The Rich 50-Year History of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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Images courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, Burt Steel, John Messina and Michael P Smith

In the 1960s, New Orleans was the site of a fantastic collision of musical sounds and styles. There were the brass bands and kinetic improvisations associated with Louis Armstrong and his cohorts, the deep blues and gospel shouts endemic to the Mississippi Delta, and the nascent rock ‘n’ roll scene, steeped in the city’s R&B heritage. That’s not even getting into the immortal bayou grooves—zydeco, funk, Cajun—which were, and always will be, crucial strands in New Orleans’ cultural DNA.

There was just one problem with this fruitful arts scene, at least in the eyes of local politicians and business leaders: It wasn’t exactly profitable. Faced with empty hotel rooms and a yen for marketing, they came to the rightful conclusion that New Orleans would be an ideal location for a jazz festival. In 1962, they contacted George Wein—organizer of Rhode Island’s revered Newport Folk Festival—and asked him to duplicate his efforts in New England down in the Big Easy.

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Once Wein travelled south and took the meeting, however, it became clear that there was a problem. Jazz was, in part, created from the mixture of European and African culture. How would they give those voices full flower in a region scarred by Jim Crow, where black people and white people couldn’t use the same water fountains or attend the same schools—let alone share the same stage? It would take eight years of defiant social progress (culminating with the landmark Civil Rights bill of 1964, and the government’s resultant crackdown on segregation in public institutions), as well as failed festival experiments and contentious negotiations, before Wein and the powers-that-be in New Orleans could finally move forward with the first-ever New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970.

But launching a festival was just the beginning. From the start, Wein knew that merely duplicating Newport in New Orleans would be a travesty. This was the birthplace of jazz. A festival here needed to be homemade, faithful to its indigenous elements, and inexpensive to attend—a true celebration of a glorious heritage, open to all. And for that to happen, Wein needed to bypass the suits and find direct conduits to the magic.

One of those was Quint Davis a student volunteer for the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University. Davis had become taken by the then-secret world of New Orleans in his mid-teens during the early ‘60s. A family friend named Jules Cahn had been filming jazz funerals with a rudimentary Bell & Howell camera, and he invited Davis to join him, watching the procession of the casket from home to grave, accompanied by a brass band and “second line” dancers.

Davis attended hundreds of jazz funerals, and became a fixture at the brass bands’ practice sessions, held at the social aid supper clubs, at churches featuring the best gospel choirs, and eventually at the blues and juke joints in the city as well as in Cajun country 100 miles away.

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“When I first met George Wein, he told me he needed local gospel, blues, R&B, zydeco, and jazz musicians. I said, ‘I know those people,’” Davis says. “I’ll ask them to come.”

For the first-ever New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970, Davis asked some Mardi Gras Indians—including the late, now-legendary vocalist Bo Dollis, the “Big Chief” of the band The Wild Magnolias—if they would perform. They met on Canal Street in a howling wind, continued their parade through the French Quarter, and then look a left into Congo Square, the site of the first two festivals. The event was historic: “Mardi Gras Indians had only come out on Mardi Gras morning and St. Joseph night. This was the first time they had performed in public outside their culture.”

Even after the festival moved to the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course in 1972, the intimacy of the event exposed the greater musical community in ways that solidified its heritage. Musical styles within the city tended to be insular—there were brass band and traditional jazz neighborhoods, and other wards where gospel and R&B was prominent.

“There was just a few stages we all shared,” says George Porter Jr., bassist for The Meters. “So as the first couple of bands played, there were four or five other bands already there in the audience, waiting to go on. It was most likely the first time they’d gotten to see that band.”

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These ripples of exposure grew wider as the national acts booked by Wein began mingling with the local luminaries. The first half-dozen years of Jazz Fest history is marked by these unforgettable, spontaneous gigs: Mahalia Jackson singing with the Eureka Brass Band while Duke Ellington looked on; Stevie Wonder performing “Superstition” with The Meters; a dream band of B.B. King and Bukka White on guitars, Professor Longhair and Rooslevelt Sykes on piano, and The Meters’ rhythm section.

