[All Images by Robert Witkowski]

The Fest is More Than All That Jazz

12:00 April 28, 2024
By: Robert Witkowski

New Orleans Heritage & Jazz Festival?

"Is everyone having a good time tonight?" Chris Stapleton shouted out to the cheers from his fans filling the infield in front of the Festival Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, presented by Shell, as he closed out the first Saturday showcase of performances. But for some, the multi-award-winning country headliner raised more than a few eyebrows as he played one of the world's most famous jazz festivals, but there's more than "jazz" in the festival's name. "Heritage" often doesn't make the shortened vernacular "Jazz Fest," but as the name states—"New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival"—heritage is of equal importance.

Jazz Transcends Genres

As dictionary.com notes, "heritage" is defined as "​​something that is handed down from the past, as a tradition: a national heritage of honor, pride, and courage. Something that comes or belongs to one by reason of birth; an inherited lot or portion." And this festival has an overabundance of all of that in its music, its food, crafts, artisans, and by being in the city itself.

From its inception, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation, Inc. was created with the overarching mission to "promote, preserve, perpetuate, and encourage the music, culture, and heritage of communities in Louisiana through festivals, programs, and other cultural, educational, civic, and economic activities." George Wein, who also created the Newport Jazz and Newport Folk Festivals, purposefully included the word "heritage" to distinguish the New Orleans event from its older siblings.

As the festival gained momentum in the 1970s, Wein shared his belief that "New Orleans, in the long run, should become bigger than Newport in jazz festivals. Newport was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing."

So Stapleton's country twang is less about a separate genre and more about how the genres of country and jazz are inextricably intertwined, as is jazz and blues, soul, rock 'n' roll, and so many more abundantly clear throughout the Fair Grounds.

Most notably are the joyful faith-based building blocks booming from the Gospel Tent. Although the history goes back to European composers, the genre evolved into its own in rural Black churches in the early 20th century after emancipation, with New Orleans' Mahalia Jackson being regarded worldwide as "The Queen of Gospel." The liturgical songs have launched many careers in jazz, soul, and rock, including Whitney Houston, Amy Grant, and Chaka Khan. Many early hits by rock 'n' roll legends, including Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, have obvious Gospel influences in their songs.

The crowd in the Gospel Tent enthusiastically embraced this heritage with their approval as the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church kicked off the day, followed by the energetic Connie & Dwight Fitch St. Raymond & St. Leo Choir, which had most everyone on their feet. The Gospel Soul of Irma Thomas drew an overflow crowd, who roared for more as the Antioch Baptist Church Choir offered an alternative to Chris Stapleton across the track.

Along with Chris Stapleton's country riffs, similar disparities may be difficult for some patrons to reconcile if expecting jazz and finding more contemporary bounce music from Big Freedia at the Congo Square Stage, Buckwheat Zydeco Jr.'s traditional Acadiana/zydeco music at the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage, or even Boyfriend's fun, upbeat, and famously underdressed antics at the Shell Gentilly Stage (ditching the curlers and truly letting her hair down), but all their music evokes the heritage of jazz's influence, if not the genre directly.

Heritage is More Than Music

Roaming between stages or among vendors, the heritage of New Orleans permeates the festival. In Heritage Square, David Bergeron [Tent H] offered chests, mirrors, and more made from reclaimed wood from Louisiana with the original paint colors for an authentic distressed look. Nearby, artist Michael Eddy's work evoked fishing shacks over a bayou along with more abstract sculptures [Tent I].

Across the track, the Congo Square African Marketplace showcases the art, clothing, and food that is foundational to the area's culture. Tribal masks and sculptures from West Africa are sold through Tall African Arts [Tent O]. Folsom, Louisiana's Shirley Wilfred Designs creates hand-dyed and shaped hats [Tent R] to capture the attention of music lovers.

New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians make themselves available throughout the Fair Grounds to engage people and to make their significant role known, as well as explain their importance in New Orleans heritage. Representing the strong relationship between African Americans escaping slavery and Native Americans, the Mardi Gras Indians' colorful hand-sewn costumes are "pretty" and easily catch the eye, with festival goers of every generation respectfully asking for selfies.

Nearby in the Louisiana Folklife Village, Victor Harris passionately explained the history and importance of the Mardi Gras Indian traditions at Spirit of Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors [Tent C]. Darryl Reeves enticed others with the craftsmanship and expertise of a traditional blacksmith trade at Architectural Iron Works [Tent G], mesmerizing festival-goers with demonstrations of this 19th century skills still used for building authenticity.

Historical aspects of the area's heritage are also in full display at the Folklife Village. Traditional Boat Building & Cypress Paddles presented by Ernie Savoie were works of art from the 40th Anniversary of the World's Fair in New Orleans [Tent D]. Children and adults alike were drawn in by the the painstakingly patient and precise elegance required to create these the boats, especially the cypress rowing skiff with a plush pelican on the bow.

Louisiana Is What We Eat

But beyond the music, New Orleans' heritage is best found in its food, and Jazz Fest has a lot of food. From the Galley's soft-shell crab po-boys to boiled crawfish by Clesi's Seafood, Patton's shrimp beignets to Panaroma Fine Foods' crawfish bread (back after a festival hiatus to the delight of Jazz Fest regulars), down to the coffee offering from Cafe Du Monde, the culinary map may end in New Orleans but the origins stretch globally, with destinations tethered to the seaports they supported.

The far-flung influences including Africa, Canada, France, Spain, the Caribbean, and Vietnam are all in the literal melting pot of New Olreans cuisine. Even the Wild Turkey Bourbon Lounge, within earshot of Stapleton's concert, belies the brown whiskey's history and heritage integral to the fame and prosperity of this Mississippi River port city. But to ensure a New Orleans twist, the short list of cocktails included "NOLA Passion" enhances with Fassionola syrup—a passion fruit-based concoction frequently used in tropical drinks during the 1930s, but an uncommon ingredient almost a century later—perfectly suited for New Orleans.

Jazz & Heritage is New Orleans

So Chris Stapleton's concert primarily highlighted country songs—closing to wild cheers (and an a cappella audience) with his mega-hit "Tennessee Whiskey"—should not come as a surprise to any jazz aficionados. After all, as musician Ray Benson explains in the Ken Burns documentary Country Music, "Country Western music…is blues, it's jazz…it's everything about the immigrant experience brought to America and Americanized."

Just like New Orleans.

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