Michael John Dunaway Lifestream

January 14, 2009

The Mahalia Jackson is reborn (article for Alarm Magazine)

Filed under: Culture,Entertainment,Magazine articles by MJD,Music,Uncategorized — michaeljohndunaway @ 3:53 pm

louis1Here’s the unabridged version of an article I wrote for Alarm magazine on the reopening of the Mahalia Jackson Theater at Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans. Published version here.

A symbolic act doesn’t actually change anything; it’s only a symbol, after all. But sometimes a symbolic act can change the way people see themselves, and change their understanding about what’s happening, and about what is to come. Wednesday night’s reopening of Louis Armstrong Park in the grandly restored Mahalia Jackson Theater was just such a moment. It was, as Mayor Ray Nagin told me afterwards, “awesomely, outstandingly, naturally New Orleans.”

The Mahalia Jackson Theater sits in the middle of Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, which is also the home of Congo Square, where slaves used to gather and sing African songs, and the spot where jazz was eventually born. Both the park and the theater were casualties of Katrina flooding, and the wire that fenced them off has been a continual reminder ever since of the devastation that flooding brought. Many New Orleanians haven’t quite felt whole without the park open.

The evening kicked off with perennial favorites The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the face of New Orleans music for countless millions who have come through the city. Their mini-set was a bit peppier than their usual sound, as befitted the celebratory evening. And their mere presence at the Mahalia linked the performers to a chain stretching far, far back into the history of jazz.

Vocalist Phil Manuell (who also organized the evening) and violinist Michael Ward were next up. Manuell’s style would have to be described technically as smooth jazz, but the silky soul of his Al Jarreau-esque vocals and the energy in the arrangements far transcended the shlocky sound generally associated with the genre. And Ward is a wonder on the violin, both technically stunning and emotionally moving. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “You’ve Got a Friend” sound downright sexy, but Manuell and Ward pulled it off in spades.

Jeremy Davenport and Ingrid Lucia paired up to give fun and flirty renditions of a couple of standards, and their chemistry suited the mood well. Davenport is a St. Louis transplant that, like so many musicians, fell in love with New Orleans and stayed, and of course Lucia has been plying the torch music trade admirably in the Crescent City all her life. Freddie Omar lent some Latin flavor to the evening, shining especially in a funkier, groovier version of Buena Vista Social Club’s great “Chan Chan.” Omar was a great inclusion by Manuell, as many casual fans underestimate the huge influence of Latin and Caribbean music on New Orleans.

But to be sure, the bet was yet to come. The great Marva Wright came to the stage and seemed fragile, resting briefly on a stool before beginning her first song. But when that majestic voice poured out and began a tingle-inducing version of “Amazing Grace” adapted to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” the room snapped to rapt attention. And when she followed up with an energetic, bouncy take on “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher,” the theater really came alive. The entire crowd was transfixed, transported (even as Mayor Ray Nagin worked his Blackberry from the front row, confirming once again that he’ll never get my support – how can I vote for a man who texts during Marva?).

Now, in most towns, once Marva Wright has hit the stage, the show is over; who’s going to follow her? But New Orleans’ roster is incredibly deep with talent, and out came Irma Thomas, wearing a bright yellow African wrap and that 1000 watt smile. She sang several songs from her newest CD, in addition to the song she slyly calls the New Orleans National Anthem, the Neville/Touissant ballad “It’s Raining.” Touissant himself beamed up at her from the front row with approval.

As the MC began to read the first few words of introduction for Kermit Ruffins, a black-clad figure appeared, slinking behind the band, holding a trumpet aloft, and sure enough, began to play. It was a fitting entrance for the jokester and master trumpeter who “comes to party,” as Manuell said afterwards, and his sly smile didn’t disappear the entire evening. Kermit is one of the orginial members of the most powerful second-line jazz combo in town, Rebirth Brass Band, but since his departure from that group he’s been drifting more and more into what my friend aptly described as party music. It’s less punch you in the face with a wall of sound, and more take your hand and swing you out to the dance floor. It’s a lot of fun, and he reaches a much broader audience that way. Still, when Kermit lit into a driving cover of “I Can See Clearly Now,” there wasn’t a toe in the place that wasn’t tapping, and many of those toe-tapers were dancing in the aisles. And when Kermit so joyfully and triumphantly sang out the words of that chorus, “I can see clearly now, the rain has gone/ It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day,” it didn’t just sound like a declaration. It sounded like a promise.

The entire lineup came out for a couple of rousing numbers to end the show, the
Professor Longhair classic “Go To the Mardi Gras” and, naturally “When the Saints Go Marching In.” True to the egalitarian musical culture of the city, the performers filed off the stage and down the aisles for nearly fifteen minutes during the last song, celebrating with the audience more than singing to them. What a show of solidarity with the great people of a great city. What a thrill to be able to clap each of them on the back and say a word of praise. What a symbol of why we must continue to rebuild and restore, every single day.

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