But the intimacy that allowed that kind of serendipity to occur had a downside. During its early years, the Jazz Fest had to take out loans to stay afloat. If Wein’s vision of an indigenous showcase on the 26-acre infield of the fairgrounds site—featuring areas for locally-made food, crafts, and cultural education in and around the music—was to be realized, it would require an influx of capital that could dilute the indigenous purity of the enterprise. That meant more corporate sponsorships and more acts from outside Louisiana who could attract the burgeoning youth culture that had spiked the outdoor festival business since Woodstock.

Ultimately, the Jazz Fest has been relatively successful—but not above criticism—in their attempts to have it both ways. Its Crescent City roots are unmistakable, even as it opened up its programming to “special guests,” who filled key spots on the musical menu. Quint Davis, who rose to become the guiding force behind the NOHJF and today is the CEO of Festival Productions, Inc.–New Orleans, maintains that “the bottom line is musicianship. To be at Jazz Fest, you have to really be able to play and really sing.”

But there has been a drift away from the indigenous connections of these special-guest performers. Davis’s defense of early fairgrounds headliners like Jimmy Buffett (“He’s from Mississippi, started out singing in the French Quarter, has a Caribbean island feel to his music”) and The Dave Matthews Band (“Two of their lead instruments are a violin and baritone sax”) become increasingly forced when he talks about Bon Jovi or Meghan Trainor.

But you can’t sustain a festival for 50 years without shrewd business sense. It took four years for Jazz Fest to rebuild the grandstand at the fairgrounds when a fire burned it to the ground in 1993, but they soldiered on. And “rainy day fund” takes on a whole new meaning when you hold your events outdoors in New Orleans in the middle of the spring. Even when it doesn’t shorten or wipe out any  programming, rain can eat into crowd size—and the revenue. The rain-soaked Jazz Fest of 2004 lost a million dollars, prompting Wein and Davis to form a production partnership with the powerhouse booker AEG.

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And then there was Hurricane Katrina.

Held less than nine months after Katrina made landfall, the 2006 edition of the New Orleans Heritage & Jazz Fest remains the greatest test and triumph of its ongoing resilience.

“People were shell-shocked,” remembers Michael Doucet, leader of the Cajun group BeauSoleil. “The grounds were black and toxic, stuff growing up out of everywhere. “But everyone was just happy to be there, and it was actually a great reunion. People talked, hugged, shared their survival stories.”

Conflicts over locals versus outsiders were set aside, and everyone stepped forward to make the festival work—even as the diminished condition caused the 100 performance slots to be shed from the schedule. The Meters reunited; Paul Simon hosted an array of Crescent City royalty, including Buckwheat Zydeco, Allen Toussaint, and Irma Thomas; Bruce Springsteen performed; and Lionel Richie stepped in as the final act of the festival, after New Orleans icon Fats Domino had to cancel at the last minute.

Since Katrina, the festival has been back on the rise. Special guests continue to clamor for the credibility a slot at Jazz Fest can bring, and the local legends continue to shine until the time comes for their own jazz funeral. (Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers died last year, and illness reportedly will prevent Dr. John from participating for the first time in memory.)

Jazz-fest-1244-4But the momentum carries forth. “Traditional jazz” was never about Dixieland; it was about brass bands and the kindred spirits of Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong, which gave way to Ellis Marsalis and then his sons and grandchildren, all of them morphing and modernizing the genre. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band brought new flavors. Ditto the bounce of Big Freedia. The beat goes on.

To celebrate this rich history, Smithsonian Folkways has released a massive compilation celebrating the festival’s five decades of existence. Here are just a few of the highlights.

The Golden Eagles
“Indian Red”

Jeff Place, curator and senior archivist for Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, says one of the purposes when laying out the order of the compilation’s 50 songs was trying to recreate the experience of attending the Jazz Fest, with an emphasis on its indigenous performers. “Indian Red” is traditionally an opening prayer sung at the ceremonies of Mardi Gras Indians, and thus serves as a fitting intro to both the fest and this collection.

Champion Jack Dupree ft. Allen Toussaint
“Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living”/”Rub A Little Boogie”

Dupree was a dazzling boogie-woogie pianist who grew up an orphan in the French Quarter and eventually moved to Europe. He was interviewed by the great pianist Allen Toussaint (whom Jazz Fest organizer Quint Davis has accurately dubbed “the Quincy Jones of New Orleans”) on the Music Heritage Stage before settling down to play. Toussaint came up behind him and spontaneously turned the performance into a duet by playing the higher keys on “Flowers,” a song popularized by Dupree and a few bluegrass artists. Then, they slid beside each other and launched into an impromptu boogie-woogie. “This is two of the major piano players in New Orleans history performing together,” enthuses Place, who said he also chose it because it is one of the rare recordings of good quality from the first half of the Jazz Fest’s 50-year history.

