Gris-gris fucking excellence” — Dr. John bellowed the lyric, from the hit song on his famous debut album, to a buzzing crowd on the second night of August’s Telluride Jazz Festival in Colorado. The parlance in his praise may have suggested New Orleans, but the blues legend, clad head-to-toe in purple and sitting behind a grand piano, was holding court at a location far more surreal.
Dr. John, along with The Funky Meters, had just wrapped a rollicking 90-minute set from a stage situated at bottom of a box canyon, nestled between firs and pines, flanked by the towering San Juan mountains in every direction. It was the highlight of a music festival that is both exceedingly unique and proof of jazz’s continuing renaissance.
All weekend, the crowd was genial and relaxed, the venue picturesque and spacious, the bands loose and jovial. At Telluride Jazz Festival, you will see grown men and women smoking legal weed, children fishing in a stream running through the park, and locals sprawled out under canopies on chairs and blankets. You will not see the appropriating of Native American headdresses or “sponsor activations.” In fact, this may just be the festival for those who couldn’t typically stomach the thought of a festival.
The band booking was smart, too, including transgenerational classics like Dr. John and Mavis Staples, but also spotlighting younger talent that hint at jazz’s future, like Miles Mosley, fatsO, and Davina and the Vagabonds. Many musicians played sideshows at intimate concert halls, like the jaw-dropping Sheridan Opera House (where I saw Mosley), or in outdoor parks.
In keeping with the festival’s relaxed, intimate atmosphere, I swapped a few gear stories with the musicians.
Dr. John’s Most Memorable Instrument
“I was playing my 335 Gibson at a gig in Jacksonville when my band’s singer Ronnie Barron was getting pistol whipped. His momma had told me if anything happened to her son, she would cut off my cojones, so I got my finger shot off grabbing the gun. After that, (James) Booker taught me to play the organ. And that was a blessing.”
[The shooting was in 1961, and doctors reattached his left hand’s ring finger. He has no idea what became of the guitar.]
Davina Sowers’s Touring Essentials
Singer and Keyboardist, Davina and the Vagabonds
“The things I cannot survive without on tour — Ruby Woo red lipstick, Tiger Balm, honey, and, most importantly, my all-in-one, magnificent husband, the love of my life, soul mate, rational thinker, and patient road manager Zack Lozier.”
Andy Comeau on the Magic of Gear
Bandleader and Saxophonist, Vaud and the Villains
“I once had a pair of shoes sent to me anonymously…like, old, unworn boxing shoes. They came with a note that said they were willed to me in 1932. I have taken them to every show with me since.
“My grandpa made costume jewelry for big celebrities, and we had boxes and boxes of old glass beads sitting on the farm where I grew up. Peaches made the foot ‘bracelets’ that you see in the picture, and the girls wear them in the Arabian dance number.
“And the other is my first instrument, the tenor. This one, I’ve been playing in Vaud and the Villains for about seven years. I never went looking for it. I went looking for a mouthpiece and saw it up on the wall. I’ve left it behind on tour twice and once on a train in Italy…but we always find our way back to each other.”