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Celebrating New Orleans Royalty: Karl Denson Jazz Fest Retrospective

No artist is as synonymous with “Jazz Fest Late Nite as Mr. Karl Denson. The virtuosic saxophonist/flutist is known for his sunrise throw-downs that have spanned across Uptown down to the Quarter and back again. As a musical legend in NOLA, the Diesel has hosted more guests and sat-in more shows than one could possibly imagine or catalogue. Nonetheless, in anticipation of Denson’s long-awaited reconnect with Big Chief Donald Harrison during this year’s festivities, I accepted the challenge of a Karl D Jazz Fest retrospective. Obviously, this is nowhere near a complete account, for it is only a fraction of the ridiculous.

For two decades, Denson has appeared with dozens of artists, on stages large and small across the great city of New Orleans during Jazz Fest. Though this is a detailed list, it is merely my own; we can only be in one place at one time. There are several incredible collaborations that are not included; a demonstration of the depth and breadth of this man’s contributions over the years.

Some of the photographs included are from my own personal collection. Nearly all of the shows discussed I was blessed enough (and had the stamina) to witness firsthand. Karl Denson, he of the Tiny Universe, the Greyboy Allstars, and the freaking ROLLING STONES is a gentleman, a scholar, and an icon. Please enjoy this celebratory look-back at King of the Jazz Fest Late Nite.

(Note: Passages in italics are direct quotes from B. Getz’s JamBase and L4LM NOLA Jazzfest-After-Dark reviews.)

1999

Karl Denson, already renowned in the Crescent City for his work with Lenny Kravitz and The Greyboy Allstars, made himself a household name in the NOLA jam-o-sphere when he joined The String Cheese Incident for the majority of their second set at Tipitina’s Uptown. The Greyboy Allstars saxophonist played on “Round The Wheel,” “Land’s End > Restless Wind,” and during the encore of “Hey Pocky Way” and “All Blues.”  (Listen HERE)

2000

On May 3rd, 2000, Denson again joined SCI, this time at the old Saenger Theatre on Canal Street; the night before, the legendary first-ever Oysterhead (and Garage a Trois) sets went down in the very same room. Listen to SCI with Denson HERE.

At Tipitina’s the final Sunday, Denson joined Stanton Moore, Chris Wood, Henry Butler, and [Meters guitarist] Leo Nocentelli for one of the very first Superfly Presents ‘SuperJam’ (Oysterhead being the other show billed as such). Moore organized and directed the ensemble, and was so pleased with the results that he reconvened this very crew to recreate the songs for his Flyin’ the Coop album.

The then brand-new sidecar project, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, would play two flaming-hot late-night engagements: one on May 6 at the House of Blues on Decatur and one the next night at the old Howlin’ Wolf.  This pair of shows would inform my own personal and musical trajectory moving forward, and permanently instill KDTU, NOLA, and Jazzfest deep into my soul. I’ll never forget when then-KDTU guitarist Brian Jordan stood outside in the 8 A.M. NOLA sun to rap with me about the music after having played until dawn. That was the very moment when at 22, I knew a couple things for certain: indeed, I wanted to be a gonzo-reporter and weave these musical adventures into narratives on this new thing called the internet. And I knew that Karl Denson would be my sensei; the Crescent City, the dojo; and Jazzfest, our Kumate.

2001

Lenny Kravitz. Late night. Tips Uptown. Looking back on this monumental event, I cannot overstate its impact both for both Denson and for Jazz Fest late-night culture. Karl’s old boss showed up to lend a hand, and they made three hours of funky-ass chicken-scratch baby-makin’ Crisco jams! E.J. Rodriguez on the percussion was just icing on the Sun Goddess’s torso. Nevermind that the whole squad went stealth-mode into the DJ Greyboy/Denson deeeep cut “Unwind Your Mind” in the midst of a soul-funk serenade. This is the night that he officially won the belt, and Karl D was crowned King of the Jazz Fest late night. A blast of pure, uncut Crescent City epic! Listen to the instant classic HERE.

