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New Orleans Jazz Fest draws dancing, cheering fans

Associated Press | 5/6/2009, 5:17 a.m.
The Ladies of Unity Social Aid and Pleasure Club stop to pose for fans as they dance around the Economy Hall tent at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans on Sunday, May 3, 2009. AP /Judi Bottoni

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The Ladies of Unity Social Aid and Pleasure Club stop to pose for fans as they dance around the Economy Hall tent at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans on Sunday, May 3, 2009.

NEW ORLEANS — Blues singer and pianist Marcia Ball had thousands of people on their feet, dancing and cheering, as she played “Party Town” to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival crowd last Friday.

“New Orleans, New Orleans, that’s where I want to be,” Ball sang, “you can let your hair hang down, ’cause New Orleans is a party town.”

The 60-year-old Ball was among those performing on the festival’s biggest stage, along with Bonnie Raitt, the Cajun band BeauSoleil and country group Sugarland. Among last Friday’s local favorites were singer Charmaine Neville, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

Though Ball now lives in Austin, she grew up in Louisiana and has been performing at Jazz Fest since 1978. She brings with her a rabid fan following.

“She’s fantastic,” said Julie Cullen of Baton Rouge, La., wearing a straw hat as she bobbed to Ball’s rendition of “Party Town,” written by Bobby Charles. “She’s so much fun, and I love the way her legs don’t stop even though she’s sitting down.”

Ball, in an interview earlier last week, said she looks forward to playing at Jazz Fest each year.

“It’s the best gig in the world,” she said. “There’s really nothing else like it.”

Ball said New Orleans is a big part of who she is as an artist. From an early age she learned the piano playing styles of some of the city’s most noted artists, including Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and James Booker. She counted pianist Allen Toussaint, the subject of this year’s official Jazz Fest poster, among her biggest inspirations.

New Orleans and its musicians have “made me everything I am,” she said.

More than 80 percent of the acts at Jazz Fest are from Louisiana. But some fans come for the unusual.

For example, attorney Ed Trapolin of New Orleans, watched a music and dance performance by a Benin tribe from western Africa and an American Indian powwow by the Carolina Tuscarora stomp and smoke dancers of North Carolina.

Trapolin, 46, said he can catch a local performer any time.

“This is awesome,” he said, nodding his head to the drum beats of a Benin tribe of masked men who stomped and danced with fans of black feathers.

Besides music, Jazz Fest offers a host of food and craft booths, some that include the history and making of New Orleans pottery, jewelry, clothes and Mardi Gras.

One exhibit operated by the city’s Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club shows passers-by the process of preparing and decorating coconuts handed out to revelers during Mardi Gras.

“It’s a long process,” said Zulu historian Clarence Becknell Sr., who said each coconut must be shaved, painted, decorated and given time to dry — a process that takes about an hour. He said each of the Zulu club’s 500 members make roughly 400 coconuts to hand out during Mardi Gras each year.

“It’s handmade, and it’s a tradition since 1910,” Becknell said. “You put your heart into it.”

Jazz Fest, whose primary sponsor is Shell Oil Co., also featured performances by Toussaint, Dr. John, Bon Jovi, Kings of Leon, Cowboy Mouth, The O’Jays, Neil Young, The Radiators and The Neville Brothers.

(Associated Press)