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Experience the world's largest jam session

On a raised stage under a banner bearing a crucifixion scene, five black women in billowing gowns sway and sweat, arms outreached, as they wail about sinful souls and kingdom come.

"Have you overdosed on the Holy Ghost?" shouts the Baptist minister who is also the emcee here in the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

"No!" answers the audience, as the singers hit a crescendo. The tightly packed tent seems to pulsate and swell with the performance. Sweet notes swirl round and round like a tonal tornado, bringing the crowd to its feet in a frenzy of spirituality.

At Jazzfest, the music is the message, whether its the save-your-soul fervor of the gospel tent, the bold brass of the jazz bands or the joyful rub-board-and-accordion funk of the Cajun and zydeco stages.

The 23-year-old festival is a feast of Southern cultures and styles so well represented in the gumbo that is New Orleans _ black, Cajun, Creole, French, Spanish and Native American. Music is part of the city's soul. Jazzfest brings all the styles together for two consecutive long weekends each year _ April 24-26 and April 30-May 3 this year.

It's America's biggest musical party in the country's biggest party town. Up to 60 bands a day entertain _ many simultaneously _ at 11 stages and tents. There's also a kids' tent, with musical performances, magicians, clowns and storytellers.

The lineup for 1992 has not been firmed up, but artists on last year's roster included blues legend B.

B. King; soul great Irma Thomas; jazz dynamos Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr. (both New Orleans natives) and the late Miles Davis; and the Tex Mex group Los Lobos. Among locals who have made it big nationally are Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco, Marva Wright and the Radiators.

For the $10 price of a day's admission, festival goers can gorge on great music from morning until night, with a break for sustenance at one of the food stalls that sell about 90 kinds of vittles: jambalaya, deep-fried catfish, alligator sausages, shrimp po-boys (the New Orleans version of a hero sandwich on enormous chunks of soft French bread).

Some people wait all year for the smoky barbecued chicken served up by the Second True Love Baptist Church, the coconut confections from Loretta's Authentic Pralines or a pecan tart from Omar the Pieman.

Jazzfest is held on the grassy infield of the 140-acre New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track, about a 10-minute drive northwest from the French Quarter. Technically, the daytime concerts at the racetrack are called the Louisiana Heritage Fair. The jazz festival segment refers to evening concerts (which cost extra) held at other local venues during the 10-day period from April 24 to May 3. But most people just call everything Jazzfest.

The festival started in 1969 as little more than a backyard jam session, but it has grown into a mammoth industry that last year drew an estimated 333,000 paid admissions.

Run by the non-profit New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, with corporate sponsorship, Jazzfest rivals the Super Bowl and the NCAA Basketball Tournament as a local moneymaker, bringing in more than $71-million last year to New Orleans' sorely depressed economy. The survey that provided these figures also calculated that 41 percent of the visitors were from outside New Orleans, with perhaps 7,400 coming from Florida.

However far they come, the crowds have the opportunity at Jazzfest to savor live the famous bands they've enjoyed on recordings or videotape. But it's also an opportunity to discover budding talents or long-standing local performers who are unsung beyond the Big Easy. The 300-plus performers are selected from several thousand applicants. Even the food sellers must compete to get into the act.

You'll hear plenty of Cajun, a regional favorite featuring accordion, rub-board and fiddle; as well as zydeco, a black offshoot of Cajun that's heavy on rhythm and blues but uses no fiddle. Gospel's a high note here; there's also Afro-Caribbean, blues, ragtime, folk, country and western, bluegrass and plenty of other sounds that defy traditional labels. This year, an international accent will be added by performers from Haiti, Senegal, Zimbabwe and Mali.

The amount and variety of talent is dizzying and, indeed, most people have to consult the festival program (which has a diagram of the grounds and a schedule of performances at each tent and stage) to navigate through the riches.

Some festival goers just pay the entrance fee, pick a promising stage, and then plunk themselves and their ice chests down on a blanket for the duration of the day, enjoying whatever bands happen to be in the lineup for that locale. Connoisseurs, of course, plan the day as they would a fine meal, using the program as a menu.

Some of the most popular bands _ Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Buckwheat Zydeco _ draw so large a crowd that the normal divisions between the stages are obliterated. The gospel tent is usually overflowing, the masses spilling out of the tent flaps, happily clapping along for salvation.

In the tent devoted to the polished sounds of progressive jazz, the response usually is polite head-bobbing, while in the hall dedicated to traditional jazz, young children bounce atop their fathers' shoulders as aged men in formal jackets and cummerbunds play ragtime or Dixieland.

Over at the Cajun and zydeco stages, half the audience will swing their partners in a Cajun waltz, while the singer-accordionist wails in a French-like dialect, a rub-board player stroking rhythmically alongside him.

Any blues singer worth his woes will arouse couples to slow bumps and grinds, and a fast beat anywhere is likely to inspire a conga line of New Orleans' own down-home version of the limbo _ minus the pole. Bending backward, legs spread and knees bent low, participants hop over a watermelon, their hips gyrating suggestively.

The crowds, though huge, are amazingly mellow. If this were most big cities and this many people were crushed against each other in this much humid heat with this amount of beer, there'd almost certainly be an occasional punch thrown and a quota of drug busts.

But here in the Big Easy, people just smile and give the high sign as strangers step on their toes en route to choice roosting spots, or push their way toward the front of the stage. The police on duty are more likely to be found snacking at the food booths than hassling the entrepreneurs who snake through the crowd hawking Dixie beer at $2 a pop and periodically hissing: "I trade for joints."

Judi Dash is a travel writer living in New Jersey.


For information, contact the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Foundation Inc., 1205 N Rampart St., New Orleans, La. 70153-3407; (504) 522-4786.

The University of New Orleans is staging a five-day Louisiana Culture and Heritage Educational Conference starting April 24, the first day of this year's Jazzfest. Experts will discuss the history of the fest and of New Orleans, folklore and culture of Arcadiana (popularly known as Cajun country), and New Orleans cuisine.

The $250 fee includes course materials, tickets to the Jazzfest April 24-26, continental breakfasts and transportation from the campus to the festival site. For information, contact the U.N.O. Department of Conference Services, (504) 286-7118.