Spirituality shines over New Orleans Jazz Fest

“Shout joyfully to God, all you on earth;

Sing of his glorious name;

Give him glorious praise.”

            — Psalm 66:1-2 

I landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport with a bedroll, four strawberry breakfast bars, three tea bags, my new red Somers Point Jazz Society T-shirt, a return ticket to Philadelphia, and a one day press pass to the 2009 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

This trip was a spiritual journey I was compelled to make. I hadn’t been in New Orleans since Katrina. My last day there was Easter Sunday sometime in the mid-90s when I went to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral and ate beignets at Café du Monde. I needed to feel, taste, hear and smell the city and look straight into the eyes of her people. I prayed that I would feel God’s presence in a place forsaken by many and still raw with wounds. What I found were citizens, known and unknown, filled with spirit, doing God’s work — praising him in song, word, and deed.

There was Aaron Neville on a steamy Saturday afternoon in Jazz Fest’s jam-packed gospel tent singing “Amazing Grace” with such intensity that he choked up. He pounded his hand against his heart as it to push the words out.

Bob Dylan (Chronicles, Volume One) said, “Aaron is one of the world’s great singers, a figure of rugged power, built like a tank but has the most angelic voice, a voice that could almost redeem a lost soul…. There’s so much spirituality in his singing.” I can say, “Amen” to that. From my vantage point on the stage, I witnessed it up close.

Neville, a devout Catholic, speaks openly about his religious convictions. In David Ritz’s liner notes for Bring It On Home…The Soul Classics, Neville confides, “I couldn’t help but think how this storm (Katrina) changed everything…. Thinking of how I lost my home, how three of my children…had all lost their homes. So much loss… But loss has its gains. Put your pain in the music and watch the pain flow out. Pain turns to gratitude for what you have, not what you lost.”

“I feel God in every song. God gave me my voice. My hope is that you hear him no matter what I’m singing… The songs and the love of God who creates the songs will set you free.”

Simultaneously, across the fairgrounds, another favorite son of New Orleans, Dr. John, (Mac Rebennack) pleaded in song and spoken word for the showing of reverence and respect for one another and our earth.

His song, “Save Our Wetlands,” co-written with Bobby Charles, is prayful:

            “Lord we need our wetlands

            To save us from the storm.

            Without our wetlands

            We’ll be a long long time gone.”

During a 2008 conversation with Dr. John on another hot fairgrounds, in Millville, N.J., I had asked him what grass roots organizations were giving the most needed direct aid to Katrina survivors.  His immediate response was, “The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic. Talk to Bethany at the clinic.” I later learned Bethany Bultman is the clinic’s unpaid CEO/President.

Now, thanks to Dr. John paving the way, I was sitting in Bultman’s yard sipping Jasmine tea and learning about this nonprofit healing center that is truly a Godsend for local musicians and their families.

The clinic, opened in 1998, was the brainchild of Dr. Jack McConnell and based on his volunteers in medicine (VIM) model. If that sounds familiar to Cape May County readers, it’s because we have a successful VIM clinic in Cape May Court House where uninsured patients are served whether they can pay or not.

The Musicians’ Clinic, with an emphasis on prevention, offers on-site or on referral primary care, screenings, lab work, physical therapy, mental health services, dental care, vision checkups, and prescriptions filled.

The Daughters of Charity contribute to the prescription fund, and the Archdiocese Department of Community Service under the guidance of Sister Anthony Barczykowski works with the clinic and its parent organization, the New Orleans Musician’s Assistance Foundation (NOMAF).

Sister Anthony’s name came up so many times in my interview with Bultman that I made an appointment to meet her. She was gracious, soft-spoken and passionate as she emphasized the resilience and deep spirituality of people of all faiths in every New Orleans neighborhood. Speaking of musicians, she said, “We need their music for our spiritual side.”

I flew home unburdened by material possessions, having passed along my sleeping bag and other stuff to somebody who needed them. I had come full circle and was surrounded by spirituality in greater measure than I ever could have imagined. God had answered my prayer.

 Sandy Warren is a freelance writer living in Ocean City.

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