In the summer of 1997, guitarist Zachary Breaux and his wife saw a swimmer waving for help along the beach where they were vacationing. In a moment both impulsive and heroic, he decided to dive in and help. Unfortunately, that section of beach was haunted by rip tides, something that was neither marked nor monitored. Those powerful soon currents began pulling him under too. In the end, neither swimmer survived.
All of this took place while Breaux’s wife frantically tried to find help. A long legal battle ensued between both victims’ families and the City of Miami. At issue, the lack of lifeguards and rip tide warning signs. Breaux’s wife received 5 million dollars. The husband of the woman, a rabbi in New York, received close to a million.
Breaux was an alum of the famed North Texas One O’Clock Lab Band and a native of Port Arthur, Texas. He was also artist whose star had been steadily rising. In 2008 his hometown began sponsoring a jazz festival in his name. This past weekend I had the opportunity to perform there.
Port Arthur sits on the Gulf shores of East Texas, two hours southeast of Houston. It’s not a pretty place, certainly much less appealing than Miami Beach. But like anywhere else in the world, especially those that are lonely and out of the way, a good time is always welcome. Jazz Fest? Laissez les bon temps rouler!
A friend did the driving, heading east on I-10 then onto a series of smaller roads that led us closer to the shipping ports that define the area’s economy. Nestled off a winding freeway exit, Port Arthur is a town punctuated by large oil storage silos. In the heat of the midday sun, two men wearing what looked like space suits hovered overhead on circular scaffolds blasting spray-paint through a stencil. Naturally, we kept an eye out for Janis Joplin and Bun B tributes, but none appeared.
Like many other cities on the Gulf Coast, Port Arthur continues to suffer from unattended hurricane damage. In this case, it’s Rita, five years later, still evident in the seemingly endless row of abandoned store fronts, caved-in buildings, and ragged blue roof tarps flapping in the ocean breeze.
In all our gawking, we got lost, our GPS having (mis)guided us deep into a neighborhood I’m sure the event planners would have preferred we not find. But all this sight-seeing was interesting too. Here, citizens of all races congregated on front stoops to escape the heat of their unconditioned, uninsulated homes. There were wooden churches along side fast food chains and liquor stores. A hand-painted sign dangling from the entrance of one such place read “do not sell drugs on the premises.” A few blocks down the road, an enormous inflatable castle swarmed with happy children. All of this under the glare of imposing oil refineries visible on every horizon.
After many wrong turns, we finally arrived at the metal-roofed stage where 50 or so festival attendees sat patiently in their own foldable chairs. An enormous sound system with a thunderous low-end rattled the concrete–certainly more power than they needed, but it filled everyone with a welcome sense of awe and of power. The Breaux festival is not a big event. It has only one stage supported by less than a dozen vendors hawking crawfish, shrimp, creole sugary fritters, and bottled sodas. And no alcohol.
Walking onto the stage, we saw an ocean of folded arms and blank stares. It would be a tough crowd. We diligently pushed ahead though, playing our songs to a bored audience. Then, in the middle of a slow R&B tune, our saxophonist lept off stage to wander among them. Suddenly everyone had a camera trained on our ambulatory leader, some standing in line to photograph him as he waved his black tenor saxophone in the air. The connection had been made. We finished with a shuffle.
On the way home, I watched egrets wade in shallow marshes as the refineries disappeared from the horizon. Soon small roads morphed into monotonous freeways. I realized then how towns like this get neglected, economically and otherwise. With that in mind, I recommend this festival to anyone looking for an unusual day trip. The music was soulful and energetic, the food was sultry and southern. And they need your business.