At the improv: New Orleans festival celebrates, studies the art of improvisation

Chef and restaurateur Alice Waters participates in a culinary presentation Friday at the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

In graduate school, Randy Fertel seized on the idea of improvisation.

“I called it studies in the rhetoric of spontaneity,” Fertel says. “The foundational idea is that art that claims to be improvised is always a challenge to the mainstream.”

Fertel developed his theory over several decades and published the book “A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation” in 2015. He’s been drawn to the concept of improvisation in many media, and he’s invited musicians, artists, actors, chefs and innovators to explore the idea in a conference, “Improvisation: New Orleans’ Gift to the Modern World,” which features talks, performances and classes at various locations Nov. 30-Dec. 2.

The role of improvisation is easy to identify in some types of performance, such as jazz or comedy.

“Louis Armstrong would improvise until he truly nailed a piece and then he would always play it that way,” Fertel says. “The great masterpiece of the cadenza to ‘West End Blues’ — he always played it exactly the same, but it came across as improvised.”

Jazz isn’t the only musical genre that draws on improvisation. Jenna Sherry of the Birdfoot Festival, which presents chamber music, will discuss the role of improvisation in the work of composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.

There are rare writers who created works spontaneously and did not edit or amend them, such as poet Charles Bukowski, Fertel says. But his point about improvisation is its role in challenging existing ideas.

“It’s literature that comes out of paradigm shifts, when the culture’s rationality is shifting,” he says.

Also participating in the conference is Alice Waters, the chef and restaurateur who pioneered California cuisine and use of locally grown foods at her restaurant Chez Panisse and is involved with New Orleans through her Edible Schoolyard Project.

“She didn’t set out to start an empire,” Fertel says. “She wanted to have a little cafe to serve her friends the food that she loved.”

Artist Mel Chin has created several installations in New Orleans, including the Fundred Dollar Bill Project, addressing lead and heavy metal pollution in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. A retrospective of Chin’s work was presented at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2014. This summer, he presented the installations “Wake” and “Unmoored” in New York City’s Times Square. With the use of apps, smartphones pointed at the sculptures of wrecked ships presented viewers images of the boat and area submerged in water in a future affected by climate change and rising oceans.

The conference begins with a culinary event Friday at the New Orleans Jazz Museum. There’s a presentation featuring Waters, Mississippi farm activist Ben Burkett, Davia Nelson of NPR’s “Kitchen Sisters” and Richard McCarthy, a co-founder of the Crescent City Farmer’s Market and current director of Slow Food USA, which promotes use of locally grown foods.

There are free panel discussions at the museum Saturday, and topics include long-form improv comedy, Mel Chin and artistic improvisation, contemporary politics with Politico cartoonist Matt Wuerker, and more. The Courtney Bryan Quartet performs at 8 p.m. at the George and Joyce Wein Jazz & Heritage Center. There are workshops about jazz, classical music, theater and art at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) Sunday (admission $25). The Historic New Orleans Collection presents a screening of the 1916 silent film “Snow White” with a live musical score by organist Paul Goussot from Bordeaux, France.

Though Fertel has hosted conferences before, including one about the literature of the Vietnam War, through the Fertel Foundation, he’s not doing this one spontaneously.

“The irony is I can’t improvise a lick,” he says. “I am going to read my introduction.”