As cantor at Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue, David Mintz is in charge of all things musical, enhancing worship through sacred sound.
But he says it wasn’t until he organized and led his first Jazz Fest Shabbat last spring that he truly understood what it meant to be cantor of this particular synagogue in this particular city.
“In a lot of ways, Touro Synagogue and Jazz Fest Shabbat are synonymous with one another,” Mintz said. “It’s an incredible Shabbat service that brings in elements of New Orleans tradition and Jewish tradition into this larger-than-life event.”
Tonight, Jazz Fest Shabbat celebrates its 25th anniversary with 2016 Grammy Award winner Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen topping the musical lineup. The service also features the Panorama Jazz Band, the Touro Synagogue Choir led by music director Terry Maddox and Mintz, a Boston native installed as Touro’s cantor in 2014.
The service is typically held on the first Friday night of Jazz Fest, but because the date, April 22, coincided with the first night of Passover this year, it was pushed back a week.
For the uninitiated, Jazz Fest Shabbat has all the elements of typical Shabbat service — the blessings, the prayers and many of the songs. But it is the infusion of jazz, funk and R&B, often with specially commissioned works of music and always with a big-name New Orleans musician or band, which packs the historical 900-seat sanctuary each year.
For this year’s service, Mintz commissioned a new rendition of the prayer “Hashkiveinu” from New York composer Toby Singer.
Mintz said the planning of Jazz Fest Shabbat is a yearround endeavor.
“We have a wonderful committee of lay leaders who meet all year long,” Mintz said. “As soon as Jazz Fest Shabbat is over, we’ll start talking about who might be a great artist for the following year. In 25 years, we’ve never had a repeat musician.”
This year, the committee chose Cleary, the British-born keyboardist and songwriter who earlier this year won his first Grammy Award — Best Regional Roots Music Album — for “GoGo Juice” and last week received the Big Easy Award for Entertainer of the Year.
“He just got back from tour of Southeast Asia and Europe,” Mintz said. “He is an incredible musician, and the fact that he won a Grammy this year makes Jazz Fest Shabbat even more special.”
Cleary follows in the footsteps of such Jazz Fest stars as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, John Boutte, Dr. Michael White, Kermit Ruffins and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, which headlined the very first Jazz Fest Shabbat 25 years ago.
Rabbi Emeritus David Goldstein, now on the faculty of Tulane University’s Jewish Studies Program, credits Touro’s late cantor, Stephen Dubov, with creating the wildly popular service in 1991.
“It was his vision,” Goldstein said. “He had enormous energy, possessed a magnificent voice and was a great showman. His enthusiasm and engaging personality were infectious, and he rallied the congregation to attempt what to many of us seemed almost impossible.
“I vividly remember our first Jazz Fest Shabbat and a congregation that barely filled half the sanctuary,” he said. “By the time of our fifth Jazz Fest Shabbat, the sanctuary was packed, and people were standing out the doors on the street.”
The lines to get in have only gotten longer, and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Mintz said guests can avoid the lines by becoming a patron, which includes VIP seating, a dinner and special music performance with Cleary. Other than that, he said, “The only advice I can give is to try to get here early.”