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Sophisticated Ladies in Switzerland

Irma Thomas with her 2012 JazzAscona Award
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Sophisticated Lady: Theme for 2012 JazzAscona Festival

Holding her hand carved granite JazzAscona Award, Irma Thomas thanked the crowd assembled in the Jazz ClubTorre Tent after her performance. Still on their feet after her second set, they cheered for the Soul Queen of New Orleans, for that night she was the Soul Queen of Ascona, too.  Irma’s first appearance at JazzAscona  followed a busy day, starting with a press conference, an interview on Radio Swiss Jazz, a walk into downtown Ascona for gelato, a sound check, and finally, two and a half hours of pure Irma performing with her six piece band. The JazzAscona Award recognizes musicians, primarily from New Orleans, who have distinguished themselves through their performances or their civic activities. Previous Crescent City recipients include Lillian Boutte (2006), Father Jerome Ledoux (2007), Donald Harrison, Jr. (2008), Shannon Powell and Herlin Riley (2010), and Uncle Lionel Batiste (2011). Irma’s singing career, spanning over 50 years, has been awarded with a Grammy (2007), induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame (2007), the Mojo Award in London (2008), a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poster (2008), and a bronze statue in Legends Park on Bourbon Street in New Orleans (2012).

After the award ceremony, Irma and her husband Emile headed back to the hotel, and the band ended up down the street at Stage Debarcadero, where Lillian Boutte was playing with her band Gumbo Zaire, featuring former James Brown sax player Pee Wee Ellis. Lillian, named Ambassador of Music by the city of New Orleans in 1986, was the second person to receive this honorary title, after the original Ambassador, Louis Armstrong. This year she is celebrating 30 years on the road, bringing her special blend of New Orleans music to the world.

Getting ready to sing her last song, she noticed the little crowd that had formed on the side of her stage. “All of New Orleans is here,” she said, as she called them up on stage. Irma’s band didn’t hesitate, and brought down the house singing backup vocals to “Barefootin’” with Warner Williams taking over piano duty from Lillian’s regular piano player Dan Moore. Former WWOZ DJ Davis Rogan joined in, and kicked off his shoes with Ms. Boutte to dance barefoot. How else can you dance to Robert Parker’s biggest hit song?

Back at Hotel Tamaro, the nightly jam session was kicking off just as Lillian’s set was ending at midnight. A JazzAscona tradition, the hotel hosts the sessions from midnight to 4:00AM each night of the festival. The music has kept more than a few of the hotel’s guests awake late into the night, but for hardcore music lovers, it is paradise. Three of Irma’s band members found their way to Tamaro to check out the scene. Deciding that they didn’t want to go to sleep, trumpet player Percy Williams, saxophonist Emile Hall, and piano player Warner Williams sat down to play a few numbers with Lillian. After an emotional “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” Lillian stepped down to relax and hang out with the crowd. The guys never left the stage. 4:00AM came and they disappeared into the Ascona night,to check out of their hotel by 6:00, happy that they had played all night.

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