On Saturday morning, New Orleans poet and singer Tarriona “Tank” Ball stood with her band behind the stage. Her set list was ready. Her old-school outfit was perfect. Her famous hair was twisted into two neat buns on top of her head.
Then, right before she walked onstage, it happened. “I got hit with 50 bazillion butterflies,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s really happening.’ ”
Ball, a native New Orleanian, was born into a musical family and grew up singing with her dad, mom and three older sisters. Over the past few years, her band, Tank & the Bangas, has played nearly every local celebration. But when the band made its debut Saturday on the Gentilly Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, she felt they had reached a milestone.
“It is Jazz Fest,” she said, simply.
Ball was especially happy that her mother, Michele Hammond, was on hand to see that people were dancing and singing to her music. “I want her to know that I love what I’m doing and that other people love it, too,” she said.
For many fans, the local acts are still the heart and soul of the festival’s lineup, despite the presence of international stars like The Who and Elton John. And even New Orleans performers who grew up playing in parades on the festival grounds or as sidemen in different bands say being tapped to head up a Jazz Fest stage is an important affirmation of their work.
Few other gigs compare to Jazz Fest for saxophonist Khris Royal, even though he’s traveled the world with his band, Dark Matter.
“It’s a big deal to me, to be from New Orleans and to be able to play at what I consider one of the greatest festivals in the world,” Royal said.
“Jazz Fest is the Super Bowl for New Orleans musicians. Everybody brings their A game for Jazz Fest,” said Glen David Andrews, whose first Fair Grounds gigs were as grand marshal for a children’s brass band called the Olympia Kids. On days he didn’t work, he’d jump crypts at the nearby St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, scale walls or cut through the Fair Grounds’ horse stables to get in, he said.
Paul Sanchez, who grew up in the Irish Channel, used to chop ice in a Jazz Fest beer booth so he could see musicians like Odetta and Pete Seeger, whom he’d otherwise heard only on the radio. Then, in 1992, Sanchez played Jazz Fest with his band Cowboy Mouth.
Afterward, he remembers, he was lounging in the grass near the stage with friends watching the clouds pass overhead. “And my friend said, ‘Look at you — you just played Jazz Fest,’ ” Sanchez said. “It was an amazing feeling, and it remains so.”
Sappy as it sounds, musicians say there’s a sort of magic in the muddy fields of the old race track’s infield. “Once you come onto that Fair Grounds, something just comes over you,” Andrews said.
An auspicious debut
Lois Nelson remembers walking in 1970 to what is now Armstrong Park to watch performers like Pete Fountain, Fats Domino and Mahalia Jackson at the first festival, held in Congo Square, then called Beauregard Square.
That first year, Nelson was part of a crowd of about 350 people. Last year, as she watched her son Troy Andrews close out the festival on the Acura Stage — a coveted spot he first was tapped for in 2013 — crowds over the two weekends were estimated at 435,000.
Twenty-five years ago, Nelson had dressed the boy in a white shirt and black shorts to play a brass-band gig with his older brother, James Andrews. Then she walked with Troy, who was 4 years old, around the Fair Grounds. When she saw a big crowd, she hoisted him and his trombone to her shoulders because she didn’t want him getting crushed.
One crowd had gathered to see R&B guitarist and singer Bo Diddley, said Nelson, who stopped to see the show from the back of the crowd. She cautioned Troy not to play because he wasn’t a part of this band.
Then she heard a familiar tone above her. She cringed. Up onstage, Diddley stopped his band in the middle of a number. “Hold up, hold up,” he told his musicians, as he scanned the crowd.
“Who is that stepping on my act?” he asked.
When the crowd pointed at the small trombonist on Nelson’s shoulders, Diddley motioned for Troy to come forward.
Nelson handed her son from her shoulders to the person in front of her, and the crowd passed “Trombone Shorty” overhead, from person to person, all the way up to the stage. There, with Diddley watching in amazement, little Troy made his Acura Stage debut.
The festival was not always the smooth-running ship it is now, said singer John Boutte, who put together a red-hot horn section for his debut Jazz Fest gig 25 years ago. He remembers being nervous.
But when he arrived, he found that his biography in the program had been switched with that of another singer, also named John, who specialized in singing Cajun French songs of the 1800s. “They had billed me as ‘New Orleans’ own Maurice Chevalier,’ ” Boutte said, referring to the famous French singer and actor.
Relationships between the festival and New Orleans musicians occasionally go through growing pains, as up-and-coming bands become marquee names in their own right.
Phil Frazier, from the Rebirth Brass Band, recalled the point when his band, like many others before it, told Jazz Fest organizers it was time for a raise. “We basically said, ‘You know we’re bigger than we were,’ ” Frazier said. After some negotiations, they agreed on a new fee.
“We’re straight now,” said Frazier, who’s now such a Jazz Fest icon that he’s been featured with his famous sousaphone on the festival’s annual poster.
And even though both Jazz Fest and Rebirth have grown since the band’s first gig there in 1986, the vibe has remained the same. “You’re home, and you’re so pumped,” Frazier said. “The adrenaline gets so high.”
For years, Frazier’s family and closest friends from the 6th Ward took a school bus to the Fair Grounds and packed the backstage during his performances. “It got ridiculous. We outgrew the bus,” Frazier said. Yet the backstage is still an annual gathering spot — “a total full family reunion,” he said.
“It’s a coming-home party,” said Irma Thomas, who at 74 has been playing the festival for 40 years and counts on it as a way to stay in touch with fans and fellow musicians.
‘Basking in the moment’
On Saturday, once Ball walked onto the Gentilly Stage, the butterflies seemed to dissipate. Almost immediately, the crowd began grooving to the band’s tight rhythm section, with the help of a group of avid fans in the center-front.
Ball’s older sister, Tiffany Mickel, was part of that group, as was friend Lacy Binafegha, who acted almost like a director, getting the crowd to dance, wave their hands and respond to Ball’s call-and-response choruses.
But no one was more proud of Ball than her mother, who looked up at her daughter, beaming.
“This baby came from me!” said Hammond, who said she was elated to see her youngest daughter ace her debut at the city’s most famous festival.
“I am basking in the moment,” she said.