The musical spirit of New Orleans is uniquely kinetic. It’s evolved over three centuries since the original celebratory gatherings of African slaves in the Tremé neighborhood, integrating other musical forms and instruments among the city’s ethnically diverse inhabitants. Propelled in large part by the annual Mardi Gras parades, begun in the mid-19th century, the sounds of New Orleans have long attracted attention outside Louisiana.
Next Saturday, Aug. 27, Blue Note Napa keeps the spirit moving with an array of Crescent City musical performers, brought to the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena for what’s billed as “NAPA/NOLA: A Day of New Orleans Music and Food.”
David Lefkowitz, who booked this event and serves the global Blue Note Entertainment Group as vice president of talent, got to hear the music up close at Mardi Gras and the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival while he was in college at Duke University. “And I really got bit by the funk of it,” he says by phone from Philadelphia, singling out the Neville Brothers, of whom “I was a huge fan.”
After time booking venues in the Bay Area and working with global promoter Anschutz Entertainment Group, Lefkowitz was hired by Blue Note at the beginning of this year. Steven Bensusan, co-owner of the Blue Note conglomerate, and Ken Tesler, co-owner of Blue Note Napa, “came to me right at the beginning of my time with Blue Note and said, ‘We want to do a day of New Orleans music in Napa, and we’ll incorporate our food component in that,’” Lefkowitz relates. “I couldn’t have been more excited to hear that. The Meters/Neville Brothers zone would have been a focal point, but for better or for worse, most of the representatives of that lineage were already on another show [in the area]. Luckily, I’m pretty good friends with [guitarist] Leo Nocentelli, so we’ve got the Meters thing represented.” (Nocentelli features on the NAPA/NOLA lineup.)
The Meters had formed up in New Orleans in 1965 and included Nocentelli as well as Art Neville on keyboards. The band later recruited Art’s brother Cyril and continued after Art, Cyril, Aaron, and Charles combined as the Neville Brothers in 1976. “On a good night, the Meters were as important to New Orleans and funk music as the classic John Coltrane Quartet was to jazz,” says Harry Duncan, who assisted the Meters on their American and European tours with the Rolling Stones in 1975 and ’76 and will be spinning discs as NAPA/NOLA’s concert DJ. “The Stones brought the Meters with them to study them,” he continues. “[Mick] Jagger used to watch Cyril, and Keith Richards would watch Leo. Leo rhythmically integrated a lot of the second-line drum tradition [associated with the tradition of brass-band parades through the streets of New Orleans, some of them at funeral time]. But Leo is also an innovator and a revolutionary.”
Duncan, who also DJs Sunday evenings over KCSM and includes funk, jazz, blues, and world music on his “In the Soul Kitchen” playlists, should be credited with whetting the Bay Area’s appetite for New Orleans music and culture in the 1970s. “Rupert Surcouf [sometime road manager for the Meters] and I did two Mardi Gras Mambos, first at the Boarding House and then at the Old Waldorf, and on one of the Monterey Jazz Festival’s blues afternoons” notes Duncan. “We introduced the Neville Brothers to the Bay Area and brought in Professor Longhair, Dr. John, and the Wild Tchoupitoulas.”
The latter group was a spinoff from the “tribes” of Mardi Gras Indians, a tradition of African Americans parading in costumes evoking Native American powwow outfits, honoring the period of the mid-18th century when escaped slaves took refuge in Native settlements in the Louisiana bayous. The Golden Eagles Tribe is represented at NAPA/NOLA by 81-year-old Joseph “Big Chief Monk” Boudreaux, a National Heritage Award recipient. Lefkowitz credits Boudreaux as one of the first vocalists “to establish that combination of funk and Mardi Gras Indian chants, back in the early ’70s with the Wild Magnolias.”
“I’m sure Monk will be clad in his costume from the latest Mardi Gras,” adds Duncan. “The costumes are extraordinarily ornate, all custom-made, and people are often sewing right up till Mardi Gras morning.” Thousands of dollars go into the fabulously colorful arrays of feathers, beads, and embroidery.
Both Boudreaux and Nocentelli will be backed at NAPA/NOLA by what Duncan calls “a good, sturdy band,” fronted by keyboardist John “Papa” Gros, a staple of New Orleans jam sessions. “John, among other good things, is a big disciple of Art Neville,” says Duncan.
Also on the bill is Raw Oyster Cult, which includes four members of The Radiators, another legendary jam band. “They’re a real focus for me because some of my friends are just obsessed with these guys,” offers Lefkowitz. “They’ve been an active touring band for decades.” And Duncan, during the six years he booked Slim’s, presented the Cult and hosted the recording of Nocentelli: Live in San Francisco (DJM Records, 1997), with fellow founding Meters member Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on drums.
The bright, soulful sound of second line, elevated to national and international popularity by the likes of Trombone Shorty and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, will be channeled at NAPA/NOLA by the Grammy-winning Rebirth Brass Band, “who still march in the streets,” Duncan points out. “They’re very inspired and focused ... but at the same time, they’re free-swinging, almost harmolodic, like in Ornette Coleman’s concept. It’s not just getting up there and blowing.”
The combination of timelessness and vitality conveyed by New Orleans music remains a role model for other parts of the country. While in New Orleans earlier this year to support his alma mater in the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, Lefkowitz was invited by Nocentelli to his rehearsal for the Jazz & Heritage Festival. The guitarist based his set on 50-year-old master tapes, thought to have been lost in Hurricane Katrina but rediscovered at an Orange County flea market. His album Another Side, highlighting some of those flea market discoveries, was put out by Light in the Attic Records late last year, to critical acclaim. A posthumous final album by Dr. John, Things Happen That Way, also featuring Aaron Neville, will be released by Rounder Records on Sept. 23. Laissez les bon temps rouler!