NEW ORLEANS — For the past 19 years, Chris and Bill Stotesbury have traveled from their home south of London for the French Quarter Fest along with a large group of fellow jazz enthusiasts.
For most in the silver-haired group — nearly all of whom live in the United Kingdom — their love affair with jazz began in the 1950s and 1960s. The music was new and exciting in England at that time, and “It was ours,” said Chris Stotesbury, recalling first hearing jazz when she was about 15 years old. She said that while their parents listened to either opera or big band music, when jazz came along it was the “pop of our day.”
Today, Trevor Todd of Buckinghamshire said that jazz is dying in the U.K., and the fans along with the musicians are getting older and older. Todd made his first journey to New Orleans with the group five years ago after winning a trip for two in a raffle.
The city, the atmosphere and the people are fantastic, Todd said. Listening to the music is “beyond my wildest dreams.”
“It’s such a lively music,” said Richard Hamm of Gibraltar, also a clarinet player. “It grabs you in and holds you. I hope it never dies out.”
The annual transatlantic trek began shortly after the Ken Colyer Trust was formed by friends and fans following the death of the Colyer in 1988. With about 40 people — down from 70 last year — this visit marks the group’s 22nd trip.
Colyer, a British trumpet player who was devoted to New Orleans jazz, arrived in New Orleans in his early 20s and had the opportunity to play with his musical heroes, including his idol George Lewis, before being put in prison for overstaying his visa. Once out, he was deported back to England where he formed a band and travelled around Europe, spreading New Orleans-style jazz across the ocean and urging everyone to “Go to New Orleans and listen to the real thing.”
Richard Stotesbury, who played with Colyer for 11 years, took to the stage with his banjo Thursday night for the group’s annual pool party — relocated inside a French Quarter hotel because of the inclement weather.
The band on stage was a mix of visitors and locals, and over the past two decades the Stotesburys have gotten to know numerous New Orleans musicians on a first-name basis.
Chris Stotesbury said that the trip was always been focused on the French Quarter Fest because the lineup feels the most like New Orleans jazz, is in the French Quarter and offers an experience that is more up close and personal with the musicians than at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Jazz Festival.
“It can lift you when you are down, and pull you down when you get too excited,” Stotesbury said of the genre.
As her husband played “A Closer Walk with Thee,” with the band, she said they were playing it in memory of a friend and a member of the trust who recently passed away. “I feel very emotional at the moment. That’s what I love most about jazz,” she said. “It brings all the emotions out.”
Stotesbury, who acts as the “on the ground host” for the trip, said one of her favorite parts is watching the people who have wanted to visit New Orleans for 50 years and are finally making it. Their faces when they see street signs like at the corner of St. Philip Street and Burgundy Street — both featured in the names of popular song titles — “It’s like their life dreams come true. And I get to experience it all the first time again through other people,” she said. “It’s wonderful to be able to show people both the city and the music.”
The group stays for about 10 days, and in addition to the festival incorporates a French Quarter walking tour, a parade, a swamp tour, brunches, a jazz tour, special concerts, as well as a “chat” most evenings to compare notes on the music seen during the day.
For the festival, which Stotesbury called a fabulous and exhausting three days, her program is to study the schedule and then wander, trying to listen to as many bands as possible.
Paul Harris, who has been visiting the city nearly every year since 1980, pulled out a carefully planned handwritten schedule from his pocket. Of course, there are always conflicts and difficult choices to make. Harris said he got hooked on jazz when he was 15 and heard a George Lewis record. He returns, and will continue to, for the people, the music and the food, he said.
Stotesbury said that when she is away from New Orleans and hears traditional jazz, she can feel the familiar emotions of being in the city. “It makes it more poignant,” she said. “And it always seems to give me a lift.”