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Gambit Weekly Music in '97: A Community Spirit

By Geraldine Wyckoff

DECEMBER 29, 1997:  While thinking about this year-end column, I tried to come up with a theme that would sum up the city's music scene. The thought of a cornucopia spilling over with notes kept popping into my head. I also envisioned a plate piled high with a variety of rich, delectable food as I remembered those nights when I was so fully satiated with music that I could barely think of consuming another chorus, another verse.

Still, the essence of the musical experience of 1997 -- an overall sense of the special nature of the New Orleans scene -- was still missing.

As I looked around at a crowd listening to Davell Crawford recently, it came to me. In just one song, Crawford magically wove together his New Orleans musical heritage -- jazz, gospel, blues and soul -- for an audience filled with hard-core music fans. And musicians from a myriad of musical styles drifted into the club to sit in or just sit back.

The sense of community was overwhelming. I realized that this fellowship between musicians and audiences had been at the core of my experiences throughout the year.

New Orleans has always had a close musical community. After all, many of the artists in this town of musical families are kin, and it's common for them to come off stage and head into the audience to socialize with friends and fans.

For whatever reason, this sense of camaraderie felt stronger than ever in 1997. It was -- like the name of Harold Battiste's record label -- an "All For One" kind of atmosphere that is a rarity in the often competitive world of music.

There are prime examples of great musical matches that resulted in memorable moments in the past year. Many knees weakened when Johnny Adams came down from the balcony at Tipitina's to join Aaron Neville in singing "Amazing Grace." The meeting of two of the most beautiful voices in New Orleans was even more poignant because of its setting: a benefit for Adams, who is fighting cancer. Adams made another trip to the stage that night to sing his first hit, "I Won't Cry," with Irma Thomas.

Pianist Henry Butler, who was increasingly active on the local scene, was a catalyst for some incredible sets. Guitarist Snooks Eaglin, for instance, teamed up with Butler at Rock 'N' Bowl, and Davell Crawford brought his B-3 organ to a gig at the Showcase. Butler also was involved in one of the great new gigs that heat up Sunday evenings -- playing with trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, drummer Shannon Powell, violinist Michael Ward, bassist Kevin Morris and percussionist/trumpeter (and Ruffins' uncle) Percy Williams.

Verve's Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton highlighted the year in releases.
Tuesday nights were made wilder when saxophonist Ed Petersen, pianist David Torkanowsky and percussionist Bill Summers climbed aboard the stage at Snug Harbor. All masters of their respective crafts, these three love the freedom to explore the music. Torkanowsky and Petersen were again on stage with bassist Chris Severin and drummer Herlin Riley in a stellar band backing Johnny Adams.

Also at Snug Harbor, the "Saxophone Revue" featured the rare and impressive combination of Petersen, Donald Harrison and Victor Goines. The percussion section of Summers and Riley, however, almost stole the show. (Riley once tapped out his rhythms on a nearby pipe.)

Vaughn's was the site of the "cutting session" of the year. Following a gig at House of Blues, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis went down to Kermit Ruffins' weekly date at the Bywater club for some further action. Trumpeter Leroy Jones also made the scene, which erupted into three hours of fireworks. In the small club, Marsalis and Jones got into each other's face, a horn-to-horn battle that was both ferocious and beautiful.

New Happenings

There were several new elements on the music scene that brought smiles to the faces of music lovers. The French Quarter Festival added a brass band stage near the river that was a huge hit with the crowd. The venue offered a mix of hot, upstart young bands and traditional units. Together, they gave fans a sense of history as well as the assurance that the music lives on.

In 1997, the New Orleans Jazz Historical National Park made its presence realized with the debut of its Summer Jazz Series in Congo Square. For about five hours every Saturday, all styles of jazz emanated from a big stage with a fine sound system -- for free. The lineups were impressive and showcased some of New Orleans' finest, including Ellis Marsalis, Donald Harrison and Alvin Batiste. Expect next year's concerts to begin a little later in the day (instead of 11 a.m.) in order to attract larger audiences. These performances definitely deserve it. With that change and more publicity, this series could really take off.

The newly installed New Orleans Walk of Fame on the Napoleon Avenue sidewalk in front of Tipitina's adds yet another shrine to our great musicians at the famous corner of Tchoupitoulas Street. Fittingly, Professor Longhair and Art Neville were the first two inductees.

