Back in the day, Boyfriend worked at New York’s Village Gate. And there, Miles Davis performed within a few feet of him. Man oh man, to see the Man. And there I was in Mobile having only met Jim Nabors a.k.a. Gomer of Mayberry. Okay, I was young and it was Mobile for god’s sake. I would continue for years to be far removed from the physicality of extreme talent; relegated to only know them via vinyl. Still, nothing will ever diminish the moment of clarity and near euphoria when I heard John Coltrane for the first time, pouring his heart out to me from the radio.
Regardless of the constrictions Mobile may have placed upon in-the-flesh music experiences, I did see the Jackson Five back when the talented Michael was black and the only paparazzi were twelve year old girls with their brownie cameras. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez also performed for us, both with one eye over their shoulders for the police that feared some Commie take-over. And our homegrown Jimmy Buffet was a bit of an over-saturation after a point.
Oh, there was Woodstock…at the Loop Theater in mid-town Mobile. But in those days that was a big deal, especially to our parents—you’d think we’d actually hitch-hiked to the festival, lost our virginity, and joined up to over-throw the country (not a bad idea). With Woodstock being an exception, music then, for the most part, was heard and visualized with our own experiences. This was before MTV handed us a fictional memory of a song. When I put Joni Mitchell’s Blue on the turntable I time travel back forty years to every sight, smell, emotion. My personal memory, not some Youtube video.
To contradict myself somewhat, I am a total geek for musicals, either on film or stage. So I guess you could say I have allowed Cole Porter and Gershwin to give me memories complete with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Seeing music performed live not only gives you your own emotional place in time, it allows you to see where the magic originates. Those sounds that soak deep into your every sense, down to your bones. They come alive from brass and ivory, strings and wood; and that metamorphosis is something to witness.
This will be my twentieth Jazz Fest. And I have had my own Village Gate moments right here—not in a smoke-filled bar but under a tent where on a hot day there is no denying the impact of generations of racing horses. Scents of hay, manure and earth simply become part of the ambiance of Jazz Fest. Jazz and horses so intertwine at our Fair Grounds that regardless of which season it is, racing or festing, you have trouble separating the two.
Jazz Fest is a sensory over-load of the best kind. Food is everywhere--constantly cooking, grilling, boiling. The air is thick with savory meats, peppery crawfish, warm beers, and sugary confections. Occasionally Sweet Olive and Ligustrum will catch a ride on a humid breeze, cut pass the foods and soften the tang of sweat, port-o-lets, and sunscreen.
Jazz Fest is physical. The clapping alone tones my arms better than lifting weights. Then there’s dancing and jumping-up to further applaud, walks to and from the beer booth and the corresponding bathroom breaks which will test your coordination. It takes agility to maneuver an alfresco restroom: balance beer in one hand, hold clothing away from the not-to-be-looked-into depths of the latrine and, for the ladies, the required squat (never sit in a port-o-let); all this takes grace and determination. Then, back to the stage for more clapping, appreciative whistles, hoots and hollers, and…more clapping. No one said this would be easy.
The appreciation of music is subjective and thanks to this the variety is almost overwhelming. Jazz Fest embraces far more than its namesake: rock, blues, gospel, hip hop, Zydeco, funk, soul, country and the beat goes on. Despite the abundance of music offered I still go straight to my WWOZ Jazz Tent.
When I first laid claim to the Jazz Tent it was on the far side of the track and sat upon dirt carpeted with hay and perhaps some canvas. I recall the pungent smell of horses and mud on rainy days—it was grand. Since then the tent has moved twice but inside the experience and the audience has steadfastly remained familiar.
In the audience are the faces I have grown to know through the years, some having become friends. Curtis was my first. We met nineteen years ago. I was offered a seat next to these two Mobile guys, Curtis and his best friend Marshall. They’d arrive by chartered bus both weekends every year, sometimes with wives and other friends. They were old school. Knew every jazz artist and surely had a mountain of vinyl back home. Curtis would sip his beer and talk and laugh and teach me to hear the nuances that my ears missed.
Some time back Curtis and his wife, Juanita, began to shorten time spent at the Fest to attend the annual Kentucky Derby that they love (the second weekend of Jazz Fest). And then, the year Curtis broke the sad news to me of Marshall’s passing I knew I would begin to see him less and less.
I’d met Juanita a couple of times at the Fest, but mostly came to know her from whenever I phoned Curtis. She would greet my calls as if I was family and not some crazy white girl pestering. And through the years the telephone has been the only constant. Maybe my friend will board that bus this year. If so, Jazz Fest will be far more memorable for having Curtis to share it with.
The Jazz Tent is personal to me. I am home every year with that first step inside my tent. And all over the Fair Grounds there are folks who claim their certain tent, stage, or patch of grass where reunions take place and friendships grow.
It all comes back to the common denominator that brings us all together—the music. And while I may never have seen Miles or Coltrane live, I have my own experiences that I will talk about for the years to come. I have been in the presence of legends and witnessed the years fall away as they would perform—age never tarnishing their talents. And to have watched the young men and women that are following in the footsteps of such luminaries become over the years giants in their own ranks, especially our homegrown talents, make me proud and hopefully that great music will continue.
What can I say—Jazz Fest is magic, pure and simple.