John Boutté
“Louisiana 1927”

The first Jazz Fest after Hurricane Katrina produced a wealth of poignant and memorable moments, but none top Boutté’s reworking of Randy Newman’s song about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. As he altered the chorus of Newman’s lyrics, updating President Coolidge into President Bush, and tagging the chorus, “They’re trying to wash us away,” with the impassioned plea, “Don’t let them wash us away!,” the crowd roared to its feet, many with tears in their eyes.

Professor Longhair
“Big Chief”

The relationship between Professor Longhair (real name Henry Roeland Byrd) and the Jazz Fest was a feel-good story cut off too soon. Longhair was in poor health, sweeping floors at a record store when Jazz Fest founder-promoter George Wein first heard him on the jukebox and told his protégé and Crescent City connector Quint Davis to track down the pianist and put him on the schedule. His Jazz Fest appearances in the early ‘70s helped revive his career, and Allison Miner—who, along with Wein and Davis, are regarded as the triumvirate responsible for establishing the Jazz Fest—became his manager and guardian angel.

This is another rare recording from the early days of the festival, at a 1974 benefit for Longhair after a fire burned out his home. In his signature mix of rumba, calypso, and Crescent City groove, you can hear how he influenced New Orleans pianists like Fats Domino and Dr. John. Longhair died in 1980 at age 62. Before corporate sponsorships took over there was a Professor Longhair Stage at the Jazz Fest, and his likeness still rests above it.

Dixie Cups
“Iko Iko”/”Brother John”/”Saints Go Marching In”

Putting together 50 performances designed to capture 50 years of a stylistically sprawling affair like the Jazz Fest is a tall order. Says Place, “It’s like puzzle pieces; you’re looking for iconic songs from iconic artists.” This seamless medley sports a pair of the most iconic songs in New Orleans history—“Iko Iko” and “Saints”—sandwiched around David Lindley’s “Brother John,” which invokes “Iko”’s “ja-ka-mo feena mae” lyric. The singers are the Dixie Cups, the “girl group” that knocked the Beatles from #1 in 1965 with “Chapel of Love,” and with original singer Barbara Edwards still in fine voice. The blend of organ and piano, topped with a horn solo, is telling of the Jazz Fest modus operandi, too.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band
“Blackbird Special”

“Jazz Fest is a good time to make some money—you get three, four gigs a day,” says saxophonist Roger Lewis, who has backed everyone from Fats Domino to Widespread Panic at the festival. As a member of the local cover band Deacon John & the Ivories, Lewis supported Marvin Gaye when Gaye toured the south behind his first hit, “Hitch Hike,” in 1963. In 2019, he’s on the Jazz Fest schedule as the leader of Baritone Bliss, an ensemble with six saxes and a rhythm section. But he’ll always best be known for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a Jazz Fest perennial he helped found in the late ’70s.

The DDBB is widely credited for expanding and thus reinvigorating the then-moribund brass band tradition. Their business card reads “Music for All Occasions.” “It originally wasn’t a plan; we’d just ask the people running the gig what type of music they wanted to hear,” he says. “Blackbird Special” was one of their most popular early songs, and frequently opened their sets—“our theme song,” Lewis says. It is centered on a catchy riff that grows in pace and intensity, goading Jazz Fest crowds into deploying the fancy footwork of the second-line “buck jump” dance.

“You can do 70% in some places and get a hell of a response. But you have to really bring it to get to New Orleans people,” Lewis says with satisfaction. “Looking out in the audience [at Jazz Fest] and noticing that everybody, everywhere you look, is moving and grooving to what you were playing; man, that is a good feeling.”

BeauSoleil
“Recherche d’Acadie”

“The great thing about being a musician is you can write a song that makes people happy, but you can also write a song that makes people think,” says Michael Doucet, leader of BeauSoleil, the band rightly regarded as the most important Cajun ensemble of the last 50 years.

