What's That Beautiful Sound?

Two weekends of happy fun dancing jazz times are coming up in New Orleans, starting the weekend of April 22 and running through May 1. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is so large I can only really grasp it in the same sense that I grasp how fast light travels, i.e. pretty fast and pretty big.

When the Jazz Fest started 35 years ago there were about 350 attendees who had a fantastic time. There were nearly twice that many performers and you might have thought the Festival was in trouble but by the very next year it had outgrown its Congo Square beginnings. And now it's not just an event it’s a cultural icon. But it's not just a cultural icon; it's a dizzyingly wonderful time.

We're going to get to the performers in a second but first I want to talk about some other elements of Jazz Fest. Can I just tell you that it has tons of food? And when I say food I am not joking around here. Do you want some gator? Smothered chicken, smothered cabbage, fried pork chop sandwich? Pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo sound good? Spicy crawfish sushi roll? Po boys you say? Oh there are po boys here to make you weep! How about fried frog legs and coconut shrimp? Eleventy seven times infinity kinds of pie suit you? Do we even know what roman chewing candy might be? I don't but I would give it a try just for fun. What's that? You say you are watching your weight? Don't be silly, nobody diets at Jazz Fest. You don't eat meat? How about grilled veggie pita and couscous with yogurt sauce?

Really all this incredible, diverse music and fabulous food would be quite enough to make me happy for months and months but there is even more. The variety of handcrafted goods for sale is pretty exciting. There are leather masks and beautiful mud cloths. There are glassblowers as well as glass casters. There is jewelry of divers types and materials. There are wooden figures, wooden toys, wood carving demonstrations by tribal elders and wooden tools and bowls. There are Zydeco, Egyptian, Ghanaian musical instruments as well as some others billed simply as unique and handmade. (Doesn't that sound intriguing?) There is wool and silk and batik and knitting and leather and really, maybe you better leave your credit cards at home because you could end up in the poorhouse if you are not careful.

Please do bring your family. There is a kid's tent with a storyteller and the New Orleans School of Circus Arts. There is also a music-art-dance-drama workshop and lots of different kinds of music including steel drums and a traditional African dance company. But that's not all. The Hobgoblin Hill Puppet Theater will be performing "traditional tales featuring alligators." (I'm pretty sure they mean alligator puppets, but you never know.) The Kids Tent will also be the place to find what sounds like a areole spiffy event, a jazz version of Peter and the Wolf. I bet that is grand.

Now let's talk about the music. Quint Davis, producer/director of Jazz Fest, said, “Think of New Orleans and New Orleans music as the center of the music universe. Any music you can trace to or from that hub is music we’ve worked with renewed vigor to infuse into the party. Gospel, Jazz, Blues, Funk, Rock, Cajun, Zydeco, Latin, R&B, Jam, Mardi Gras, Hip Hop, African, and a whole lotta music you can’t put into any one category will be presented in the powerful way that only Jazz Fest can serve up such a celebration.” Wow, sounds like you might end up with kid in the candy store syndrome and be paralyzed with indecision so you end up seeing nothing at all. I made some choices of shows that I think should be seen because the performers are you know musical legends and all that (or I just really, really dig them), others who have names that I liked and those who said something in their bio that caught my eye. In alphabetical order we have:

I say Elvis Costello & the Imposters is a don't miss. He's written songs with Paul McCartney, he's performed with many, many rock luminaries. He and his former band the Attractions became members of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2003. Now he's branched out into writing ballet and opera. This will be an interesting show. Sat., April 30 – Sprint/Sanyo Stage, 5:30 p.m.

Isaac Hayes is another member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He's also a member of the royal family of Ghana, a King to be precise. He's pretty down to earth for royalty and plays the voice of Chef on South Park. He did the music for the original "Shaft" and has been a backbone of R&B for more than 40 years. Sun., May 1 – Congo Square Stage, 5:45 p.m.

