NOLA DIARY: Saved from Gustav by the Detroit Jazz Fest


Well good people, the Jenkins Family sojourn — more like a furlough to be sure — to New Orleans has concluded and we are back home in the DC area.  In September Suzan Jenkins’ tenure as the new CEO of the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County (MD) commenced.  This new position has greatly energized us and presented Suz with some excellent challenges and opportunities to advance and grow this successful organization’s $6M+ annual budget.  For those of you not familiar, Montgomery County includes the prominent DC-metro area communities of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Gaithersburg, Potomac, Rockville, and Silver Spring and is second only to Silicon Valley as home to the high tech industry.  Learn more about MOCO at


So the month of September was one of furious packing and moving prep needless to say, but it was indeed a pleasure returning to our home, which our daughter Tiffany did an excellent job caretaking during our year in NOLA.  Our time in New Orleans was a real learning experience, not least being our growing sense of the depth of culture there — particularly from an African American perspective.  From the Second Line season, to brass band pioneer trumpeter  Doc Paulin’s amazing traditional New Orleans jazz funeral, to Mardi Gras, to Jazzfest, to the French Quarter Festival, to Satchmo Fest and endless festivals in between (can you dig a Creole Tomato Festival?), to Lolis Elie’s incredible film on Faubourg Treme, to learning and experiencing some of the deep culture of the Mardi Gras Indians (including the opportunity to shoot some amazing film on Super Sunday and  incredible night on St. Joseph’s Day at 2nd & Dryades; and stay tuned to these pages for news of a project I’m working towards involving one of the Mardi Gras Indian gangs), to the Hornets exciting season, to the endless array of great restaurants (and we just barely scratched the surface of Uptown neighborhood spots — with Upperline ranking at the top of my personal list and Big Al’s being my favorite casual spot), to experiencing the musical brilliance of the Jordan Family and numerous other of NOLA’s music masters, and interviewing some of the town’s historic music figures such the still-active 97-year old trumpeter Lionel FerbosHarold Battiste, Germaine Bazzle, Dr. Michael White and Clyde Kerr for the Dillard University project (see an earlier IE), to strolling the mere two blocks from home to Parasol’s for an oyster po’boy or their inimitable roast beef variety, our year in New Orleans was unforgettable.  Last but certainly not least was the familial open arms with which I was received during my stint on-air at WWOZ (stay tuned in November; see below)…  And we will be back… 


In fact I’ll be back in New Orleans for most of the month of November, holing up in a studio apartment to complete my book project, African Rhythms: The autobiography of (NEA Jazz Master) Randy Weston, composed by Randy Weston, arranged by Willard Jenkins, to be published by Duke University Press (read more about that in another section of this edition of IE).  And I’m looking forward to spending Sunday evenings throughout November hosting the new release show "What’s New" that Maryse Dejean and I launched in August in the 10-midnight Kitchen Sink slot on WWOZ.  But, how about a little Hurricane season drama.  As most of you know, Hurricane Gustav touched down in New Orleans on Labor Day, enacting a certain amount of fury, doing a measure of damage, but thank the Good Lord nothing like what Katrina wrought on that great city.  In the week leading up to Gustav’s scheduled arrival we found ourselves glued to the Weather Channel (ain’t it interesting how excited and energized meteorologists become at the approach of a weather calamity!).  Fortunately we had a built-in evacuation plan — that is as long as Gustav held off until Labor Day weekend, which it did.  We had booked a flight to Detroit weeks prior for the Detroit Jazz Fest as part of my work for the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters program.


The Detroit Jazz Fest (DJF) is quite simply a stellar event, and one that I had slept on far too long.  That slumber was primarily related to another great festival, the Chicago Jazz Festival, which for many years was a preferred Labor Day Weekend hang — and still is for that matter.  However the Labor Day festival menu has now broadened considerably after our first trip to the DJF August 30-September 1.  I always wondered why Chicago shut its festival down as of Sunday evening; perhaps that’s related to the annual Labor Day parade there.  However the folks in Detroit definitely know how to cover Labor Day as well!


Produced by friend and former Tri-C JazzFest colleague Terri Pontremoli, always an energy source unto herself, the DJF runs Friday evening through Labor Day and is presented on Detroit’s riverfront Hart Plaza, spilling out onto a good few blocks of adjacent Woodward Avenue as well.  The sprawling DJF encompasses six stages, craft and food booths, and includes the self-described Jazz Talk Tent and a children’s jazz stage.  The effect is less akin to Chicago Jazz Festival’s contained Grant Park venue and more like — as one person described it — a "midwest Monterey".  Like Chicago, DJF’s core appeal lies in it’s free admission which naturally draws families, all ages and economic strata to sample its delights.  And those delights were considerable this year.


