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Q&A: JOHN GROS/PAPA GROWS FUNK

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The official Web site for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival describes the annual event as a “cultural feast” showcasing “unforgettable music.”

Papa Grows Funk leader John Gros (above left) believes there is more to this year’s edition than just eats and entertainment.

The 39-year-old Gros — who was born in New Orleans, raised in Baton Rouge, La., and currently resides in the area known as Old Jefferson — sees Jazz Fest ’06 as yet another step toward the Big Easy’s recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

Since the storm, Gros says, New Orleans has remained a tight-knit music community, and his main band is among the Crescent City acts that will be participating in Jazz Fest ’06, which begins April 28.

Medleyville.us Prior to Hurricane Katrina, how would you describe the camaraderie among New Orleans musicians?
John Gros: “The camaraderie was great. Of course, there is competition for work, but that’s business. There is so much friendship, love and musical sharing between musicians. It’s really like a small town in those regards.”

Were bands that relocated to the city treated as equals right from the start, or were there dues to pay, so to speak?
Gros: “Definitely dues had to be paid. But all musicians, locals and transplants, have to pay dues as they climb the musical ladder. Those who do their homework, work hard and apply what they know to their craft are rewarded with playing with better musicians in better musical environments and get better pay.”

How has the camaraderie changed post-Katrina?
Gros: “There is stronger friendship between musicians and more sitting in amongst musicians. Since we were displaced, it is a joy to see friends all over the country as well as at home.”

Describe how you felt when Papa Grows Funk played its first show after the hurricane.
Gros: “Whew! Our first gig was in San Francisco at The Independent. The love in the room was emotional, intense — lots of hugs and long chitchats about how everyone fared. People were wondering how other musicians and mutual friends made out in the storm. We played Randy Newman‘s “Louisiana 1927,” and I fought back the tears through the entire song. Another moment was singing “Walking to New Orleans” five days later at the Triple Door in Seattle, and [I] had the same emotional battle. Six months later, we were in North Carolina, and people were still wondering how things were. There is so much love and concern for the city of New Orleans and its people. I guess that’s why I’m doing this interview.”

The latest Papa Grows Funk album is Live at the Leaf. Why release a concert disc at this point in the band’s career?
Gros: “Our fan base and national interest has grown because of our live shows. We have two great studio discs that represent our songwriting and song presentation or compositions, if you will. Our live performance showcases our ability as a band to change on a dime, improvise and slay any groove. Our fans wanted to hear what they hear at a PGF show on a disc. We didn’t feel like the sound quality of any of the traded taped shows captured our sound. And lastly, we wanted to introduce Jeffrey “Jellybean” Alexander, our newest addition to the band, to our fan base.”

Taping is permitted at Papa Grows Funk shows. Is there any fear within the band that sales of Live at the Leaf won’t meet expectations because some fans may already possess what’s on it?
Gros:Live at the Leaf is the best live Papa Grows Funk available for download or on CD. It was recorded on our home turf, the Maple Leaf bar, during our busiest and most exciting time of year — Jazz Fest. Sonically, Live at the Leaf kills any other live show ever made public.”

Do you sense a different feel around the city leading up to this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival?
Gros: “New Orleans and its musicians are so ready for Jazz Fest. Every year we are, but this year there is something different in the air. We’re curious if it’s gonna be a blockbuster year or is it gonna be a backyard bash with our closest friends. Either way, it will show the world that New Orleans culture is alive and well, even though our city is not.
“The other thing that is different this year is that before the storm, New Orleanians took our city and its culture for granted. For a brief time, Katrina took our city with its culture away from us. As we repopulate the city and get back into our routines of whatever daily life we have, we no longer take our city, its people and our culture of music and food for granted. We as a city appreciate all that we have to offer. People will see that when they come for Jazz Fest and/or any other time of year.”

PGF has a Jazz Fest show scheduled for April 30th. Let’s say you could pick three other participating artists to sit in with you and the group. Who would you have join the band on the Southern Comfort stage that day?

Gros: “We’ve had so many great musicians join us onstage, from members of Tower of Power and the Meters, from Steve Winwood and Warren Haynes to Fred Tackett and Richie Havens, from Little Feat and Mike Gordon and Page McConnell from Phish.

“Personally, I love playing with my friends and mentors. The three participating festival performers I would like to sit in with the band would be Snooks Eaglin because he understands where our music comes from, Geechie from the Wild Magnolias because he is the blood that pumps through New Orleans music and Mark Mullins of Bonerama because he is my closest musical friend and is changing the world with his trombone.

“My three choices for musicians who are no longer with us would be Earl King, James Booker and Lee Allen. I still could use a music lesson, and those three sure could gimme one hell of a lesson.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

Papa Grows Funk’s U.S. tour (schedule subject to change):

April 24, 28: Maple Leaf — New Orleans
April 30: Fairgrounds Racetrack (New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival)
May 5: Howlin’ Wolf — New Orleans
May 8, 15: Maple Leaf — New Orleans
May 19: Culture Room — Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
May 20: Cuban Club — Tampa, Fla.
June 9: Blue Ridge BBQ Festival — Tryon, N.C.
June 10: Green Tiger — Greensboro, N.C.
June 12: Bessie Smith Hall — Chattanooga, Tenn.
June 14: International Jazz Festival — Rochester, N.Y.
June 15: Regattabar — Cambridge, Mass.
June 16: B.B. King Blues Club & Grill — New York
Papa Grows Funk’s itinerary includes dates into September.