50 Years of Jazz Fest: Golden Age

Keith Spera on April 11, 2019
50 Years of Jazz Fest: Golden Age

Scenic portraitist Scott Guion’s 2019 Jazz Fest poster, inspired by the classic photo “A Great Day in Harlem.” This complex family portrait was realized in 18 colors by chromist Luther Davis at the Powerhouse Arts atelier. (©2019 art4now inc & NOJ&HFF Inc. TM NOJ&HFF, Inc. Published by art4now.com)

In its 50th year, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival both embodies and transcends its name.

This article is part of 50 Years of Jazz Fest celebration and appears in the special Collector’s Edition April/May 2019 issue of Relix. Subscribe here using code NOLA50 and get 20% off.

Ivan Neville made his New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival debut in 1977, singing alongside his father, Aaron, and his uncles, Art, Cyril and Charles. He was already a high-school senior at the time, but his real education began that day.

“Jazz Fest is a learning ground, somewhere to grow over the years,” says Neville, now a four-decade veteran of New Orleans’ annual springtime extravaganza. “I’m always learning something different, not just from being part of it musically, but also seeing how other people coming in treasure the New Orleans thing.”

For 50 years, Jazz Fest has celebrated that “New Orleans thing” in all its funky splendor.

What started in 1970 as a handmade local festival staged under the oak trees of a park near the city’s historic French Quarter has grown into the still-spry granddaddy of American music festivals.

Jazz Fest’s 50th anniversary celebration will take place April 25– 28 and May 2–5, 2019. Hundreds of thousands of music lovers will descend on the Fair Grounds Race Course while more than 600 acts, the vast majority indigenous to South Louisiana, showcase the depth and breadth of their talent on a dozen stages. Those locals are augmented by “visiting” musicians from across the spectrum of popular music, marquee names presented alongside authentic New Orleans street culture.

This year’s visiting artists include The Rolling Stones [Ed. Note: Since the publishing of our April/May issue, The Rolling Stones have canceled their Jazz Fest appearance. Widespread Panic will now headline May 2], Dave Matthews Band, Chris Stapleton, Katy Perry, Jimmy Buffett, Van Morrison, Santana, Gary Clark Jr., John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Pitbull, Leon Bridges, J. Balvin, Pitbull, Logic, The Head and the Heart, Kamasi Washington and many others.

They’ll join a host of more exotic acts from around the globe that link to the roots of New Orleans music: Martinique’s Chouval Bwa Traditionnel, South Africa’s Crocodile Gumboot Dancers, Haiti’s Boukman Eksperyans and Cuba’s Septeto Santiaguero are among them.

“The festival has to be true to its history and honor people’s experience here,” says longtime Jazz Fest producer/director Quint Davis, who was still a college student when legendary festival impresario George Wein hired him for the very first Jazz Fest. “But it also has to be broad. This just can’t be a festival where you call up an agent and book a band. We have to dig all the way into the roots.”

But music accounts for only part of the festival’s appeal. At Jazz Fest, what happens between the stages is just as enticing as what happens on them.

Dozens of food vendors serve up a cornucopia of culinary delights, from Crawfish Monica and cochon de lait—the former a creamy pasta dish, the latter a Cajun roast pig sandwich—to spicy meat pies and fried soft-shell crab po-boys.

For Galactic saxophonist and harmonica player Ben Ellman, “everything revolves around the pheasant, quail and andouille gumbo. I think that truly is the greatest gumbo I’ve ever had. I play a lot of festivals, and the food is never as good as it is at Jazz Fest. It’s one of the great food festivals, too.”

One of Ellman’s signature moves is to buy crackling—essentially fried pork fat—and sprinkle it on the cochon de lait. “Or you can put it in the gumbo, of course. It kind of goes with everything, except the strawberry shortcake.”

In defiance of the heat and rain that generally descend on south Louisiana each spring, the festival’s sounds, sights, smells and tastes are immersive in a way that transcends the typical concert, or even festival, experience. Most major music festivals—Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, even Austin City Limits—could be anywhere. But Jazz Fest is reflective of, and essential to, its host city.

Jazz Fest ranks second only to Mardi Gras in terms of economic and social impact. For the city’s musicians, it’s a seven-day Super Bowl that both celebrates New Orleans culture and serves as a catalyst for its continued vitality. After leaving the Fair Grounds when the event shuts down at 7 p.m., patrons pack New Orleans’ music clubs for what amounts to an all-night encore.

The festival itself is a one-stop shop for all that makes New Orleans the most culturally rich city in North America. The brilliant plumage of the Mardi Gras Indians, the matching suits and choreographed steps of the second-line parades that roam the grounds, the potent kick of the brass bands, the flags and totems that flutter above the crowd, even the painted memorials that honor festival “Ancestors” who have passed on—Jazz Fest feels alive, with a celebratory spirit and sense of community all its own.

For the festival’s duration, the Fair Grounds is its own planet with a gravitational field that pulls in all sorts of characters and spins off all sorts of traditions. At the Fais Do-Do Stage, with its Cajun, zydeco and Americana bands, fans host a ritualized “watermelon sacrifice.” Participants in the decidedly unofficial “Jazz Fest Triathlon” bike to the Fair Grounds, jog around the racetrack and then swim across nearby Bayou St. John. These are tribes within the tribe.