Set I: Sun Goddess > Thank you Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin, Soul Driftin’, KDTU, Jam
Set II: Elephants are Big as Hell > Everyday People, So Damn Funky, Check Out Your Mind, The Big Payback
E: Groove On

2002

After the shape-shifting Tips gig, Denson knew he had to go huge if he was going to continue to build the legend of Sexual Chocolate beyond a funny scene in Coming to America.

Anybody who knows me (or is within obnoxious shouting distance at Jazzfest) understands that the Karl Denson late-night second weekend at the House of Blues is where the shit goes down. Some may argue last year’s Tips show with Lenny, but let’s not discuss that. Bottom line is that the swank is on, the gear comes out, and the torsos are whirling come 3 a.m. down in the Quarter. This year was no exception, as Melvin Sparks joined KDTU for most of the first set, flexing his newly restored shotgun hollowbody fire atop the swirling grooves behind Karl and Co.

Warren Haynes stepped out early in the second set to lend some bluesy Southern-fried swagger to the deep, dark funk. My memory really gets fuzzy as the sweat began to drip and I blew out my back to make the shoes work, but I do remember the stellar versions of “Freedom,” “Brothers and Sisters,” and “Good For You,” all of which had me salivating for what I knew was inevitably on the way.

LISTEN to KDTU with Warren Haynes, Mike Dillon, Topaz, Josh Roseman and Melvin Sparks HOB late night 2002 HERE

Undoubtedly, it is the KDTU classic rumpshaking anthems that make this show the most high each and every year, and Jazzfest 2002 was to be no different. Soon, a barrage of guests began to appear that included Mike Dillon (who is easing his way out of KDTU, much to our chagrin) fresh from his Black Frames performance over at the Old Point, ex-KDTU-current-Global Funk Council drummer Eric Bolivar, new saxophone phenom/spunion Topaz, Mr. Everywhere-lately Josh Roseman on trombone, as well as some others that escape my wracked brain at this moment. Before I knew it, I was ensconced in the sultry sexy grooves of “Can You Feel It?” (“The music, the music, the music… is good for your soul!”) and the constantly evolving “Family Tree” (which has gone from a sing-songy boogaloo tune to one of those goose bumpers now that trumpeter Chris Littlefield has enabled the horn melodies to soar to new plateaus). These songs resonate with a throwback relevance, etching yesterday’s seventies blaxploitation funk into today’s acid soul revival.

Yet there would be even more insanity to come. On the fourth, KDTU headlined the State Palace Theater on Canal Street, and Denson unleashed none other than the Colonel himself, Les Claypool, who guested on lead bass.

 Listen to the Denson/Claypool State Palace smoke-show HERE

. . . Thirty minute “Big Payback” second set opener, the JB’s classic “Tighten Up,” a set full of special guests out the wazoo, including ex-KDTU trumpeters Carlos Washington and Ephraim Owens, as well as other horn players whose names I did not catch, “Spanish Castle Magic” in all its Jimi glory, and just when you thought it couldn’t get any sicker, Mike Dillon and Col. Les Claypool for a directionless, cacophonous, beat-you-over-the-head-with-a-lead-pipe encore that was some of the slamminest, stomp yo’ feet madness I have ever witnessed. Oh yeah… and a Col. Les vs. KD bass/sax duel for the ages. 

2003

After tearing down the HOB the year before, Warren Haynes asked the Diesel to return the favor with Gov’t Mule; the saxophonist obliged by getting busy on “Blind Man in the Dark,” with Dave Schools on bass. The song was forever immortalized on The Deepest End concert film.

By now, KDTU was pretty much king of Jazzfest late nights. Denson brought back both Melvin Sparks and Lenny Kravitz to the 2003 House of Blues gigs, because he could. The Lenny HOB show was arguably as good as the earth-shattering Tips hit two years earlier. Denson also invited former Spearhead emcee Radioactive to spit a freestyle. Interesting note: Trumpet player Chris Littlefield found out he would be a father as Karl came back from setbreak and told the audience, who predictably erupted.

2005

KDTU was invited to play the Gentilly Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Purchase their only Fairgrounds performance here. That same year, as had become their custom, the Tiny Universe played two late-night engagements at the House of Blues, which featured the likes of Skerik, Mike Dillon, and Eric Krasno.

