Lucinda Williams

Under a crumpled cowboy hat, Lucinda Williams choked up during her Jazzfest performance Friday night. “Faces look familiar, but they don’t have names,” she sang across a sea of sunburned faces, her tough-as-nails voice suddenly wilting. “Towns I used to live in have been rearranged. Highways I once traveled down don’t look the same. Everything has changed.”

Throughout the three-day-weekend the sentiments of the Louisiana-born singer-songwriter reverberated across the Race Park Fair Grounds, where 80 percent of the performers at the 38th Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest are New Orleans natives—some only recently returned to their homes, some still living in FEMA trailers, some, now relocated elsewhere, just back for a visit.

Host to nearly 200 shows on 10 stages, this year’s Jazzfest was a testament to the collision of cultures that made New Orleans America’s iconic melting pot and a fountainhead for blues, jazz, Cajun, zydeco, and soul music. It was also a celebration of New Orleans’ slow and painstaking reemergence as a city.

Despite the tunes that cloaked the near-record Jazzfest crowd, despite the profusion of beignets and poboys, several miles away a contractor excavated sunken boats from the Lake Pontchartrain seabed. No one forgot that New Orleans had been emptied of more than half its population. No one forgot that the Lower Ninth Ward stands stricken still—a wasteland since Katrina pummeled it 20 months ago with more than 100 billion gallons of water. New Orleans’ music community and its people least of all can forget.

“All you who are from New Orleans, I'm proud of you for being here,” said New Orleans’ quintessential boogie-woogie pianist Dr. John, turning from his piano to address the Jazzfest crowd Friday afternoon. “All you who are doing something constructive for the city of New Orleans, I’m double proud of you.”

Dr. John

Raised in the bars and nightclubs along the cobbled French Quarter, the young Dr. John was inspired by the late great ambassador of New Orleans piano boogie, Professor Longhair, the self-taught, larger-than-life ’Nawlins pianist responsible for Jazzfest standards “Tipitina” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.”

As the crowd swayed together Friday afternoon, Dr. John, clad in a lavender suit, looked skyward and pounded out the strains of his old friend’s hit: “Going down to New Orleans, I’ve got my ticket in my hands.”

Another inheritor of Fess’ legacy, blind virtuoso Henry Butler made a fêted return to Jazzfest this year, hammering out tunes on a Baldwin piano. As a young man, Butler studied music at the Louisiana State School for the Blues before becoming a pupil of Professer Longhair’s and entrenching himself in New Orleans’ spicy genres—zydeco, Delta blues, R&B, and jazz. Since his New Orleans home took on some eight feet of water during Katrina, the celebrated pianist has resided in Denver. Though he released Homeland in 2004, Butler’s incredible Jazzfest set Saturday relied largely on Longhair classics.

Clarence “Frogman” Henry too lost his house in the 2005 hurricane. A testament to New Orleans’ still-thriving music community, the 70-year-old’s home was rebuilt by local charities and colleagues. Sunday, the R&B forefather’s famous croaking was accompanied by choirmaster Al Bemiss, his piano player for more than 20 years.

Closing out the poignant weekend Sunday afternoon was the New Orleans Social Club?the all-star assembly of Crescent City musicians that came together to raise funds following Katrina. Pumping all the joy, anger, and hope of the Katrina disaster into song, core members Ivan Neville, Leo Nocentelli, Raymond Weber, Henry Butler, and George Porter, Jr. were joined onstage by native vocalist John Boutte. During his soulful version of Annie Lennox’s plaintive hit “Why,” Boutte paused and looked toward the horizon. “America, can you hear me?” he asked. “Can you hear me now?”

To contribute to the reemergence of New Orleans’ music community, visit Gibson’s own Music Rising.