Doucet was sparked to write “Recherche d’Acadie” (“Lookie Back at Acadia”), when the sound of the ropes pulling against each other on his hammock reminded him of sailboat ropes at sea. It recounts the tale of Acadians trying to land on docks all along the east coast and being denied because all of their possessions had been confiscated when they were deported from Nova Scotia, and how they finally found safe harbor and rebuilt their community in New Orleans.

Doucet cherishes the exposure the Jazz Fest has provided Cajun music and other styles indigenous to Louisiana. He remembers hearing his late mentor Dennis McGee “playing under an old oak tree at the first Jazz Fest. The wooden stage was like a foot tall, like in someone’s backyard, so nice and pure.” His son, an instrument maker, sells his wares at the festival.

“People have tried to duplicate the Jazz Festival, but it can’t be done outside New Orleans. All your senses are covered—the food and music are amazing, the sights are hot; I don’t have to go into that one—and you have the freedom of being outside. It is the grass in the springtime, and it is like you just woke up. It gives everybody hope.

“As much as you think it is too crowded, and you know it is going to rain, you have to go because you just know that something unforgettable is going to happen. Something always does. You hear a group you’ve never heard before, or run into somebody. I bumped into somebody one year who turned out to be John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival. You just never know.”

Allen Toussaint and Bonnie Raitt
“What is Success”

The title of this song is ironic, given that Raitt’s first appearance at Jazz Fest in 1977 prompted a scathing response in the New Orleans daily paper, asking why she got more stage time than the local Mardi Gras Indian group The Wild Magnolias, whose set was cut short to include other acts washed out by rain earlier in the day. It was one of the first real signs of tension and identity crisis for the Jazz Fest, who must balance indigenous music with the allure of “outsiders” who wish to pay their debt to it in righteous fashion.

“The first [outside] act we brought in who wasn’t a big name being booked for a nighttime concert was Bonnie Raitt,” says Jazz Fest organizer Quint Davis. “She was young, but she played such beautiful slide guitar blues.” Raitt, of course would go on to become internationally renowned after her Nick of Time record won multiple Grammys in 1989, but even 11 years later, she eschewed vocals and respectfully backed Toussaint, the New Orleans icon, with sterling slide guitar.

The Funky Meters
“Fire on the Bayou”

The Meters were New Orleans royalty, simultaneously reinventing and epitomizing Crescent City funk music with syncopated grooves that managed to be whip-smart crisp and oiled in grease at the same time. “Fire on the Bayou”—sung so that “fire” rhymes with “bayou”—is one of their durable classics and the title track of a 1975 album.

“That song came from a jam,” bassist George Porter Jr. reveals. “We were sitting in the dressing room, beating on cowbells and tambourines and somehow we began chanting [the title]. The hall we were playing in was actually on a bayou, just a little body of water running behind the theater. And when they called for us to come out we actually moved from the dressing room to stage beating on things and chanting that song. The other lyrics came later.”

This 2010 version is by The Funky Meters, featuring founding members Porter and Art Neville. At Porter’s insistence, as long as any of the original members are alive and not onstage, the group is known as The Funky Meters instead of The Meters.

Big Freedia
“N.O. Bounce”

Big Freedia is one of the more recent and riveting examples of New Orleans music’s capacity for metamorphosis without sacrificing its essential roots. The self-proclaimed “Queen of Bounce” music, her chant-rap-sing, hip-hop-inflected style is informed by gospel faith and hedonistic flair of New Orleans, and has turned her into a reality TV star.

“We wanted some things that we really funky near the end of the [boxed set],” says Place. “When we met with the festival folks, someone suggested Big Freedia and bounce music. I didn’t know much about it, started listening to it and her energy on this song seemed perfect for this spot.”

Neville Brothers
“Amazing Grace/One Love”

For decades, Jazz Fest closed for the year with a Neville Brothers medley that most often included Aaron Neville’s fluttery falsetto and the enduring spiritual “Amazing Grace,” followed by a rendition of Bob Marley’s “One Love.” Family illnesses among the Nevilles interrupted that tradition in 2013, and Trombone Shorty took over the closing duties. On the festival’s 50th anniversary performance in 2019, the surviving Nevilles, including Aaron, will share the stage with Trombone Shorty for the finale. “Amazing Grace” is on the menu. And, of course, the unofficial Jazz Fest motto: “One Love.”

-Britt Robson

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