Live From Jazzfest: New Orleans Celebrates Its Gift To The World
Just as Kermit Ruffins sang "Sunny Side of the Street" with trumpet in hand, an early morning sun shone powerfully across North Rampart Street in New Orleans onto Congo Square. Two centuries ago, enslaved Africans and free people of color drummed and danced here each Sunday, exerting their right to free expression as their masters prayed at church, seeding the beat of the earliest jazz and just about all New Orleans music to follow. Nowhere else in the North American colonies had slaves been allowed to play their drums, let alone freely assemble. For anyone with even a passing knowledge of local culture here, Congo Square means serious history and sacred ground.
Ruffins had a cooler full of Bloody Marys waiting in the wings. It wasn't yet 8 a.m. He doesn't often rise this early, let alone perform. It's unlikely that most of the several hundred people assembled before a temporary stage would typically have been up and out just then either, on the Monday morning following the first weekend of the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where local and national stars filled ten stages through three full days.
But here, for no admission charge, was an assemblage of hometown heroesalong with Ruffins and among others, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, clarinetist Michael White, pianist Ellis Marsalis, drummer Herlin Riley, and the Treme Brass Band. Before the performances and some speechifying, a cadre of hand drummers and dancers did their thing. They were led by Luther Gray, whose Congo Square Foundation lobbied successfully to place Congo Square on the National Register of Historic Places in 1993, and who leads weekly drum circles on the spot. Then came pianist Herbie Hancock. He played one of his classics, "Watermelon Man," with an ensemble drawn from the high school players that have been mentored through the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, of which he is chairman. The group included trumpeter Glenn Hall III, who first gained national attention as a displaced 10-year-old in Spike Lee's documentary When The Levees Broke, and now is the confident leader of the upstart Baby Boyz Brass Band and a student at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Meanwhile, a large video screen offered remote feeds of simultaneous performances of Hancock's song, a virtual cross-cultural jam. Through his role as special ambassador for UNESCO, Hancock had instigated this event, one of three high-profile concerts (the others were in New York and Paris) to mark April 30th as "International Jazz Day," a worldwide celebration of jazz as "a universal music of freedom and creativity," as he put it.