Probably the oldest and very first attraction at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the Gospel Tent. At the first Jazz Fest in 1970 at Congo Square, where the tickets were $3.00, there were four stages and the Gospel Tent; many of the acts did not even have microphones. One of the first performers at that festival in the Gospel Tent was a woman named Mahalia Jackson, possibly the greatest gospel singer of all times, and she was, as they said, “returning home to perform.” Now 47 years later, the Fest has grown, as you know. But one rock that has remained steady is our Gospel Tent, the first you hear as you arrive at the Sauvage Street entrance and the last to sing you on your way when you leave. This year, the sound of Irma Thomas’s gospel voice will be gracing us from her heart to ours, and the tickets, as you guessed, are priced higher.
Anyone with the sense of a sea urchin knows that New Orleans is a spiritual city. Scratch the surface of any folk here and they will assure you that they are “blessed to be alive,” to which the proper response is, “I know that’s right!” Why few white people here under the age of 40 do not carry this message on their sleeve, lips, and in their daily life is a mystery to me. I reckon that once you reach a certain age or if you were brought up singing the praises of the Lord (instead of petitioning the Lord with prayer), you naturally feel blessed every day, faithful, and grateful. Consider the names of some of the gospel groups: Shades of Praise, Abundant Praise, New Orleans Spiritalettes, Anointed Voices, The New Orleans Gospel Soul Children, and/or The Mount Calvary Voices of Redemption.
Be that as it may, I and my peer group count our days on this mortal coil as gifts from a higher authority, and praise be to whichever power that may be. It’s really really easy for me to worship the thousand faces of God/Goddess that have granted me my life because I believe in them all: I am a Christian, Jew, agnostic, Hindu, Buddhist, Baptist, Bacchus, beer-drinking believer in the benevolence and bedlam of being. Every Jazz Fest at the Gospel Tent, my belief in Lord Jesus is super jump-started again, with a charge strong enough to carry me through the year—you might say, sanctified and electrified. Every year when I go to the fest, I know where to find Jesus, and how could I not pay a visit, in fact several visits, each day that I attend?
"The music, the singing, the spirit are infectious, and I find myself swaying, singing, clapping, and snapping with the holy, yes holy, atmospheric pressure."
The advantage of being an all-believer (from atheism to Zoroastrian) is that I can wander down any path and find my higher power ready to give my soul the strength that it needs to survive the weakness of my reserve, reserves to challenge my temptations, and courage to fight my demons and put some gut in my strut. And when I walk into the Gospel Tent, my soul is filled with the power of the people, performances, and pure joy in the Lord. The music, the singing, the spirit are infectious, and I find myself swaying, singing, clapping, and snapping with the holy, yes holy, atmospheric pressure.
Fair to say at this point that, by in large, we’re talking about an African American spirituality experience. While I understand that white folks can have gospel soul, they are (by in large) not as rhythmically inclined to belt out their raised voices in the adoration to one who can and truly does save. The music and songs are spiritual, rock, rhythm, blues, gospel, and the primitive African call-and-response, audience-participation occurrence rolled in to one glorious, exhausting, heart-expanding happening. Praise so palatable that you can taste it in the air, the hairs on your arms begin to rise, your eyes turn heavenward, and you just want to turn around to those couple of guys discussing business and yell, “Shut the hell up, I’m having an epiphany here!”
I have been floored by four glorious, goldenrod-gowned, fully grown women. I have witnessed Blind Boys and Zion Harmonizers, and by far, I am carried away when a choir of 50 or 60 voices, in agreement and five-part harmony, lift up their right to be heard unto the Lord. The Saint Leo the Great Choir, The Gospel Inspirations of Boutte, or The First Emanuel Church Mass Choir—all rockin’ my soul in the bosom of Abraham. Can I get a witness?
The rejoicing, reveling, rocking revival goes on from 11 in the morning until close of business at seven in the evening.
And then there’s a slight pause when the music slowly fades, where Brother Love steps out with the microphone and challenges the audience that he has accepted as parishioners: “Have you heard the word of God here today? (YES!) and do you feeeeeel the grace of the Lord (YES!) and do you believe that you have come to a HOLY place, a place of worship, THE HOUSE OF THE LORD?” (YEEEESSSSS!) “Then I want you to look around you and pick up all that trash that you brought in with you, because this IS the house of the Lord, and we do NOT leave trash on the floor. If you brought it in with you, then take it back out and dispose of it properly. I WILL NOT HAVE TRASH IN THE HOUSE OF THE LORD! Can I get an Amen?”
Photos by Douglas Mason