By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - As crowds flock to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for performances by Eric Clapton and other international stars, many also have their sights on home-grown talents like Trombone Shorty, Aaron Neville and Irvin Mayfield.
Local musicians have for decades been mainstays of the seven-day event that begins on Friday and stretches across two weekends in the heart of New Orleans.
The 45-year-old Jazz Fest presents hundreds of bands on more than a dozen stages offering not only jazz, but also blues, rock, pop, hip hop, gospel, African, Latin and other styles, all the while spotlighting the distinctive local music that helps define New Orleans and whose future some consider endangered.
"The question that always comes up is, when something gets popular, does it get loved to death?" said Tulane University anthropology professor Nick Spitzer, who is host of the public radio music program "American Routes."
Spitzer said New Orleans' popularity has grown during the years since Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005 as more people have come to appreciate the area's ethnic diversity and its culture.
"New Orleans feels culturally different from the rest of the United States, it has a deeper sense of continuity, tradition and creativity...and that appeals to a lot of people," he said.
Worries about whether New Orleans can retain its distinctiveness from "outside" influences abound among residents who are fiercely protective of the city's landmarks, architecture and cuisine.
But Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis, who helped found the event with Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein, said when it comes to New Orleans' musical traditions, he's not fretting.
Davis points to some of New Orleans' famous musical bloodlines, including the Neville, Marsalis and Batiste families, whose influence spans generations and whose younger members play contemporary styles also steeped in tradition.
'FULL VOCABULARY OF MUSIC'
"It's not just that we have a lot of musicians, it's that we have a lot of great musicians, and almost all of them can play gospel, blues, and traditional, straight-up and bee-bop jazz," among other styles, he said.
"They have the full vocabulary of music - it's a shared language here."
That language contributes to the undercurrent of indigenous music at Jazz Fest. Davis said the depth of the local talent pool enables him to fill more than 80 percent of the performance time slots with Louisiana bands.
"After Katrina, a lot of people wondered if our traditions would be lost - would we have the culture bearers, would we still have people who know the songs," he said.
"But today we have all these older guys and younger kids who are all still playing this music."
For New Orleans native, pianist, singer and composer Davell Crawford, the endurance of local traditions is no surprise.
Crawford, 38, comes from a long line of New Orleans piano aficionados who honed an infectious and complex style that draws from classical, swing, jazz, rhythm and blues, and funk.
Some see him as a keeper of a piano legacy that reaches from early 20th century jazzman Jelly Roll Morton through Fats Domino, Henry Roeland Byrd, or "Professor Longhair", James Booker and contemporary songwriter Allen Toussaint.
He is the grandson of R&B pioneer James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, famous for "Jock-A-Mo."
Crawford said his place in a line of piano "professors" stems not only from his talent-rich DNA, but also from a key influence on many New Orleans musicians, their religious faith.
"The piano is a way of life for me because I grew up in the church," he said.
Crawford sees New Orleans piano music as an extension of gospel, blues and other styles that for many local people are intertwined with their daily lives.
"The reason our music has sustained itself as some of the most unique in the world is that it's in our blood," he said.
(Editing by Jon Herskovitz and Mary Milliken)