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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This morning, at 11 o'clock in New Orleans, the gates to the fairgrounds racetrack will open for the 37th annual Jazz and Heritage Festival.

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MONTAGNE: Hundreds of thousands are expected to attend the music celebration over the next two weeks to hear rhythm and blues, jazz, more than 40 gospel singers, harmony groups, and choirs.

This year's festival, the first since Katrina, has adopted the motto Witness the Healing Power of Music. Nowhere will this be more evident than in the festival's Gospel Tent.

Music journalist Ashley Kahn spoke with two men who helped create what is considered the heart and non-denominational soul of New Orleans Jazz Fest.

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ASHLEY KAHN reporting:

Jazz Fest is part of the rhythm of life in New Orleans, one of the vital signs of a city in recovery. Festival Director Quint Davis feels that it's most popular stage provides an accurate measure of the city's health.

Mr. QUINT DAVIS (Festival Director, Jazz and Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana): The Gospel Tent, probably more than any other, is the beacon as to what's happening with the community, particularly the black community. Because in order to have a Gospel Tent you have to have a community, you have to have churches, you have to have people.

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A lot of people up there will have lost everything and be struggling to come back. And when they come in there, they talk about having church. So it's not a church, but it's a place where you have church.

Unidentified Female #1: Can I take y'all to church for a moment?

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Unidentified Female #1: Or can we go to church for a little while longer?

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KAHN: As long as there has been a Jazz Fest, there has a Gospel Tent. Since 1970 it has presented legends like Mahalia Jackson, Shirley Caesar and the Dixie Hummingbirds. But almost all of the groups have been homegrown, as heard on these live recordings from 1996.

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Mr. DAVIS: Gospel music is an enormous, enormous, probably the largest musical tradition, bigger than jazz, in the black community.

KAHN: Davis was only 23 years old when he put together New Orleans first Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Mr. DAVIS: At that time, 1970, not many white people had seen black gospel in its full glory. So we got kind of on a little mission there, to bring gospel down to the front of the buses, we called it.

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Mr. DAVIS: The Gospel Tent we had in the first year was basically a 10-by-20 foot canopy pole tent, no sides, no stage, no sound system, an upright piano in the grass. Somehow, Sherman, you know, got with us and said I'll get the group for you.

KAHN: Sherman is New Orleans own gospel legend, Sherman Washington.

Mr. SHERMAN WASHINGTON (Gospel Singer): I think that was the best thing in my life. I've been doing this for, I think, around close to 20, 38 years, I'm sorry. God's work is very strong and powerful. He's in the music and it comes down in the Gospel Tent.

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KAHN: But even God's work can hit a few bumps, especially when it comes to the separation of church and the state of partying that takes place outside the Gospel Tent.

Mr. WASHINGTON: A few times, I had a little conflict with some ministers saying that, you know, that people would bring in liquor, into the Gospel Tent, but it wasn't nothing to do no damage.

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KAHN: Today's Gospel Tent can hold up to 1,500 people. That it's consistently packed is a testament to the universal appeal of a music that reaches people of all beliefs.

Mr. DAVIS: Gospel music can move everybody, 'cause there is absolutely nothing between what is in their soul and what comes out of their instrument.

Mr. WASHINGTON: All of us, we looking up to the same God.

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KAHN: At the age of 80, Washington continues to run the Gospel Tent and still leads a group whose harmonies reach back to the a cappella roots of modern gospel music.

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Mr. WASHINGTON: My group named Zion Harmonizers and we were the first ones singing at the Gospel Tent.

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Yeah, man, we've been around 67 years. I'm the only one left that's still alive in the group.

KAHN: I asked Sherman Washington, after all of his years of singing, to name his favorite gospel tune.

Mr. WASHINGTON: Never Alone, that's my favorite. (Singing) No never alone.

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Mr. WASHINGTON: I'm right at 80 years old now, and I still love it. But I know God gonna let me keep the health, strength to keep going. God is still in charge.

KAHN: Jazz Fest fans often use the word pilgrimage when speaking of attending the annual two-week celebration in New Orleans. And the Gospel Tent is the big reason why. It's a festival within a festival, presenting music that has always been uplifting and that is now being called on to help heal a city.

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MONTAGNE: Ashley Kahn is the author of the soon-to-be published book The House that Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation archives contributed much of the material heard here.

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MONTAGNE: You can hear more New Orleans gospel music and peek into the Gospel Tent at our website, npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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