Ingrid Lucia has been performing since she was eleven when she got her start on the streets of the French Quarter playing washboard bass in her family band. They did cover songs from artists as diverse as Porno for Pyros to Tony Bennett. Her voice has been described as "Billy Holiday meets Betty Boop." Sat., April 23 – Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, 6 p.m.; Sun., April 24 – Lagniappe Stage, 4:30 p.m.

The Dave Matthews Band is famous for their creative riffs on songs during their live performances. Originally from South Africa this band has a wide range of music and some of the swooniest lyrics I have ever heard. Sat., April 30 – Acura Stage, 5:20 p.m.

The R. Carlos Nakai Quartet sounds really interesting. Nakai's philosophy is "...We were put on the earth to experience life in its totality. And if you're not doing that, you're essentially wasting your time." He is the world's greatest Native American flutist with 27 commercial albums to his credit. When he started researching his people's heritage he found that the Diné had a fabulous history of flute playing but that the art had been lost 500 years ago. By mastering the cedar flute he has created a bridge from the past to the present. Sun., April 24 – Lagniappe Stage, 3:05 p.m.

I freely admit I know nothing about this band except for their name but I like it. New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra Sat., April 23 – Economy Hall Tent, 1:45 p.m.

Here is another band that has a cool name but they also have a great bio. Old Crow Medicine Show "(BLUES/RAG/JUG-BAND/ECLECTIC) With fiddles and banjos blazing, this young acoustic group is stirring things up with its interpretation of pre-World War II blues, fiddle tunes, rags, hollers, hokum and jug-band music." Don't we all need more hollers and hokum in our lives? I know I do. Plus how can you pass up the name of that stage? Sat., April 30 – Sheraton Fais Do-Do Stage, 4:30 p.m.

I'm a little leery of the Palmetto Bug Stompers. While the "good-time vibe and dance-inducing rhythms" sound good to me these guys sound messy and like you should maybe not sit in the front row of their show. Sat., April 30 – Economy Hall Tent, 11:10 a.m.

Practically an institution unto itself, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is devoted to keeping traditional New Orleans jazz alive and well. Sun., April 24 – Economy Hall Tent, 6 p.m.

Six time Grammy winner and Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame member James Taylor is another legend in the pop music world. An extremely talented and prolific singer/songwriter, he continues to improve his craft. His most recent release is a Christmas album. Sat., April 23 – Acura Stage, 5:40 p.m.

Author of what could arguably be called the best album of 2004, Wilco is an amazing band that is constantly changing and growing. Each new release is different from the last. The latest, A Ghost Is Born, won a Grammy for Best Alternative Album. I would go to Jazz Fest just to see Wilco. They are that good. Fri., April 22 – Sprint/Sanyo Stage, 5:35 p.m.

Brian Wilson is a legend of the rock world. This incredibly gifted singer/songwriter is currently touring in support of his CD Smile, an album that some thought would never see the light of day. Read more in this week's Boomer Box by Mark Fogarty. Sun., April 24 – Acura Stage, 5:30 p.m.

Linnzi Zaorski is described as "channeling long-ago jazz divas." I am fascinated by this idea. I don't know how whoever wrote her bio meant it but I am taking it literally and would expect that she will actually allow the voices of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to come through while she sings. That's what I call entertainment. Fri., April 29 – Economy Hall Tent, 2:55 p.m.

The Zulu Male Ensemble gospel choir is part of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. Ladies do we need to hear anything else or does that just about cover it? Sun., April 24 – Rhodes Gospel Tent, 11 a.m.

In remembrance - Cootie Stark was one of the very last of the Piedmont bluesmen. He had been described as "a breathing music-box library of the blues." He was not just an extremely talented man; he was also a link to the greats of the 1930s. He was scheduled to play on Friday April 29 but unfortunately his age (79) and the hard life of a bluesman on the road caught up with him and he died on the 16th. Rest in peace.