Ironically for us the festival coincided with the scary mass evacuation of the Gulf Coast region ahead of Hurrican Gustav.  This would have been our first evacuation, but thanks to our pre-booked trip to Detroit to cover the DJF’s extensive lineup of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters (full disclaimer: the writer works that program for Arts Midwest), we were spared the mass exodus (or "contraflow" as they call it when officials open up both sides of the highway for all traffic flowing out of town) across I-10 and its tributary roads.  After battening down the hatches at home as best we could we took no chances and left home a full four hours prior to our August 30 11am flight to Detroit, beating the evacuation crush by mere hours.  So while friends were reporting such tribulations as a 19-hour drive to Atlanta we made it to the airport in time to witness the scene of legions of other glassy-eyed Crescent City residents  endeavoring to make their way out of Gustav’s path.


Waking up Labor Day morning and anxiously watching the Weather Channel’s spot-on reporting from Hurricane Gustav (you know the by-now familiar drill: yellow raincoated reporters braving horriffic winds and rain to intrepidly report the fury) was no picnic.  Fortunately, after all was said and done, we were personally spared significant damage, other than to our wallet as the only vet we could find at the 11th hour to board our dog made a huge chunk of change from our last minute scurry out of town, what with his insistence on our laying out an exhorbitant "evacuation fee".  Turns out the house was the least of our worries as we wondered about the plight of 17-year old Miles, but he too made out just fine.  As the "street crier" on our block — a guy who makes a couple of passes down the street per day and is always good for the latest wit if you happen to be standing outside or on your porch when he passes by — exclaimed mock-angrily, "all that hoo-haw for what amounted to a big rain storm.."  That old cliche ‘better to be safe than sorry’ comes to mind but one wondered what the lack of significant damage would portend for the next time; and that next time arrived little over a week later when more scare was thrown into the game by the then-projected arrival of Hurricane Ike.  Old Ike whipped up some vicious winds as it passed nearby and slammed the Texas Gulf Coast.  But in the interim we heard many locals vowing not to evacuate if it had come to that, suggesting they were prepared to "ride" this one out.


Which raises many discussions about the perceived wisdom of some that the Gustav evac was a major case of the city crying wolf.  And this time very significantly the Superdome and the Convention Center were explicitly NOT open as refuges of last resort; the idea this time, apparently successfully achieved though once again a segment of the populace chose to ride this one out as it were.  Buses, trains and planes were engaged to ferry those without sufficient transportation to scattered evacuation points, though once again many of those masses had no idea where they were being taken.  Coupled with the fact that for two days after Gustav, access back into the city was limited to "essential" personnel (emergency and safety profession-related folks, etc.), and even once back home the electrical power wasn’t restored to the entire city until about the following Monday night (a week after what some now characterize as an insignificant storm), one wonders what will happen the next time such a "manditory" evacuation is ordered. 


Things were looking quite dire there for a minute. On Sunday afternoon, a good 12 hours before Gustav landfall was due, I got a voicemail message from the airline we flew in on that my return flight to NOLA had already been pushed back from the scheduled Tuesday morning to Friday morning!  By Tuesday, the day after Gustav, I was able to get re-scheduled to Wednesday, which was then bumped to Thursday.  By early Thursday evening when I arrived, after a laborious 3-leg flight, the power was down but what a relief to find nothing more than tree debris in my wake.  Slowly the streets came back to life and our power was restored on Friday morning.


But I digress, given that this started out as a bouquet tossed to the Detroit Jazz Fest.  The weekend was filled with enormous helpings of superb music, not least of which were the contributions of NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Heath, Gerald Wilson, Slide Hampton, Kenny Burrell, Barry Harris and Benny Golson, all part of the festival’s Detroit/Philly focus — leavened with a tremendous Alice Coltrane tribute performed by Ravi Coltrane, Geri Allen, Jack DeJohnette, Charlie Haden et. al., and some rambunctious sets by such younger artists as the precocious pianist Gerald Clayton’s trio, rough & ready drummer Gerald Cleaver, and the promising vocalist Sachal Vasandani.

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