One of the highlights of Jazz Fest will be the performance of Congo Square by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Yacub Addy's Odadaa! Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center (JLC), wrote the epic suite, which premiered in April 2006 at Congo Square in Armstrong Park. The premiere under the hot April sun was a little raw compared to the usual polish of the Lincoln Center Orchestra, but that did not detract from its scope and emotional power.
The Congo Square suite encompasses much of what jazz has come to mean over the course of a century. There are elements of ragtime clarinet, gospel tambourine, call-and-response field hollers, explicit and implicit African rhythms, and the "Spanish tinge" that Jelly Roll Morton thought was the essence of jazz. There is also the beautiful Ellingtonian blending of horns and swinging choruses invoking Ben Webster/Lester Young-type sounds. At some points, the band plays with a fury that sounds like the best work of Charles Mingus. It has antecedents in Marsalis' previous long-form works such as In This House On This Morning and Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields. But the Ghanian ensemble Odadaa! plays a major role, adding heavier rhythmic emphasis to the piece. It is sophisticated without losing its earthiness and mass appeal. It is rootsy and street-gritty but also complex, incorporating different themes and varying emotions.
Congo Square was a main trading spot for New Orleans residents from the 18th through mid-19th centuries. Whites, black slaves, free people of color, Native Americans and others gathered there. In the Louisiana colony, people of African descent were allowed to assemble in the square to play their own music, sing, dance and practice their own religious customs. It was the only place in the South where this was allowed to happen. Not only do the roots of jazz start there, but it was also the anchor of the African cultural retention we see so strongly preserved in New Orleans.
Marsalis has called Congo Square, "the lightning rod for the whole enslaved nation. It's the place where the genesis of jazz as an idea came from." In an interview on American Routes radio about the composition, Marsalis said Congo Square is about "the integration of cultures and innovation, about coming up with new ways to communicate and relate to people. It's also about tradition, things that have existed, and trying to maintain the best of them."
When Marsalis leads the band on the Congo Square stage, it promises to be a celebratory mix of musical precision, great force, artistry and emotion.
Congo Square featuring Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Yacub Addy and Odadaa!
4:40 p.m. Fri., April 24