What began as a relaxing family vacation ended in tragedy. Guitarist Zachary Breaux and his wife were meandering along a beach in Florida when someone spotted an older woman in the water screaming for help. In a moment both impulsive and heroic, Breaux lept into the sweeping currents to rescue her. The reason for the woman's struggle soon became apparent though, as the powerful rip tides began pulling him under too. In the end, neither swimmer survived.
All of this took place while Breaux's wife frantically tried to find help. A long legal battle ensued with the City of Miami over the lack of lifeguards and missing rip tide warning signs, resulting in large sums of money being paid to the respective families. Breaux's wife received five million dollars. The husband of the woman, a rabbi in New York, received one million.
Breaux, an alum of the famed North Texas One O'Clock Lab Band, was a native of Port Arthur, Texas. Since 2008 the town has sponsored a jazz festival in his name. This past weekend I had the opportunity to perform at this event.
Port Arthur sits on the Gulf shores of East Texas, two hours southeast of Houston. It's not a pretty place, certainly much less appealing than Miami Beach. But like anywhere else in the world, especially those that are lonely and out of the way, a good time is always welcome. Jazz Fest? Laissez les bon temps rouler!
A friend did the driving, heading east on I-10 and then onto a series of smaller roads that led us closer to the shipping ports that define the area's economy. Nestled off a winding freeway exit, Port Arthur is a town punctuated by large oil storage silos. In the heat of the midday sun, two men wearing what looked like space suits hovered overhead on circular scaffolds blasting spray-paint through a stencil. Naturally, we kept an eye out for Janis Joplin and Bun B tributes, but none appeared.
Like many other cities on the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur continues to suffer from unattended hurricane damage. In this case, it's Rita, five years later, still evident in the seemingly endless row of abandoned store fronts, caved-in buildings, and ragged blue roof tarps flapping in the ocean breeze.
In all our gawking, we got lost, our GPS having (mis)guided us deep into a neighborhood I'm sure the event planners would have preferred we not find. But all this sight-seeing was interesting too. Here, citizens of all races congregated on front stoops to escape the heat of their unconditioned, uninsulated homes. There were wooden churches along side fast food chains and liquor stores. A hand-painted sign dangling from the entrance of one such place read "do not sell drugs on the premises." A few blocks down the road, an enormous inflatable castle swarmed with happy children. All of this under the glare of imposing oil refineries visible on every horizon.
After many wrong turns, we finally arrived at the metal-roofed stage where 50 or so festival attendees sat patiently in their own foldable chairs. An enormous sound system with a thunderous low-end rattled the concrete--certainly more power than they needed, but it filled everyone with a welcome sense of awe and of power. The Breaux festival is not a big event. It has only one stage supported by less than a dozen vendors hawking crawfish, shrimp, creole sugary fritters, and bottled sodas. And no alcohol.
Walking onto the stage, we saw an ocean of folded arms and blank stares. It would be a tough crowd. We diligently pushed ahead though, playing our songs to a bored audience. Then, in the middle of a slow R&B tune, our saxophonist lept off stage to wander among them. Suddenly everyone had a camera trained on our ambulatory leader, some standing in line to photograph him as he waved his black tenor saxophone in the air. The connection had been made. We finished with a shuffle.
On the way home, I watched egrets wade in shallow marshes as the refineries disappeared from the horizon. Soon small roads morphed into monotonous freeways. I realized then how towns like this get neglected, economically and otherwise. With that in mind, I recommend this festival to anyone looking for an unusual day trip. The music was soulful and energetic, the food was sultry and southern. And they need your business.
Originally published June 13th, 2010: Reprinted from http://fauxmat.wordpress.com/
This year's festival is June 8th-9th. For more information, please visit: http://www.zacharybreauxjazzfestival.com/