There’s something about the sheer concentration of local artists at French Quarter Fest that can make a few days of programming at just one stage feel like a guided tour of New Orleans music history. And given our culture’s obsessively self-referential nature, zeroing in on one stage can yield an almost endless array of perspectives on what makes New Orleans music so unique.
Dig into the cross-section of New Orleans jazz, brass band music and soul on Jackson Square’s Hilton Stage, for example, and you’ll find everything from elements of gospel to the Afro-Cuban rhythms that captivated Jelly Roll Morton and inspired Professor Longhair’s“rumba-boogie” vibe to the boozy syncopations that erupted in Storyville’s heyday and later became a cornerstone of New Orleans funk.
All those aspects of New Orleans’ rich musical heritage often find their way into the music of vocalist Robin Barnes, who closes out the Hilton Stage on Friday, April 17 with her band, the Fiyabirds. A native of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood whose mentors include her cousin, the legendary late producer, songwriter and musician, Dave Bartholomew, Barnes’ life in music began at age 6 in church. Last fall, Barnes followed up her 2016 EP “Songbird Sessions” with a new single, “You Give Me.” Featuring Afro-Cuban influenced percussion work from Headhunters alum Bill Summers and Cuba-born New Orleans jazz scene staple Alexey Marti, the track represents a departure from her earlier, more contemporary jazz-oriented sound.
While Barnes’ set offers a snapshot of one of the city’s many soulful, contemporary New Orleans jazz amalgams, the bookended Hilton Stage performances of trumpeters Leroy Jones and James Andrews on Saturday, April 18, feel like a perfect, two-part refresher course on traditional New Orleans jazz.
Like Barnes, Jones’ interest in music began in church — in his case, the Fairview Baptist Church, a place of worship in New Orleans’ Seventh Ward that his family shared with guitarist, banjo and composer Danny Barker.
Jones was 12 years old when Barker enlisted him to lead his fledgling Fairview Baptist Church Christian Marching Band, a group of aspiring young instrumentalists Barker organized in the hopes of reinvigorating the traditional New Orleans jazz scene in the early 1970s, when other styles of music had edged traditional jazz so far out of the picture, Barker worried it would die out with his generation.
Under Jones’ and Barker’s leadership, the Fairview band grew so popular so fast that the local Musician’s Union pressured Barker to do away with the ensemble, complaining that the young brass players were taking too many gigs away from their elders.Rather than give up the group, a teenaged Jones joined the union, rechristened the outfit the Hurricane Brass Band and, along with bandmates Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, Gregory Davis and Darryl Adams, proceeded to expand his role in repopularizing traditional New Orleans jazz in the ‘70s. Today, Jones’ lyrical tone is often cited by young trumpeters as an exemplar of personalized authenticity within traditional New Orleans jazz.
If you start your French Quarter Fest Saturday with Jones’ take on trad, consider ending it with James Andrews’ Treme-steeped, R&B-infused, new school brass-meets-modern jazz sound.
Andrews hails from a family whose roots spread arguably further and deeper than the Marsalises’ in the local music community. His grandfather, singer, songwriter and drummer Jesse Hill, was an iconic figure in New Orleans R&B’s 1950s Golden Age. Ask the prolific trumpeter’s younger brother, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, about his early influences and James is guaranteed to figure prominently in his answer.
Andrews is all grace, charm and wit onstage, expertly toying with the rough edges and “between the cracks” feel of New Orleans songbook classics until his entire audience is reduced to a blur of tailfeather shaking and smiles.
Finally, as the 37th French Quarter Fest winds down on Sunday, April 19, another member of New Orleans music royalty takes over the Hilton Stage. With his smooth-to-sandy vocals and raw emotional delivery, John Boutte offers festival-goers one last perspective on the different ways similar elements of New Orleans music can history play out from artist to artist, genre to genre and neighborhood to neighborhood.
Looking for experiences beyond the stages? Here’s more tips on where to find the culture, sights and sounds of New Orleans from stage sponsor Hilton:
Check out Hilton’s list of where to enjoy the best beignets in New Orleans here or capture the full flavor of the city with Hilton’s Taste of New Orleans special offer. With endless restaurant recommendations attendees can learn where to get a true taste of the city using Hilton’s insider’s guide to NOLA’s foodie hot spots.
With gorgeous parks, world class museums, lively street musicians, and beignets, New Orleans provides entertainment for families of all ages. Follow this list of must-sees and your Instagram stories and Facebook photos from New Orleans will be enough to get that skeptical neighbor planning their next trip to French Quarter Fest.
Along with sights and music, shopping cannot be overlooked this festival season and Hilton has your guide the Best Arts and Crafts hot spots throughout Jackson Square, Julia Street, Royal Street, Frenchmen Street Art Market and more. View the full list here.