NEW ORLEANS – New Orleans is famous as a musical and cultural melting pot — Spain and France colonized it, and the following years brought influxes from places like Italy, Ireland, and Vietnam. But Friday afternoon, at the opening of the 44th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I kept thinking: Africa. It wasn’t just in the ritualized chants and percussion of the Semolian Warriors Mardi Gras Indian gang that took the Heritage Stage at 11:15 a.m. Africa was everywhere, even in the thoroughly American jazz of the Plunge, a small group led by a former Bostonian, the trombonist Mark McGrain.
Plunge went on a little after noon at the Zatarain’s WWOZ Jazz Tent (there are a dozen stages at JazzFest, which takes place annually the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May at the Fair Grounds Race Course). McGrain offered a kind of invocation by playing some long declamatory notes into a giant Alp horn. The instrument wasn’t African, but the rhetoric was. And then, so was everything Plunge played. It was in the ancient scales, the polyrhythms, and most of all the vocal quality of the phrasing. You could hear that vocal quality in McGrain’s Harmon mute, but even in the sound of the great drummer Johnny Vidacovich’s mallets. There were some wonderful unison lines for the horns (Tim Green on saxello joined the band’s Tom Fitztpatrick on tenor sax and flute), but after a while, everything sounded like talking rhythms. That was especially true in one classic African 6/8 groove that had begun with rubato bowed bass (by John Singleton) and flute. When Kirk Joseph joined the gang on tuba, the shift into funk didn’t change anything: it was still all Africa.
Jazz is black American music, so we like to say. Now played by all kinds of people all over the world. But Africa is still the source.