By Alan Smason
Irma Thomas, “the Soul Queen of New Orleans” and the greatest export from Pontchatoula since the strawberry, will be the headliner of this year’s Jazz Fest Shabbat at Touro Synagogue. Thomas, a Grammy Award winner and inductee into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and her backup group, The Professionals, will perform in the main sanctuary of the Reform temple on April 29 at 7:30 p.m.
The Jazz Fest Shabbat, started two decades ago by the late Cantor Stephen Dubov, showcases local musicians on the opening weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with a particular emphasis on jazz music along with traditional Jewish worship prayers and songs. It is free and open to the public.
Rabbi Alexis Berk and Cantor Jason Kaufman will lead this year’s 20th annual Jazz Fest Shabbat service, with musical direction by Terry Maddox.
Because of the popularity of the event, which has grown in scope through the years, Berk advises attendees to arrive early. “The historic Touro sanctuary will be packed as usual and having Irma with us will just make it so much more special,” Berk says. “This service is aimed at Jews and non-Jews, anyone who likes this unusual mixture of jazz and spirituality and who likes the way only Touro can present it.”
As part of his duties as cantor, Kaufman is charged with the overall direction of the evening’s program and the coordination of the worship service. Even though this will be his first Jazz Fest Shabbat, he knows full well of its importance to Touro and the Jewish and New Orleans communities.
“It’s probably unlike any Jewish service in the world that night,” Kaufman acknowledges. “While you don’t normally see dancing in the aisles at Shabbat services, this one does attract dancing, and what’s more, it’s allowed and encouraged.”
Thomas, also a noted gospel performer, has some trepidation about performing inside a house of worship. She was contractually obligated to appear before she learned that her performance would be inside the sanctuary. “I have a problem with doing ‘r&b’ (rhythm and blues) music inside a sacred place,” she confesses. “I was taught you don’t do that kind of music inside a religious building.”
“It’s about respect,” she continues. “I try to respect different peoples’ faith and respect buildings that are dedicated to that. It’s my own personal stance.”
Despite her misgivings, Thomas says she will honor her contract. “I’m going to give it my all and perform to the utmost of my ability,” she promises.
David Hammer, chairman of the Jazz Fest Shabbat committee is particularly proud of this year’s artist line-up, noting the unique event has grown in two decades from a congregational to a citywide and now a nationally recognized musical experience. “It’s our way of sharing our deep musical heritage with anyone who loves our native music of jazz,” he states.
Also slated to perform that night are members of the highly-regarded Mardi Gras Indian tribe The Wild Magnolias, Panorama Jazz Band, the Loyola University Jazz Combo and the Touro Synagogue adult and youth Choirs. The Sophie B. Wright Charter School marching band will assemble and greet visitors outside the front stairs as they enter the main sanctuary located at 4238 St. Charles Avenue.
Thomas began her 52-year recording career in 1959 under the tutelage of bandleader Tommy Ridgely. She was signed to Ron Records and her first release,“(You Can Have My Husband) Don’t Mess with My Man,” climbed to number 22 on the Billboard R&B chart.
Her most prolific period began when she was signed to Minit Records (later acquired by Imperial Records) and began to record with producer Allen Toussaint, which resulted in a string of hits including the popular “It’s Raining,” “Ruler of My Heart,” “Time Is on My Side” and “Wish Someone Would Care,” which proved to be her biggest national hit.
Thomas was the subject of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s 2008 poster and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Big Easy Music Awards in 2009, along with numerous other Big Easy Awards through the years.
First nominated for a Grammy Award in 1989, Thomas was finally honored by the recording industry with the 2007 Best Contemporary Blues Grammy for her album “After the Rain,” released on Rounder Records.
Her latest album on Rounder/Decca is “Simply Grand,” a 14-song compilation, which features Thomas singing with accompaniment from famous pianists like recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), jazz greats Ellis Marsalis and Henry Butler as well as pop performer Norah Jones.
Toussaint was last year’s JazzFest Shabbat headliner, joined by fellow pianist and arranger Paul Shaffer, who is most noted as David Letterman’s bandleader.
A patron dinner begins at 6 p.m. and includes a private performance by Thomas and the Professionals. Those interested in participating should notify the Touro Synagogue office immediately by calling (504) 895-4843.
Following the performance and service an Oneg Shabbat featuring desserts and fresh fruit will be open to the public. Eliot Raisen will lead Israeli folk dancing throughout the remainder of the evening.