NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The 49th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival opened Friday — a sun-drenched affair where the joy was tempered only by news of the death of a New Orleans music idol.
Charles Neville, a saxophone player since the 1950s and a stalwart for three decades with the Neville Brothers Band, died Thursday.
“He was a huge part of the New Orleans music scene and really important to all of us” said Amanda McFillen as she showed off a picture of Neville posing with a young Harry Connick Jr., at the 1989 Jazz Fest. The image was on sale at a booth for the Historic New Orleans Collection museum, where McFillen is an associate director.
“I definitely think there’ll be some tributes here over the next few days,” McFillen said as a Cajun band tuned up on a nearby stage.
For years the Nevilles were a traditional closing act at the popular festival that caters to a wide variety of tastes in food, music and art.
Sting closed out opening day Friday evening, drawing throngs to one of the largest stages with favorites including “Synchronicity II” and “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic.” But even his performance was scheduled simultaneously with a variety of other acts — including rock, blues, brass, and gospel — the culmination of a day that would see well over 60 acts perform on more than a dozen stages.
The festival takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course, a venerable New Orleans horse track. Most of the action happens on the large infield, but there are also exhibits and food in the grandstand building.
Members of Charles Neville’s family remain a part of Jazz Fest.
Brother Aaron is scheduled for a May 4 performance. Charles’ daughter, singer Charmaine Neville, is scheduled for a May 5 performance, the same day Aaron’s son Ivan performs with his band Dumpstaphunk.
The group Bamboula 2000 was preparing to launch into a set of its Afro-Caribbean-influenced New Orleans soul on the Jazz and Heritage Stage. Fiddle music pealed from the nearby Cultural Exchange Pavilion. And in a roped-off area between the two there was a different kind of music: the rhythm of hatchets hitting hardwood, occasionally broken by the whine of a chainsaw.
August “Cocoa” Creppel, vice principal chief of the United Houma Nation, an American Indian tribe, was among a group demonstrating the crafting of a dugout canoe.
“This is what our people used to use to go fishing and hunting, back hundreds of years ago,” said Creppel.
“Years ago, they didn’t use tools,” Creppel said. “They would burn out the inside and they would use shells to scrape it out.”
It was the Houma nation’s first demonstration of canoe-making at the festival, Creppel said, although they have sold food at past Jazz Fests.
The diversity of cultural influences at the annual spring festival is one of the reasons he likes to be there. “It’s a great place to be. We get to come here and share our culture with so many people from all over the world.”
Just as musical offerings at Jazz Fest go beyond jazz into rock, Cajun, brass, hip-hop and more, the food choices go beyond the boundaries of New Orleans and south Louisiana favorites.
Yes, there are poor boy sandwiches stuffed with shrimp or crab or duck or any number of other delicacies. There is jambalaya and fried chicken, greens and other soul food. But there’s also grilled lamb offered by a Tunisian restaurant; a variety of Asian dishes, including pan fried noodles and seaweed; and cucumber salad offered by a catering business called Ajun Cajun.
Cultural-cuisine mashups also are evident. One booth offers yaka mein that you can follow up with a traditional bread pudding dessert. Ajun Canjun offers a Yakiniku poor boy (stuffed with garlicky beef); another booth offers a savory pastry with a name that suggests German influence but a stuffing that is pure Louisiana: crawfish strudel.