visiting band from England stomps up a Dixieland storm or local pianist Amasa Miller and saxophonist Reggie Houston explore South African jazz by Abdullah Ibrahim; or simply encountering one of the new breed of funky brass bands like the Rebirth holding forth on some street corner.
New Orleans streets seem to breed music and celebration spontaneously. It's not unusual for a full-fledged parade complete with a band and ecstatic revelers to suddenly sprout somewhere uptown in the Irish Channel, for instance, then quickly disappear into a neighborhood bar like Parasol's for shrimp loaves and iced mugs of Dixie beer.
One time, years ago in midafternoon, a familiar shuffling beat and unmistakable piano triplets emanated from the yard behind a grammar school. Further inspection revealed the great Longhair, set up next to a banana tree, energetically playing for a couple of dozen 10-year-olds.
The rhythm of New Orleans is not that of 20th century America, despite the cement stumps that elevate Interstate 10 through the heart of town, some of the ugliest suburbs this side of Cleveland, and the handful of sterile skyscrapers leering across Canal Street at the French Quarter's narrow streets of aged brick buildings, wrought-iron balconies and leafy courtyards.
In many ways it is a small Southern town, often shrouded in fog that seeps in from the surrounding swamps, Spanish moss dangling from the live oaks and dank with the kind of faded, vaguely tragic gentility found in the works of William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Sherwood Anderson and Lafcadio Hearn, all whom once lived and wrote in the Vieux Carre.
That quality is readily accessible to even mildly adventurous visitors. If you go to the Jazz Fest, make a point of getting beyond the Fair Grounds and the gaudy nightclubs and strip joints on Bourbon Street.
The French Quarter is a wonderful place to wander. Royal Street is lined with antiques shops, galleries and eccentric emporiums selling everything from African totems and art prints of ruined plantation houses by photographer Clarence John Laughlin to voodoo paraphernalia and T-shirts emblazoned with the proper method for consuming boiled crawfish: "Suck da head, squeeze da tail."
The back streets of the Quarter sport corner groceries, bars of every persuasion, elegantly painted Creole cottages and balconies dense with hanging ferns, flowering plants and multiple strands of Mardi Gras beads.
Just north of the Quarter is St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, one of the city's oldest boneyards. Narrow avenues of whitewashed, raised mausoleums form an eerie necropolis of shadows and light. Among those interred is voodoo queen Marie Laveau, whose tomb is covered with dozens of Xs made by those seeking supernatural assistance. Circled Xs indicate fulfilled desires.
Because of the cemetery's isolated crevices, it's wisest to go there in a group. The National Park Service, whose office is in the French Market, conducts excellent free walking tours of the cemetery.
One perfect refuge in the Quarter is the Napoleon House, built in 1797 and once planned as the emperor's retreat in a scheme to rescue him from exile. Now it is a classic New Orleans bar, where you can sit in an interior courtyard or by French doors that open onto the sidewalk, sipping tall, cool Pimm's Cups or more serious drinks like Sazeracs, originally made with absinthe.
At the Central Grocery, an ancient Italian market on Decatur Street, you can get a muffaletta -- meat, cheese and marinated olive salad on a round loaf of Italian bread -- grab a can of Dixie beer and sit on the Moonwalk atop the nearby levee, watching freighters ply the Mississippi River, or under the oaks in Jackson Square, in front of the spindly spires of St. Louis Cathedral and flanked by the 1850s-vintage Pontalba Buildings.
For a respite from the crowded Quarter, take the streetcar
uptown. It runs in the grassy "neutral ground" between the lanes of mansion-lined St. Charles Ave., turns up Carrollton before ending at Claiborne and returns along the same route.
South of St. Charles between Jackson and Louisiana avenues is the heart of the Garden District, a 19th century architectural treasury of white-columned, Greek Revival houses and lush, semitropical gardens.
Still closer to the river, and running parallel to St. Charles, is Magazine Street, an intriguing hodgepodge of elegant antiques shops, seafood markets, bars, junk shops, musty places selling used books and records, and curious restaurants like the narrow, entirely white-tiled Casamento's.
The Magazine bus or the St. Charles streetcar head either back to Canal St. or farther uptown to Audubon Park, a tranquil expanse of live oaks that extends from St. Charles to the river. Adjacent to the levee is the Audubon Zoo, immortalized in song by the Meters. Once an atrocity, the zoo was rebuilt several years ago with a minimum of cages and is now a prime example of progressive zoo design.
Within a few hours' drive outside New Orleans toward Baton Rouge are grand plantation houses along River Road, and farther west, the down-home charms of the soggy prairies and bayous of Cajun country.
But as Ignatius J. Reilly, the bloated hero of John Kennedy Toole's comic masterpiece "A Confederacy of Dunces," said, "Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins."
Safe within New Orleans, the oleander and the azaleas and the magnolia trees always seems to be in bloom, the oysters are plump, the gumbo is spicy and the music never stops.
As Randy Newman, who spent part of his childhood in the Crescent City, once said, it's the land of dreams.
For more information on Jazz Fest, write the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 1205 N. Rampart St., P.O. Box 53407, New Orleans, La. 70116; telephone (504) 522-4786. For information on the city write New Orleans Tourist and Convention Commission, 1520 Sugar Bowl Drive (Superdome), New Orleans, La. 70112; telephone (504) 566-5065.
If you go . . .
Music, natch, is the primary reason to go to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and music is what you'll get in such abundance it can leave you stunned with anticipation and frustration even before you trek out to the Fair Grounds.
The infield of the venerable racetrack, easily accessible from the French Quarter by public transportation (or charter buses, whose price includes admittance to the grounds), is crammed with 10 music stages -- some outdoors, some inside huge tents -- that operate continuously (except for set changes) from about 11:15 a.m. to 7 p.m. for three days each (Friday, Saturday, Sunday) on consecutive weekends.
In addition, at least two lengthy parades snake through the grounds daily, there's a tent with entertainment specifically for kids, more than 50 food booths offer everything from crawfish pie to Creole stuffed crabs, and dozens of folk and contemporary crafts artisans display their wares and expertise.
The array of talent and diversity of music offered at the Fest are initially daunting to contemplate since so many artists play simultaneously. To preserve your sanity, planning is a must.
In addition, more formal evening concerts are sponsored by the Jazz Fest throughout the festival's 10 days. These take place either in an immense tent set up adjacent to the river downtown or in a couple of theaters in or near downtown. It's wisest to order evening concert tickets as soon as they go on sale (usually mid-March). Ticket prices generally run in the $15-25 range.
Fair Grounds tickets are less than $10 in advance, an incredible bargain considering an average of 60 performances daily.
Knight-Ridder News Service