NEW ORLEANS — Aerosmith drew a huge crowd and smaller but still packed crowds boogied to Cage the Elephant, Delbert McClinton and Anita Baker and a rousing mix of other musical acts as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival wound up its next-to-last day.
Once a relatively small affair, the festival now in its 49th year draws hundreds of thousands of people to a 7-day celebration of all things music, reflecting the rich diversity of a river city now celebrating its tri-centennial. There was jazz, of course, but also Cajun, zydeco, roots rock, African rhythms, Latin groups and traditional music from Canada to the Republic of Congo.
Sweating, swaying and so packed at times that they could hardly move, the people singing along to Aerosmith’s “Sweet Misery” and “Living on the Edge” had no choice but to surrender to the experience.
“There’s nowhere to go, no way to get there. It’s like critical density,” said Jeff Baker of Fort Collins, Colorado.
Some came with one band or genre in mind, and stayed to soak up many others.
Greg Garrison, himself an amateur musician — he plays penny whistle with the New Orleans Strathspey and Reel Society — caught the last two numbers of The East Pointers, a Canadian Celtic band with Acadian roots, and wanted to hear more: “I’ve never heard sets that combine jigs and reels and Appalachian style banjo,” he said.
Garrison followed the East Pointers to the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, where the plank floor shook as people old and young, bald and tattooed, bounced and danced in time to the music. Saturday’s performers there included a group from Congo, a Latin band and a tribute to Louis Armstrong.
His daughter had headed in another direction, to get to Cage the Elephant with an hour to work through the crowd and toward the stage.
Earlier in the day, two of the grand masters of traditional jazz kicked off the heritage interviews. Clarinetist Dr. Michael White and trumpeter Gregg Stafford talked about the early days of jazz in New Orleans, and how music drew them in, even when they had other plans.
“I never aspired to become a musician,” White said. “I heard all the stereotypes. I wanted to eat; I wanted a home.”
Paying close attention was Kathy Moss, an attorney from New Orleans. “I like to listen to a lot of jazz but I’m not very educated about it,” she said. “I want to discover what’s behind the music I love so much.”