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Seventy-six-year-old James Rivers is a rare find. A legend in the music world, he’s played the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival every year since its 1970s inception in Congo SquareA staple of The Big Easy jazz and blues scene, the veteran multi-instrumentalist is a lot more famous than he’d ever let on. Even Clint Eastwood’s a fan, having enlisted Rivers for countless movie soundtracks and that famous "Bridges of Madison County" appearance.
In the 1950s, Rivers found himself in the middle of the Golden Age of New Orleans rock & roll as an in-demand studio musician. His recording sessions resulted in monster hits, including the original “Sea Cruise” recording with Bobby Marchan and Gerri Hall (before Frankie Ford’s vocals took over for the radio). Before “You Send Me” made Sam Cooke a household name, Cooke and Rivers fine-tuned the song in a Pensacola, Fla. hotel room on guitar and sax. Al Johnson’s “Carnival Time” got its Mardi Gras luster with saxophonist Rivers’ flow.
Quiet, unassuming, with a twinkle in his eye, the man who grew up in the Sixth Ward, now known as Tremé, can play saxophone, harmonica, flute, and bagpipes equally well. He’s been swinging in all the major New Orleans haunts, like Mel’s Lounge, for several decades now without showing any signs of retiring, endearing himself to generations of converts.
One of the coolest things about Rivers’ performances is when his band goes south on a medley, crossing genres in playful departures. The crowd goes wild when Rivers turns the bagpipe into an instrument of jazz, going from “Chim Chimney ['Mary Poppins']” to the traditional Scottish anthem “Scotland the Brave” to the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You,” and back again to Scotland. He includes about two bagpipe numbers in Jazzfest, a certifiable treat.