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The idea of spontaneous combustion worked well for Sun Ra. For years he asserted that he was never born but rather "combusted" on a street corner while no one was looking. Fact? Fiction?  Can't really say, though I do have my doubts. (He never once mentioned safety footwear...)

The thought occurred to me on the way to New Orleans, long regarded as the cradle of jazz. Legend has it that jazz was born there at the turn of last century, that it was a consequence of slavery. People from a far-off land hopped wooden ships, got bugged because the journey proved unseasonable, channeled their upset with hollers that featured suspended chords with dominant ninths, then inspired the great bandleader Sun Ra (who rarely traveled to Louisiana) to talk about his non-birth. I knew there was a reason we were headed to New Orleans.


The mission? Jazz Safari, featuring a group of Jazz.Fm91’s faithful chasing the kind of surround-sound experience radio frequencies just can't provide. A weekend blowout with that birth-of-jazz rap, up from the soil, saints and sinners, music and food, spirit and excess. (Voodoo, too...). The local House of Blues nailed it with an inspirational plaque: New Orleans, A Canvas For The Imagination. Do alligators scat? With those tiny little vocal chords and all?

Man, NOLA has spunk - a mysterious energy life force, equal parts swamp and muffalettas. Plus, on this special weekend it had us - a cast of 28, plus yours truly and the Safari brain trust of Ross Porter, Jess Frohman and Jaymz Bee. I learned a lot about Bee on this trip - fashionisto, Kaptain Kazoo, recovered introvert and closet Vic Damone. (More on that later...) Our plan was simple: validate New Orleans's world-famous motto, Too Much is Never Enough.

Day 1 proved a test: Airport arrival. Ritz Carlton check-in.  Shower. Shave. Back on the bus in an hour.

Snug Harbor, our first stop, is a centerpiece venue. It presents top-shelf artists from around the country. Featured this night was the closest thing to a house band - The Ellis Marsalis Quartet. For very good reason, too. Ellis is a local hero, patriarch of a jazz family whose name is synonymous with New Orleans. Sons Branford, Wynton, Delfeayo and Jason have been spreading the jazz gospel for years. Like the Nevilles, they are New Orleans. While a few of his kids built buildings in New York, and electrified TV studios in LA, Ellis seemed content to educate generations of NOLA students in the art, style and traditions of jazz. Guys named Connick and Blanchard fell under his sway. Ellis rarely disappoints; his essays constitute a treatise on jazz piano. When he launched into "My Favorite Things," I assumed he was adding to his list the sound of special visitors digging his play – us.

Our second stop was Palm Court, where the Palm Court All Stars carved out trad jazz that seemed a perfect soundtrack for NOLA's historical roots. An old-school presentation where politeness is a musical virtue. Those on Safari needed the respite - a welcomed change from the evening's frenetic launch. The merciful recharge, however, did not last long.

A hit of pure adrenaline, next, compliments of Fritzel's in the French Quarter, situated on Bourbon Street, known for its nightlife, though the term "nightlife" doesn't quite cut it. The scene is 24/7, flaunting the city's major themes - musical, adult, and otherwise. (Peeling off singles is one way to win friends here.) Our timing was good. Ben Polcer and Barry Follon were locking down a trad sound similar to the Court's, though far more raucous. A winning vibe. Things amped up a notch when Bee climbed on stage, bogarted the mic, and yelped a rendition of "Ain't Misbehavin" no one is likely to forget (though I've been trying....).

Our final destination was a return to the Ritz Carlton, to the Davenport Lounge, so named for trumpeter Jeremy Davenport, whose residency at the hotel began a decade-and-a-half ago. Davenport is a stylistic composite of numerous players - Al Hirt, Harry Connick and Chet Baker, among them. He plays, he sings, he occasionally dances with long-legged beauties, all the while entertaining his minions with a familiar mix of songbook standards. Stories about visiting royals like Paul McCartney and Sting pepper his patter. (Namedropping is such a smooth art.) On our night, the girl from Ipanema showed up, or so we thought; she moved through my line of vision in sun-kissed, beachy slow-mo. Jobim on cue. Davenport's night was just beginning.

Alas, we had nothing left. Sleep, perchance to dream. Sorry to say, parts of the next day remain a blur. (I'm blaming it on the heat.) Safari peeps, however, filled in the gaps. Traveling as day-trippers, they dug deep into the N'Awlins experience, gushing forth tales of swamp tours, steamboat rides, casino jaunts and shopping sprees. Some couples even reported a spectacular sighting - a winged Bigfoot, descending from the heavens, with bejeweled washboard and a bag of beignets. (I'm assuming adult beverages were at play here. Maybe it was Bee.)

Our dinner that night brought all this activity into sharp focus. The Safari ventured into the city’s Lower Garden District, to Emeril Lagasse’s Delmonico, a classic steakhouse featuring regional flair and a chance to press the flesh. (Beyond rib eyes, that is...). Plenty of talk, glasses raised. I had the good fortune to sit with a car enthusiast who spoke glowingly of his Corvette Stingrays. Got me revved up, actually. I had the Beach Boys’ “Shutdown” in my head.  Not quite jazz, but it served the moment fine.

Day 3 was the kicker - the House of Blues Gospel brunch, sweetly scheduled for Father's Day, with a groaning board of regional delectables that had me groaning about willpower - the lameness of a philosophical construct that has no place at breakfast or any other meal. (Awright, I gotta work on that.) Splendid fare, this Southern stuff. The fact is, our morning mood was mandated completely by Evangelist Linda Wright and the House of Blues Praise Team, who insisted we raise high the spirit. That woman made me a believer - for at least an hour. If she can save grizzled music biz vets, she's really good at this salvation stuff. Members of the Safari were seen exiting on a cloud.

That afternoon, still high from my redemption, a few of us hit the Cafe Du Mond for coffee and fried dough. (Every culture's got 'em; NOLA's version, avalanched with powdered sugar, is especially fine.) A gentle buggy ride followed, through parts of the French Quarter rarely visited - especially the public school where Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald spent his childhood. We were unprepared for a villainous history lesson. The Oswald reference triggered some trickle-down emotions. I went from surprise to fascination to pining for Fats Domino. Could have been the sugar.

At the close of the Safari weekend, it was impossible to forget that NOLA is a city built on its own mythology. We were right in the thick of it. When ‘bones and brass shout loud from street corners, it means something’s getting "combusted," happening, like Sun Ra, or an angel earning its wings. Proves if you light fire to a good story and run the voodoo down, it can last you a lifetime. A lesson learned, up from the swamps.

The next Safari's in Monterey. Have you heard about the flaming cockles on the coast at Big Sur? Trust me on this...

Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, consultant and jazz columnist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat, Billboard and the Blue Note jazz club in New York. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition in Washington DC, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with McCoy Tyner, Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, Randy Brecker, Kenny Werner, Lee Konitz, Savion Glover, Esperanza Spalding and Bill Frisell. He has produced and/or supervised 9 Grammy albums - 2 winners, 10 nominees. He is a member of the Blue Note management team, consulting on club programming and international development. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and enjoys the company of jazz musicians.



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