Jazz Fest Day 5 Highlights: Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews, Kamasi Washington & More

Jimmy Buffet and Dave Matthews perform onstage during day 5 of the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 5, 2017 in New Orleans.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Jimmy Buffet and Dave Matthews perform onstage during day 5 of the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at Fair Grounds Race Course on May 5, 2017 in New Orleans.

New Orleans Jazz Fest is only about half as old as jazz itself -- the annual festival debuted in 1970 -- but it’s hard to find a broader (or more historically accurate) vision of what the genre is anywhere. That makes sense when you consider that New Orleans is the place where, according to most, the music was born.

This year’s edition (April 28-May 7) is especially in tune with the history of the music thanks to its Cuban Cultural Exchange stage, where festival-goers can hear a whole range of traditional Cuban music -- the guts of what New Orleans native (and jazz founding father) Jelly Roll Morton called jazz’s “Spanish tinge.”

Of course, brass bands, blues bands, gospel, bebop, folk, pop, rock, and just about every other genre under the sun are also showcased at the two-weekend event -- here’s an admittedly small sample of Friday’s (May 5) massive lineup.

11:36 a.m.: When in New Orleans, the best parties always start with the same thing: a brass band. So after some straight-ahead bebop from the University of New Orleans jazz band (their name? The Text Messengers), the High Steppers Brass Band got things off to a rollicking start, parasols and tambos in hand as they interpolated “Tom’s Diner” over the beat from Lil Kim’s “Crush On You” -- dancing ensued, despite the fact that it wasn’t even noon.

11:53 a.m.: Over at the Economy Hall stage, Louis Ford and his New Orleans Flairs were taking things all the way back. With the stage decorated to approximate the kind of saloon (or brothel) where jazz was born in this very city, Ford, a clarinetist who comes from a long line of New Orleans musicians, spun delicate versions of classic American tunes (think “You Are My Sunshine”). The moment he let it rip on the clarinet, though, you actually felt transported a century back to when “jass” was a dirty word and not an indicator of respectability.

12:21 p.m.: The first parade of the day wound through the crowd, just as the Mardi Gras Indians the White Cloud Hunters start their set -- it was like mini Mardi Gras immersion, though at most New Orleans parades there's more dancing and less gawking. The Cloud Hunters, in full traditional garb, offered memorable grooves courtesy of a six-piece band that was completely composed of percussion. Think Drumline, but more festive.

12:44 p.m.: The nothing-but-drums trend continued across the way with the Pedrito Martinez Rumba Project, featuring Roman Diaz. All in white, the Cuban group offered a dizzying web of beats so complex the audience was left awestruck (dancing felt a little futile when those on stage were so competent, but the brave had a go at it anyway). Martinez's powerful tenor cut through, conveying the beautiful traditional Cuban music whose practitioners have been kept from American audiences for too long. A half-smoked Cuban cigar lay on the ground outside the stage.

1:34 p.m.: The New Orleans R&B Divas had the crowd on their feet for soul classics like “Mr. Big Stuff” and “The Electric Slide” (really) -- the thing nobody tells you is that competent covers of those songs literally never get old. Leader Wanda Rouzan proved that there is no age at which one should stop shimmying, and no reason said shimmying should impact how good you sound. The nothing-but-the-hits performance showed that the only prerequisites for Jazz Fest are loose hips and open ears.

2:36 p.m.: Leyla McCalla offered a respite from the already-frantic crowds at the quiet Lagniappe stage, offering sparse acoustic arrangements (she accompanied herself on cello, and was joined by a fiddler and jack-of-all-trades-percussionist) of songs in English, French and Creole. The result was folksy, without devolving into twee.

3:45 p.m.: Herbert McCarver and the Pinstripe Brass Band offered the platonic ideal of Jazz Fest: at the sunny Jazz and Heritage Stage, they moved easily from playing a jubilant version of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” to an audience-participation-requiring rendition of Maze’s “Joy and Pain,” without ever once stopping the groove.  

4:32 p.m.: William Bell, sporting what were functionally silver pajamas, ran through a slew of his own work both old and new (he just won a Grammy in 2017 for his latest album, This Is Where I Live, with the kind of effortless skill that too often feels like the stuff of a bygone era. For about 45 minutes, it could have been 1968 again and not one thing would have been different (except that he may not have been wearing a snapback).

6:05 p.m.: Two of the evening’s headliners flexed their star power with some A-list guests, much to the delight of fans: Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds brought up Jazz Fest favorite Jimmy Buffett to perform “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” while Earth, Wind & Fire invited saxophonist Kamasi Washington onstage for an untitled, celestial-sounding jam.