An Interview With Don Marshall, Executive Director of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation

12:30 April 16, 2019
By: Diarra English

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation has overseen Jazz Fest, one of the biggest and best music and cultural heritage festivals in the world, for 50 years now. To commemorate this year’s historic Jazz Fest, we sat down with Don Marshall, head of the foundation. He offered us an exclusive look into the behind-the-scenes work the foundation does year-round to support and preserve New Orleans’s arts and culture as well as to prepare for Jazz Fest every year. 

WYAT: How did you first get involved in the Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation?

Don Marshall: Having been a regular fan of Jazz Fest since the early 70s and a member of the board in the 80s, I was curious when the foundation conducted a national search for an executive director in 2004. The festival had experienced a string of difficult years and the future was looking dim. It was my good fortune that the board was looking for someone who was deeply experienced in our local culture and in nonprofit management. The 2005 Jazz Fest, with a newly expanded production team, was an amazing success. And then came Katrina. The foundation was determined to hold Jazz Fest the following year and to be a major force in rebuilding New Orleans and our music and cultural heritage communities. 

WYAT: What does the 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest mean to you?

Don Marshall: It’s the recognition that Jazz Fest is the greatest music and cultural heritage festival in the world. Jazz Fest was created as a celebration of the unique music and cultural heritage of New Orleans and Louisiana. There is no other festival that presents so many American music forms that were born or nurtured in Louisiana: jazz, zydeco, Cajun, blues, gospel, brass bands and R&B. No other festival can present so many amazing food traditions like those grown in New Orleans and South Louisiana. No other festival can present our unique, rich cultural traditions like the Black Indians and S.A.P.C. second lines. No festival better showcases our artists and craftsmen.

WYAT: As head of the Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, what is the thing you most look forward to every Jazz Fest? 

Don Marshall: I look forward to sharing the joy and happiness everyone experiences at Jazz Fest. The festival may be the happiest place on the planet for eight days. Jazz Fest is sensory overload: hearing great music, tasting incredible food, and seeing our traditions on parade. And everyone is enjoying each other.

WYAT: What are some of the challenges you face putting on Jazz Fest each year?

Don Marshall: The biggest challenge we all face is how to make Jazz Fest just a little bit better every year. A good example is this year’s music lineup. I don’t know how we can do any better next year, but I know we will. Also, how do you keep Jazz Fest fresh and exciting? We want our loyal fans to discover something new and wonderful every year. This year’s Cultural Exchange Pavilion will be phenomenal, and I am very happy that we have added a new stage in the Rhythmporium that is like bringing back the gazebo stages of early Jazz Fest.

WYAT: What makes Jazz Fest stand out from the other Louisiana culture-based festivals that the foundation supports?

Don Marshall: Jazz Fest is like all of the great Louisiana festivals combined and given a shot of steroids. After Katrina, the foundation wanted to do everything possible to help and employ our musicians and cultural tradition-bearers. We deconstructed Jazz Fest and created festivals that were slices of Jazz Fest: Crescent City Blues & BBQ Festival (Blues Tent), Congo Square Rhythms Festival (Congo Square Stage and Market), Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival (Fais Do-Do Stage) and Treme Creole Gumbo Festival (Jazz & Heritage Stage). The foundation is extremely proud to provide community partnership grants to a very large number of festivals across the state. Supporting their wonderful festivals throughout the state helps us fulfill our mission.

WYAT: The foundation has several education initiatives year-round such as the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music. What has been their impact on Greater New Orleans?

Don Marshall: Music and arts education is critical to helping the youth of our city grow and succeed in life. Many of our 285 students will receive music scholarships and become musicians, but even more will become successful professionals in business, law, medicine, and education. Through our community partnership grants, we have provided funding directly to music and arts programs in the schools, giving them the ability to buy and repair instruments. We are extremely excited about our collaboration with N.O.R.D [New Orleans Recreation Development Commission] and are presenting vocal workshops taught by Tonya Boyd Cannon on a weekly basis at three locations. Seeing a young person’s self-esteem grow through this program has been amazing. We plan to add classes in New Orleans East next fall. Our Class Got Brass Competition, which was designed to teach our young musicians the New Orleans brass band tradition, awards $45,000 in instruments and instrument repairs each year to participating schools. We are looking forward to increasing our support for music and arts education every year.

WYAT: How has your own upbringing impacted the way you develop initiatives to incorporate culture and arts enrichment in New Orleans's schools and neighborhoods?

Don Marshall: Native-born, I was fortunate to be exposed to our rich cultural heritage at an early age. On Sundays, we would go down to the French Quarter and experience the recently opened Preservation Hall and listen to all the great musical legends that are no longer with us. My family was deeply involved in the arts and opened the Downtown Gallery, which presented such artists as Noel Rockmore, George Dureau, John McCrady, and the amazing Clementine Hunter. From heading the Contemporary Arts Center and Le Petit Theatre to co-founding the New Orleans Film Festival, Tennessee Williams Festival, and the Krewe du Vieux, I have always been committed to supporting our rich visual and performing arts community. Working with a great board and staff at the foundation, we have radically grown the foundation’s support for music, culture, and heritage in the schools and throughout the community. Our growth since Katrina has been tremendous, but there is much more to come.

WYAT: What is the one thing you want visitors to take away from their Jazz Fest experience?

Don Marshall: My biggest hope is that they fully experience the magic of our city and their love for New Orleans and our culture grows deeper every year.

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