2007

In 2007, Denson was primarily doing KD3 gigs, his fusion-jazz trio. KDTU was on hiatus and the Greyboys seldom came together. Denson produced and recorded NOLA fusion rock band Spyboy, and then he joined them for a show at Le Bon Temps Roule. Spyboy’s Dan Caro is a local legend. When he was two years old, he was engulfed in a fireball during a gasoline explosion in the family garage and was left with third-degree burns over most of his body—so severe that doctors held out little hope he’d survive more than a few days. An incredible story, this drummer with no hands. It was truly moving to see him perform, first with Brotherhood of Groove and later Spyboy. Here’s a produced clip of Karl’s night playing with Spyboy in the French Quarter, Jazzfest 2007.

2008

. . . was followed by another of the weekend’s breakout stories, The New Mastersounds. This throwback group of Englishman had their rare groove down tight and invited Karl Denson to sit in for the majority of the set. Check out Eddie Roberts, clean-shaven and in casual attir,e as they ran through Kool & the Gang’s “Let the Music Take Your Mind” and Freddie Hubbard’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” 

Listen to Denson rejoin The Greyboy Allstars in 2008 for a rollicking voyage on the riverboat Creole Queen HERE. 

2010

Karl Denson’s Tiny Universes Thursday late night show is always the place to be at Jazz Fest. The first in five years (and only KDTU Jazz Fest booking) was no different. Playing Tipitina’s Uptown until sunrise, Denson reminded us all of why he remains the King of Late Night Jazz Fest. The Tiny Universe dropped mammoth sets, balancing older favorites “Family Tree,” “Make it a Cosmopolitan,” and “Because of Her Beauty” with blazing new joints like the blaxploitation banger “Brother’s Keeper Pt. II,” a lengthy dub-drenched take on “Mighty Rebel,” and an otherworldly keyboard battle between Robert Walter on Hammond B3 and Marco Benevento on Fender Rhodes. 

Listen to the 2010 KDTU Tipitina’s late night.

The Greyboy Allstars threw down monster sets both weekends: a sizzling late night hit at Tipitina’s Uptown first weekend, and a major rager on the riverboat Creole Queen week two.

2011

The Greyboy Allstars again returned to the Creole Queen.


Down at the Blue Nile, Denson linked up with Eric McFadden, Robert Mercurio, Wil Blades, Nikki Glaspie, and Maurice Brown, a unit fronted by Brian J. of The Pimps of Joytime. This ensemble was the second year of the now-annual Days Between scorcher, The WHIP.

. . . We arrived at Tipitina’s Uptown to an enormous scene; a crowded stage and packed house for the only Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe booking of the weekend. Well aware that many acts have taken The King of Late Night’s blueprint and run with it, Karl D called in the troops to cement his reputation. This was to be a cavalcade of stars; the stage was in constant motion, with players rotating on and off with aplomb. For the first set, KDTU was joined by drummer Terrence Higgins, Bay-Area guitarist Eric McFadden, keyboardist Ivan Neville, and the chameleon-like percussionist Mike Dillon. “Once You’re There,” the Jazzanova inspired house cut engulfed Fess’s church en fuego!! A spirited cover of “Mexican Radio” tore the roof off to close the opening frame. Jam Cruise veteran Taylor Hicks took his turn on the legendary Tipitina’s stage. With double drums, double keys all night long, and more horns than you could shake your hips at, this was an absolute eruption; the type of gig that crowned Karl the undisputed King of Late Night many a Fest morning this past decade-plus. 

KDTU’s second set was a blur of funkadelic bliss with Nigel Hall, Particle’s Steve Molitz, Marco Benevento and Ivan Neville taking turns with David Veith on various keyboard duels, weaving in and out of Rhodes, B3 and analog synths. Sam Kinninger, Ryan Zoidis, Rashawn Ross and Maurice ‘Mo Betta’ Brown stormed the stage for an elongated take on the Afrobeat ecstasy that is “Elephants,” while former Beyonce drummer Nikki Glaspie, who was everywhere all weekend, forced KDTU drummer John Staten to push the envelope. An imbibed Tony Hall called his shot, offering big smiles and bass gymnastics on a charging “Chance With You,” and Karl D captained the mothership into a new dawn, delivering an otherworldly “Can You Feel It?” all sultry and sexy for the lovers courting sunrise. Until nearly 6 a.m., KDTU reestablished themselves as THE preeminent late-night juggernaut. A weary and wired Tip massive spilled into the streets exhausted, migrating to early hours watering hole Igor’s for the traditional Jazz Fest morning cap. Here, funkateers, musicians, and good Nawlins folk shared stories and glories as the sun beckoned Friday’s arrival. 

