When the inaugural Boston Globe WGBH Summer Arts Weekend kicks off in Copley Square on Friday, it will be with a tremendous helping hand from New Orleans.
While the festival will feature a wide range of musical genres, everything from pop to Celtic, Crescent City’s powerful jazz and soul scenes will make an especially strong showing, with the likes of “Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas, the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and the Soul Rebels Brass Band.
“The design of this weekend, this festival is not by coincidence. We wanted an earthiness to the music, a deep sense of what indigenous American music means,” Brian O’Donovan, Summer Arts Weekend artistic director, says of the jazz and soul stars slated to perform. “And you will certainly get that on Friday, day one.”
The first two days of the festival, in fact, revolve around soul, jazz, and folk veterans like Thomas, Preservation Hall, and singer Suzanne Vega.
More than just large helpings of jazz and soul though, Summer Arts Weekend will offer several first-time collaborations between the jazz and soul heavyweights on the bill and artists from other genres.
“The neat thing, the wonderful thing, is that by the end of the evening Friday and a couple of times on Saturday, some of these giants in classic American music who haven’t performed together before or who hadn’t met before the Summer Arts Weekend will team up for performances. You’ll have black, white, bluegrass, jazz, Latin, even classical on Sunday, coming together. I mean [bluegrass artist] Del McCoury and Preservation Hall? Beautiful. . . . I’ve always believed that to open people up to different genres of music that they might not otherwise listen to is a great gift.”
For their part, the artists seem to be excited for the same reasons as O’Donovan.
Ben Jaffe, director of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, says his parents, who founded the band 50 years ago would have loved the “layout” of Summer Arts Weekend.
“I guess you could call it self-serving, but jazz really does capture the essence of the American spirit,” Jaffe says. “In New Orleans we have great gumbo. Jazz really is a stew made of the best elements of so many musical genres, and more important than that, driven by many of the artists’ life experiences.”
Jaffe’s parents, who were white, were the first performance venue owners in New Orleans to integrate and invite black artists to perform there, and to have artists of different races perform together, he says.
“Preservation Hall is a collective. One member may change and the band sort of moves a slightly different direction, this way or that from time to time,” Jaffe says. “My point is collaboration is at the heart of what we do and who we are, our music and our style. And we don’t compromise that.
“But some of the most enjoyable performances are when we pull ourselves out of our zone and throw an audience a curve by joining with an artist from a completely different genre. We just played a rock show with My Morning Jacket a few days ago. We shared a stage with Wilco. . . . It crushes the notion that jazz is about one type of person or one age group.”
Irma Thomas, dubbed the “Soul Queen of New Orleans” by former New Orleans mayor Sidney Barthelemy, says, to borrow a phrase from a younger generation, that she is “geeked” about Summer Arts Weekend’s collaborative nature.
But since she’s been crossing genres in studio and on stage for decades, she’s most excited about “performing with the audience.”
“What I mean by that is I don’t take the stage with a playlist,” Thomas says. “It drives concert organizers crazy, but I stopped doing that years ago. I literally look to establish a relationship and a conversation with the audience when I go on. So what do I sing? It depends on what they audience wants. If you’ve been to one of my concerts before, or even if you haven’t, I ask what you want and the answer I get is what I sing. We’re there for the crowds, right?”
Thomas, 71, and arguably best known for her hit 1964 single “Time Is on My Side” — which has been covered hundreds of times over the years, most famously by the Rolling Stones — says based on the reception she’s gotten in past Boston performances, she expects lots of requests for “Time,” along with “Don’t Mess With My Man,” and “It’s Raining.”
“People love the old ones,” she says. “You know for years I wouldn’t sing ‘Time Is on My Side,’ because so many people would approach me and say, ‘Hey, you’re singing that Rolling Stones song!’ The Stones never did that to me. They acknowledged me. And when I met Mick Jagger he was so gracious and nice about it. But it still annoyed me that so many fans just didn’t know their music history. I’ve noticed in Boston that knowledge isn’t a problem. There’s a real appreciation.”
Lumar LeBlanc, snare drummer and cofounder of the Soul Rebels, says his band’s collaborations go back two decades when they opened for and performed with the Neville Brothers at Tipitina’s in Uptown New Orleans.
“We’ve been doing that a long time,” LeBlanc says. “I believe it’s how you grow as an artist, or at least one of the ways you grow, by opening your mind and heart to other musicians and what they bring.”
Collaborations make good business sense too, LeBlanc says, adding, “you reach more people that way too. There’s a reason they say music is a universal language. If you can get someone, anyone with a real appreciation for soulful music, to listen, they’ll get it. They’ll understand even if they’ve never heard your band before. Our latest album is called ‘Open Your Mind.’ That’s no coincidence either!”
Some critics have said the band is a collaboration in and of itself. The Village Voice described the Soul Rebels, a jazz-funk-reggae-rock-blues hybrid, as “the missing link between Public Enemy and Louis Armstrong.”
Like Thomas, LeBlanc says Soul Rebels expect audience requests for the band’s early work
“We’ve performed in Boston plenty,” LeBlanc says. “Fans of the genre, of what we do, tend to want to hear anything upbeat. That’s what we hear, upbeat, upbeat, upbeat, please! But it’s often stuff from albums like ‘No More Parades’ and ‘Rebelution.’ ”
Though she came up more in the singer-songwriter mold, Suzanne Vega — who has in-laws in the Boston ’burbs — is excited by the weekend’s collaborative aspect as well.
“The music is the music,” she says. “Jazz, soul, blues — they all overlap and all come with a sense of feeling and emotion and experience that you might not collectively get elsewhere.”
But in terms of how she performs, Vega says her sets will be intimate, though she’s looking forward to a high-energy “party performance” with Providence-based band the Low Anthem.
“Some places call for a special set because they have a special understanding for music,” Vega says. “Boston’s one of those areas. There’ll be a lot of the songs from my ‘Solitude Standing’ album. I know folks are going to want ‘Tom’s Diner.’ And this being an outdoor festival, I’ll be doing a little less talking than I normally do and push the crowd to sing along with me.”
BOSTON GLOBE WGBH SUMMER ARTS WEEKEND
With Irma Thomas, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Soul Rebels Brass Band,
Suzanne Vega, the Low Anthem,
Del McCoury, Sierra Hull and more.
At: Copley Plaza, Friday, 7-10:30 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.;
Sunday, 1-5:30 p.m. Free.
Special “Copley Club” after-hours performances at the Fairmont Copley Plaza Oval Room, Friday and Saturday, 9 p.m. Tickets: $65. For full festival information and lineup, visit www.bostonsummerarts.com
James H. Burnett III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story misidentified Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Soul Rebels Brass Band in photo captions. The captions have been revised to correctly identify the bands.