The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. tribute concert is one of those events whose magnitude is only grasped by those in the know. It’s free. It’s always packed beyond capacity. It’s in a chapel. And this year, Nicholas Payton was on trumpet, so I was ready for a spiritual experience.
“Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement” was held on Dillard University’s campus and featured expressions of gratitude for MLK’s legacy as well as a few selections from their choir before the pros hit the stage. I marveled at the choir’s harmonizing as well as the Mariah-esque high notes that one of the seniors managed to hit.
Payton, along with Donald Harrison, Max Moran, Herlin Riley and David Torkanowsky - The Nu Orleans Nu Legends (as they dubbed themselves) - hit the stage at around eight. As I craned my neck to see Payton in his usual tilted-fedora, pocket-square’d glory, I realized that it wasn’t the scale of the crowd that surprised me, but the demographic. These were grown folks – people who craved the true-to-the-city and passionate musical tribute to Dr. King so much that they didn’t mind the lack of a bar in the venue. I minded until the music started.
The tone was celebratory as the band played Payton’s “The Backwards Step.” His “I Want to Stay in New Orleans” – complete with vocals and the bounce of a second line - also incited emotive loyalty from the crowd. Riley’s composition skills shone as well, as the band played some of his originals. Harrison’s sax breakdown toward the middle of the set made me blush like a sinner in church. I was in it now, and I forgotten all about why I was here. But somewhere between the horns and the percussion, movement had just turned into force. To me, it was an honest and powerful way to honor a legacy of monumental proportion.
South African singer and guitarist Jonathan headlined, his band emphasizing songs of liberation. During a cover of Mariam Makeba’s “Pata Pata,” Butler riffed with the audience about his inspirational exchange with the activist and how she taught him how to dance to it. Butler found his groove, however, deeper into the set after transitioning into some R&B when I spied more than a few 70s babies come alive as he dropped the melody of one of his most famous singles, “Sarah, Sarah.”