2012

As a part of Anders Osborne’s Black Galaxy album release show, Denson joined Warren Haynes, Luther Dickenson, and NOLA’s best kept secret Billy Iuso for a riveting version of “Spanish Moon.”

Late Thursday at the House of Blues, KDTU would wrap up their final performance of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers album with help from Anders Osborne and Roosevelt Collier, as well as Jen Hartswick and Natalie Cressman who blew their horns alongside trumpeter Chris Littlefield on “Kool is Back.” Friday night at Tipitina’s was a monster KDTU late-night show in their own veritable tradition. Augmented by OG from Slightly Stoopid on percussion, Denson and Co. slew the people with tracks both old and freshly unwrapped; dusting off “Can U Feel It?” to open the night, and breaking out chestnuts “Because of Her Beauty” and “Dance Lesson #2” alongside covers like The White Stripes’ “7 Nation Army”. Particle keyboardist Steve Molitz joined KDTU for the second straight year on the Afrobeat mania that is “Elephants.” Ivan Neville hopped onstage to belt out a touching version of the Stones’ “Wild Horses” as the crowd gave him every word right back in a hoarse, imbibed chorus. 

The news of Beastie Boy MCA’s (Adam Yauch) untimely passing fresh in the minds of the Fest massive, a previously planned KDTU tribute to the Beasties went over huge at Tipitina’s. Instrumental takes on classic B-Boy anthems like “Root Down” and “Sure Shot” evoked the most energy and emotion of the evening/morning. A 5 a.m. rumble through “Sabotage” saw the first Fest mosh pit at Tipitina’s in this writer’s ten years attending Jazz Fest. Along with OG’s frontman lead vocal, within the mayhem lay a sneak peak at Denson’s new hobby – the electric guitar. Like a love doctor should, KD serenaded the people with R&B funk numbers oozing sensuality, calming and soothing the ill communication. When the groove finally settled, the sun was creeping up and Tip’s swaying throng ambled out of the venue in search of shut-eye as the weekend was upon us. 

2013

FIYA Fest

Backed by none other than local legend Stanton Moore on drums, students took the stage for a brassy groove in the middle of Fiyo-Fest and marched their way out the door. The event’s finale had Karl Denson leading an all-star revue through an astounding seventy minutes. The conglomerate was a murderer’s row of the Dirty Dozen Horns, Jen Hartswick, Natalie Cressman, Nikki Glaspie, Robert Walter, and Eddie Roberts. Denson beaming a smile and a sweater-vest, they came out the gates with a fleet, charging “Who Let the Happiness Out?”, an absolutely dazzling display. Late in their set, Ms. Hartswick brought Mardi Gras World to its knees with a monumental, gut-wrenching vocal “Drown in My Own Tears”.  

LISTEN to Denson and this krewe rock FIYA Fest HERE

. .  .Tipitina’s Uptown, where we walked into the rage at exactly the right moment, catching the end of Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s Ray Charles tribute featuring Zach Deputy and Jon Cleary. The two guests stayed onstage as the clock hit 4 a.m. and KDTU charged into ninety more minutes of that patented, sexy-funk groove only they can lay down. “Bag of Funk” detonated the place, and from there, Tip’s temperature levels began to rise and rise to epic proportions. Most impressive was Deputy’s fierce and inspired guitar work, as was pianist Cleary’s traditional NOLA boogie, both of which gave a renewed life to the KDTU bangers like the seminal “Mighty Mouse” and “Cool is Back,” the latter a big, rotund boogaloo joint that featured dynamite work from Chris Littlefield on trumpet and flugelhorn. Jeremy Steig’s “Howlin’ for Judy,” which morphed into its latter incarnation of the Beastie Boys’ “Sure Shot,” rapping provided by Slightly Stoopid’s De La who also chipped in on saxophone. This was a joyous reminder of losing Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch a year ago to the day, a crushing blow of Jazzfest 2012. The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” shook Tips to its veritable core as the remaining revelers bounced and shook rumps with aggression. By sunrise, this was yet another classic KDTU party on Second Saturday Uptown, one of the many fine Jazzfest traditions we treasure so dearly. 

