During Van Morrison’s set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival late Saturday afternoon, a tiny silver plane appeared in the sky overhead, emitting a white exhaust that slowly formed letters one by one: P … R … I … N … C … E. Then the numbers: 1 … 9 … 9 … 9. Then a peace sign and a heart. Then the glyph that had served as Prince’s name for a few years.
Prince died on Thursday, April 21, the day before Jazzfest began, but the festival quickly became a tribute to him. The festival lay purple carpeting in the Jazz Tent with purple skirting around the stage. Half the festivalgoers were wearing purple T-shirts, purple scarves or purple hats. Acts as different as Pearl Jam, Kermit Ruffins, Govt. Mule and Sharon Jones sang Prince-related songs over the weekend.
It was a curious phenomenon, because Prince had never played the festival nor had much connection to Louisiana. He based himself in his native state of Minnesota and in his adopted state of California. But Jazzfest prides itself as a celebration of rhythm in all its manifestations, and few pop stars of the past 40 years were as ingenious with rhythm as Prince. He tied his delicious pop melodies so tightly to his funky grooves that they became impossible to untangle.
Of all the tributes to Prince, the one that felt most heartfelt and enlightening was Janelle Monae’s Friday set. Monae, of course, worked closely with the Purple One and survives as his most obvious heir. His influence is reflected in her melodies, rhythms, lyric themes and dancing. Her live show is always exhilarating, but on this afternoon she was lifted by raw emotion into another realm.
“Today we’re going to do something different,” she told the audience. “We’re going to dedicate this entire show to Prince, because he deserves it. He was free; he was fearless. He was music; he was rock’n’roll; he was R&B.”
She kicked off the set with “Giving ‘Em What They Love,” the song from her latest album that featured Prince as co-writer and duet singer. A few songs later, she paid a strange kind of tribute to her mentor by singing two songs that influenced him: James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” She channeled both JB’s percussive shouts and Jacko’s giddy squeal.
She told stories about Prince: how he intervened on her behalf to get her on the BET Awards Show, how she first spoke to him by phone. “You know about me?” she remembered telling him after the surprise call. “You, Prince, know people?” He said, “I like your jazz voice.” So at New Orleans, she sang the jazz standard, Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” from her first album.
By this time she had shed his jacket of black-and-while tassels to dance more freely in her androgynous costume of black bow tie, white shirt, black pleated skirt and black knee socks with white stripes. She never stopped moving, wriggling and writhing like she had ants in her skin.
She climaxed the show with two songs by Prince: “Take Me with You” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” On the latter song, she seemed to live up to the title, bouncing about the stage like a pinball and belting out the chorus with the cathartic satisfaction of letting it all go. Even her trademark hairdo—the one with the softball-shaped orb hanging over her forehead—was coming apart.
But it was a comforting show, despite its adrenalized energy, for it proved that Prince’s legacy is in good hands. For here is a young woman who can sing, write and dance very much like he did—and is determined to do so for decades to come.
Prince isn’t the only major American pop-music star to die recently. Merle Haggard had died just two weeks earlier. And he received an odd tribute when the Jambalaya Cajun Band sang Haggard’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive” in Cajun French with a button accordion playing the guitar lick.
Two songs later bandleader Terry Huval waved D.L. Menard out onto the stage. Menard is known as “The Cajun Hank Williams,” for he ushered in the whole Cajun-honky-tonk style of the 1950s that made the steel guitar a frequent presence in South Louisiana music and made a Cajun cover of Merle Haggard quite plausible.
But the 84-year-old Menard made his festival entrance this year in a wheelchair. “I’ve had 100 operations,” he cracked, “but they ain’t bothered my throat none.” He was right. He looked awful, but he sounded good, especially on his classic songs “En Bas de Chene Vert” (Under a Green Oak Tree) and “La Porte en Arriere” (The Back Door).”
Menard is not as well known as Haggard or Prince, but he’s a genuine musical legend in his own field. His failing health is a reminder that you shouldn’t wait too long to see the performers on your bucket list. They can be gone before you know it.
Jazzfest is always a good place to cross names off that list. The 79-year-old New Orleans R&B legend Clarence “Frogman” Henry took the stage in a walker and sat on its seat for his entire performance. But like Menard he still sounded good on his old hits: “But I Do” and “Ain’t Got No Home,” the latter song covered by the Band and Rod Stewart. The Louisiana swamp-pop legends Warren Storm and Tommy McLain also made one more appearance at this year’s festival.
The 70-year-old Van Morrison didn’t comment on the skywriting overhead, but he seemed determined to prove that he was still in the game. He was as unsmiling and untalkative as ever, but he was in good voice. He turned his two best-known songs, “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Moondance” into jazz swing tunes that gave him a chance to play alto-sax solos between verses.
He came to life most vividly on covers of the old blues and hillbilly songs that first influenced him. He paid tribute to Louisiana with versions of Big Joe Williams’s “Baby, Please Don’t Go (Back to New Orleans)” and Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya (On the Bayou).” When Morrison blew harmonica and hollered the lusty plea of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me,” it was the perfect set up for his own garage-band classic “Gloria.”
The chains connecting influencers to influences will be on display again this coming week when the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival resumes on Thursday, April 28, for four more days of music.