On Disc

Record labels most active in recording Louisiana artists in the recent past -- Rounder, Verve, Blacktop and Maison de Soul/Swallow -- had another strong year. Thank goodness Verve had the insight to record Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton, a truly special album and Cheatham's last work. The label also was responsible for Gatemouth Brown's Gate Swings, a big-band disc celebrating Brown's 50th anniversary in the recording industry. Verve labelmates Mark Whitfield, Nicholas Payton and Christian McBride teamed up for Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock, and Whitfield released Forever Love.

Rounder had a slew of fine discs, including Johnny Adams' One Foot in the Blues, Irma Thomas' Story of My Life and two zydeco albums: Nathan Williams & the Zydeco Cha Chas' I'm a Zydeco Hog and Chris Ardoin & Double Clutchin's Goin' Be Just Fine. Also out this year were the Nightcrawlers' second CD, Funcknicity, and the swinging all-star release Mood Indigo with the Contemporary Arts Center Orchestra featuring Johnny Adams, Germaine Bazzle and George French.

Two live albums -- Dr. John's Trippin' Live (Surefire) and Snooks Eaglin's Live in Japan (Blacktop) -- proved that it's possible to capture the feeling of a live performance.

Floyd Soileau's labels made some big recordings in zydeco and Cajun, including Keith Frank's hot You'd Be Surprised (Maison de Soul) and Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys' Friday at Last (Swallow).

Allen Toussaint's NYNO label was active in its second year with releases from Larry Hamilton (Larry Hamilton) and the New Birth Brass Band (D-Boy) as well as A New Orleans Christmas.

Two discs came from the modern jazz scene, including Cloud 9, pianist Michael Pellera's beautiful debut as leader. Plus, the always strong ensemble work of Astral Project shone through on Elevado. Traditional jazz fans welcomed new work from instrumentalist Don Vappie & the Creole Jazz Serenaders on Creole Blues. And hot in the blues bins was Tabby Thomas' Tabby Thomas' Greatest Hits Vol. I.

Columbia had three significant local releases: Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields, Branford Marsalis' The Dark Keys and Leroy Jones' Props for Pops. Other fine jazz discs out last year were Donald Harrison's Nouveau Swing (Impulse) and Roland Guerin's The Winds of the New Land (Turnipseed). Brass bands were jumping, too, with ReBirth's We Come to Party (Shanacie) and Coolbone's Brass-Hop (Hollywood). Highlighting the blues field was Corey Harris' Fish Ain't Bitin' (Alligator), and Indian rhythms were in the air on Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias' 1313 Hoodoo Street.

A Special Anniversary

Big Chief Allison "Tootie" Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas Mardi Gras Indians celebrated 50 years as a masking Indian this year. Other Indians paid homage to Montana on Fat Tuesday, passing by his home in salute. As the sun set, crowds waited to see the Big Chief and his new "suit," which he proclaimed to be his last. (Though he might be inclined to return some day, we hope.) On Super Sunday, Montana walked slowly down Orleans Avenue, stopping to dance several times along the way. His heavy, stunning white crown was both his glory and his burden. When asked about its weight, Montana replied, "Somebody's got to do it." Montana also was honored by He's the Prettiest, an exhibit of his costumes at the New Orleans Museum of Art -- the first Indian work to be displayed at the prestigious institution.

Some of the Year's Best

In addition to the shows mentioned, here are some of the best performances -- in no particular order -- that I was privileged to hear in 1997. At House of Blues: Sonny Rollins (!), Baba Maal, Joshua Redman, Gatemouth Brown's Big Band, Peggy Scott-Adams, Burning Spear, Chaka Khan, R.L. Burnside and George Clinton (with horns). At Snug Harbor: Al Grey, Jon Cleary (solo), Steve Lacy, the Nicholas Payton Quintet with Tim Warfield, and Frank Morgan with drummer Jason Marsalis. At Donna's: the Dirty Dozen (Jazz Fest show), Leroy Jones with Wycliffe Gordan sitting in, and the Treme Brass Band. At Palm Court: Doc Cheatham. At Margaritaville: RAM (from Haiti) and Eddie Bo. At Audubon Zoo's Swamp Fest: Terrance Simien and Boozoo Chavis. At Howlin' Wolf: Snooks Eaglin. At Cafe Brasil: Don Vappie and the Creole Serenaders. At Tipitina's: the Kermit Ruffins Big Band. At Essence Festival: Solomon Burke and Dee Dee Bridgewater. On the street: Rebirth Brass Band and all of the social aid and pleasure clubs that make Sundays so special. And, of course, at Jazz Fest: all the mind-boggling talent.

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