2014

FIYA Fest- Headhunters Superjam: Mike Clark, Bill Summers, Donald Harrison, Fred Wesley, Doug Wimbish, Blackbyrd McKnight,  Eric McFadden. Guests: Will Bernard, DJ Logic. 

. . . Initially conceived for the House of Blues the preceding Thursday, ‘Rick James B*tch’ was not only reprised two nights later at Tipitina’s, it was detonated. The second Saturday tradition at Tipitina’s was not only reclaimed by Karl D, the ante has officially been upped for how swanky and sexy it really should be at that hour, with that music, amongst us people. 

Saturday 5/3 – Tipitina’s- I’m Rick James B*tch! LISTEN HERE!

Denson always welcomes some heavy hitter guests to this second Saturday show, and this night would be no different. Percussionist Weedie Braimah (The Nth Power, Toubab Krewe), guitarist/vocalist Brian J (Pimps of Joytime), and from Naked Orchestra, young phenoms Ashlin Parker on trumpet and Rex Gregory on alto sax joined the Tiny Universe. To effectively approximate the complete Stone City Band, three female backup vocalists would also take the stage. The entire room was impeccably and effectively transformed into an episode of Soul Train, and complete bedlam ensued on the dance floor. “Mary Jane” saw the requisite indo sparked and got the audience involved; the unquestionable, indisputable sexiness of “Cold Blooded” had panties literally dropping all down Tchoupitoulas. “Bustin’ Out” was a sleeper, as it took some time for the crowd to recognize it, but when they did, the roof caught fire. “Give it To Me, Baby” was more of the same swanky dance party vibe. 

Rick James was essentially a rocker at heart, with funk flowing thru his braids, so DJ Williams did his best Tom McDermott impression with firing Sunset Strip guitar leads, as Denson did his best Rick shtick. Props are due to the big-band version of the Tiny Universe, as they approached James’ Stone City Band with vigor and vitality, as well as accuracy. Three women dressed to kill played the role of the Mary Jane Girls, blessing Tip’s with scorching backup vocals and a sticky onstage shimmy. “All Night Long” gave these incredible singers a spotlight song, and allowed G-Love to blow some daring harp and strut his stuff, eliciting shrieks from the mob of women already hot and bothered from “Super Freak.” This scene kicked down the final door to the corrupted, the impure, and promiscuous energy Rick James championed and embodied as a badge of honor. By the time we got to the encores, the scene at Tips was equal parts “Dolemite” and “Caligula,” which from where I stand is exactly how it should be when the sun comes up on the final Jazz Fest morning. 

. . . gave way to the Bear Creek All-Stars shindig at One Eyed Jack’s in the French Quarter. An incredible lineup, per usual, was assembled to take the stage at 3 a. m.: Cyril Neville, Karl Denson, Ivan Neville, Eric Krasno, Adam Deitch, Ian Neville, Nick Daniels III, Ryan Zoidis, Eric Bloom and James Casey. Throughout the show, players came and went as the various collections of collaborators changed, and with that, so did the colors, shapes and sizes of the music. “Doodle Loop (The World is a Little Bit Under the Weather),” “Welcome to New Orleans” and the annual Alecia Chakour sung “Piece of My Heart” were given the superjam-workout treatment. Of particular note was the de facto Dr. Klaw reunion, one that saw Nick Daniels III belt out his customary Stevie Wonder stomp “Higher Ground,” as Deitch pushed tempos with a furious lead right foot and Karl Denson and Ryan Zoidis traded blissful sax phrasings atop Krasno’s sweet hollow body licks. The foursome of Zoidis, Denson, Casey, and Bloom was one of the finest horn sections one could ever imagine, the tastiest brass breaks and chewiest choruses ringing out to the rafters and spilling into the Quarter, where the sold out crowd had spilled, still dancing in Toulouse Street. 

