The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is filled with artists who have handed down their know-how and love for their craft to their children.
At Friday’s festival, Charmaine Neville and her band shook the Blues Tent with a rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” with help from her son, Damion on vocals, and her father, Charles Neville on saxophone.
They’re not the only Nevilles playing this year’s festival. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk plays Sunday and includes another cousin, Ian Neville on guitar.
Their family is just one example of how the music has flowed from one generation to the next and how the festival, by showcasing them, continues the city’s musical heritage.
“I’m 32 for 32 on Jazz Fest,” said Ian Neville, the 32-year-old son of Art Neville. “I’ve played at about half or more. I think that’s a pretty good record.”
The Neville Brothers and their musical progeny all have been featured at the fest over its 45-year history. Same goes for Zydeco singer Nathan Williams, 51, and his 27-year-old son, Nathan “Lil Nathan” Williams Jr. and many of the musical Marsalis clan, led by jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis.
Ivan Neville, 54, said he soaked up the music by “just being around it.”
“I learned mostly by ear and feel,” he said. “It gets inside you and you express it. But we’re always talking about music, me and my uncles and dad. A lot of the end result is understood. A lot goes without saying.”
Charmaine Neville said her love for music came from her father and her mother, who sang opera. “Hearing the classical and jazz together, I think that’s what did it for me,” she said.
Growing up in a musical city, Charmaine Neville said, helps to keep the traditions moving from one generation to the next.
“So many people taught you so many different things,” she said. “Living next door to Fats (Domino) taught me the importance of continuing to pass on the knowledge from generation to generation. I truly didn’t know the legacy of the lineage I had been born into until years later. But our family goes back at least eight generations of music. We’re just trying to keep it all alive. We definitely want the kids who are going to be around to know what it is and what it was.”
The elder Williams said he, too, comes from a musically inclined family but he also learned much of his craft from Zydeco masters Clifton Chenier and Buckwheat Zydeco. Now, his children are following in his footsteps and benefiting from that knowledge. His son, Lil Nathan, used to play scrub boards in his band, the Zydeco Cha Chas, and now fronts his own band, the Zydeco Big Timers.
“You’ve got to share your knowledge with people and give them the opportunity to learn what they’ve got to learn,” the elder Williams said. “That’s the only way the music is going to continue.”
“It’s a great feeling knowing that I’m continuing my history,” said Nathan “Lil Nathan” Williams Jr. “I’m proud to be passing the culture of Zydeco on to my little brother, who’s a vital part of my group.”
Naylon Williams, 14, sings and plays the accordion and keyboards.
Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis said the festival not only draws generations of talent, but generations of fans as well.
“The festival has grandchildren,” he said. “Somebody that was 20 then is 65 now. They have children, and their children have children. Because we are a family festival, we have been going through the generations.”