Jazz Fest offers unique experiences regardless of status. A hoodoo dancer draped her albino snake across Eric Clapton’s shoulders as Slowhand watched Crescent City legend Dr. John in 1992. (Clapton would headline the festival himself 22 years later.) U2 guitarist The Edge found himself singing “Stand by Me” with the New Birth Brass Band in 2006. Ed Bradley, the late 60 Minutes correspondent, was such a close friend of the fest that he merited his own golf cart and is now immortalized as an Ancestor.

It is not unheard of to encounter Jimmy Buffett in line for the same gumbo that Ellman relishes—Mr. Margaritaville frolics at the Fair Grounds even when he’s not on the bill and has been known to make a surprise sit in. For years, John Fogerty roamed the grounds anonymously, sometimes in a white Jazz Fest baseball cap and a pink Jazz Fest shirt, before he finally agreed to make it a working vacation and perform.

Over the decades, the festival has found room for everyone from Bon Jovi to Bongo Joe, a strapping Texan who beats on 55-gallon oil drums with homemade mallets.

To arrive at its 50th anniversary, Jazz Fest has survived fire and flood, wind and rain, politics and personality clashes, mud pools and the “Macarena.” It remains relevant even though it predates cell phones, laptops, CDs and Spotify. It is older than hip-hop and has outlived many of its legendary performers, even as it has embraced—sometimes slowly—contemporary music. It changes when it needs to, but also remains the same.

Jazz Fest is owned by a nonprofit foundation that uses the proceeds to underwrite a series of free festivals and various cultural and educational initiatives. Since 2004, Davis has partnered with AEG Live, one of the world’s largest producers of live entertainment, to co-produce Jazz Fest.

The AEG alliance has enabled Jazz Fest to book some of the biggest names in popular music, including Elton John, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Foo Fighters and Rod Stewart.

Indicative of the festival’s growth, acts that previously appeared on the festival’s three biggest stages now headline smaller tents. Legends like Boz Scaggs, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples and Los Lobos will perform in the Blues Tent this year. Herbie Hancock will appear in the Jazz Tent, as will brothers Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis when they honor their father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, one of more than a dozen tributes to various New Orleans legends.

Some longtime fans of the festival believe that the type of mainstream rock and pop acts that headline arenas don’t belong at Jazz Fest. Ivan Neville, however, sees the benefit.

“That just brings more people down here to appreciate what we have,” he says. “If you’re a New Orleans group playing that day, you’re going to play for thousands of people that may have never seen you. I love it.”

To maximize that exposure, Davis often schedules regional acts on the same stage as like-minded headliners. On this year’s first Friday, he slotted South Louisiana guitarist Tab Benoit on the main Acura Stage ahead of Santana. “That, to me, is some of the magic of Jazz Fest,” Davis said.

So, too, is the fact that the big acts perform without their usual production, or even lights—the festival closes before sundown. Mick Jagger and company will strut their stuff under the Acura Stage canopy on May 2 with the same amount of bells and whistles—none—as the local acts who precede them.

“The biggest band in the world has accepted playing Jazz Fest on Jazz Fest’s terms, in the daytime, with no lights,” Davis says. “That says something about them, but it also says a lot about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.”

Ivan Neville’s deep-funk/R&B band, Dumpstaphunk, is booked on the same day as The Rolling Stones, with whom he has collaborated. (Tickets for “Stones Thursday” are sold out.) Over the decades, Neville has joined his father and uncles in The Neville Brothers onstage at Jazz Fest and sat in with his uncle Art in pioneering funk band, The Meters. He is as much a fan of the festival as a participant.

“Some of the most fun musical times in my life have been during Jazz Fest, whether at the Fair Grounds or the surrounding scene,” he says. “The city turns into one big festival. It’s a big giant bowl of gumbo and we’re all hanging out. It’s like nothing else.”

Ellman first performed at Jazz Fest in 1990 with the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band. He’s since graced stages with the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, Lump, All That, the Midnite Disturbers and, most prominently, Galactic.

“I always tell people to wander the stages,” he says. “Jazz Fest, from the beginning for me, was about discovering music that you’d never heard. Sure, you can go see The Rolling Stones. But at the Gospel Tent or the Fais Do-Do Stage, you’re going to discover regional artists you weren’t aware of. Not all festivals are like that.

“Jazz Fest exposes people to the culture in a way that they might not have another opportunity to otherwise,” Ellman says. “On the Jazz & Heritage Stage alone, where else can you see all those Mardi Gras Indian bands and brass bands?”

Homegrown funk/rock hybrid Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews & Orleans Avenue have closed the Acura Stage on the festival’s final Sunday since 2013. Andrews inherited the prestigious closing slot from the fabled Neville Brothers, who disbanded a few years ago.

For the 50th anniversary, the festival’s final show is billed as “Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue with Nevilles.” Ivan and Aaron, among other members of the family, are slated to sit in with Orleans Avenue for a symbolic passing of the torch, one that showcases the living tradition of New Orleans music in general, and Jazz Fest specifically.

For Ivan, it will be one more in a lifetime of special moments at Jazz Fest. “When people ask me on the road, ‘When is the best time to go to New Orleans?,’ I always say, ‘Go to Jazz Fest.’ I’ve never heard anybody say they were disappointed. Never.”

Keith Spera has covered every New Orleans Jazz Fest since 1990, most recently as a staff writer for the New Orleans Advocate. He is the author of Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal and the Music of New Orleans (2011, St. Martin’s Press).

This article originally appears in the April/May 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews. album reviews and more, subscribe here.