2015

KDTU invites longtime pal Jimmy Herring (Widespread Panic, ARU) and lap steel maven Roosevelt Collier to the Tipitina’s stage.

Fiyawerx Productions FIYA Fest had yet another wicked collection lead by Karl D, DIESEL FIYA! featuring Lee FieldsFarnell Newton, Big Sam, Russell Batiste, Tony Hall, Doug Wimbish, Will Bernard, DJ Williams, and Robert Walter. Listen to the full set HERE.

Denson also made an appearance at the legendary Preservation Hall, with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band as a part of their annual Midnight Preserves series.

 2016

Jen Hartswick and Karl Denson mesmerized while fronting FunkiFIYA, as Zigaboo Modeliste and Tony Hall laced up “Welcome to New Orleans” with the same gritty determination that defines their artistry. You can watch video below of FunkiFIYA featuring Karl Denson with Zigaboo Modeliste, Ivan Neville,Tony Hall, June Yamagishi, Big Sam, Jennifer Hartswick, Roosevelt Collier, and Norbert Stachel.

You can also check out video of Karl Denson with Wil Blades, Stanton Moore, and Eric Krasno at One Eyed Jacks.

B. Getz on L4LM

. . . as Denson and company were given a chance to honor the mythical artist-forever-known-as-purple with a Howlin’ Wolf engagement the night prior. (This is not unfamiliar territory for Denson, as Beastie Boy Adam MCA Yauch died during JazzFest 2012, and Denson’s previously scheduled Beasties tribute served as a public funeral and celebration.)  

Tip’s Uptown with Karl, every year on second weekend, is unfailingly a rigorous exercise in the gritty and gluttonous, and why would this night be different than any other? Opening with the Blue Note rare groove “Dance Lesson #2,” the Tiny Universe was a lean, focused machine. As the night wore into wee hours, KDTU tore through a runaway freight train version of Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids,” a rowdy run around Bowie’s “Young Americans,” took on Pink Floyd’s vaporous “Fearless”; yet the real ultraviolet gem was an ungodly sexy romp through “When Doves Cry.”  Denson did lead his troupe through one Dirty Mind track, pledging allegiance to tantric sexcapades on “Do It All Night.” 

Late into their elongated single set, the band welcomed former drummer John Staten (Pimps of Joytime) back behind the kit. Staten spent nearly a dozen years bashing the skins for the Tiny Universe, it was a beautiful reunion of sorts, with smiles abound the stage and spilling into the audience. Soon thereafter, fiery guitarist DJ Williams, longtime keyboardist David Veith, trumpet/flugelhorn assassin Chris Littlefield, and Staten powerfully reconnected on a stunning, electric gallop through the erogenous KDTU chestnut “Satisfied.” The Tiny Universe returned for a “Purple Rain” encore, with Staten drumming as Alan Evans shared the lead vocal. Denson blew luscious tenor on the iconic coda, sending us deep into the Tchoupitoulas night, like he’s wont to do ’round this time of year. 

Special thanks to Randy Bayers and Funk It for the years and years of detailed videography and taping. Funkateers are forever in your debt. Also huge shoutout to KDTU/GBA members past and present Chris Littlefield, Brian Jordan, David Veith, Ron Johnson, John Staten, DJ Williams, Mike Dillon, Robert Walter, Chris Stillwell, Max MacVeety, and Alan Evans, each of whom in one way or another have let me have a window into the Diesel chamber in their own special way over the past twenty-ish years. Big thanks.

An ever-lasting tip of the Kangol and the deepest of bows to the man himself, Mr. Karl Denson. You are and forever will be our Tenor Man. What a treasure you are, to music communities the world over, and none more so than Jazz Fest late night ragers! Who knows what this year will have in store; we can rest assured that when the Diesel and the Big Chief get together, it sure to be a funky good time.

Words: B.Getz

[cover photo by Marc Millman]


We can’t wait for this year’s iteration of New Orleans late night festivities with Karl Denson. See below for all the info.

– SHOW INFO –
Artist: Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe w/ Special Guest Donald Harrison
Venue: One Eyed Jacks – 615 Toulouse Street New Orleans, LA 70130
Price: $36adv / $40dos (purchase tickets here)
Time: Doors 9pm / Show 10pm