[Courtesy of Bud Brimberg]

Jazz Fest: A Festival Personifying New Orleans Culture

07:00 April 29, 2024
By: Kimmie Tubré

Jazz Fest Brings the World to NOLA

If you find yourself craving Crawfish Monica, strawberry lemonade, cochon de lait, or soft shell crab po-boys, then you may have a case of the Jazz Fest fever.

During this time, you will find yourself longing for a variety of great music and dreaming of places called Congo Square. You'll search for colorful images painted by New Orleans' most talented artists and hope to add to your BayouWear wardrobe. This fever happens around the same time each year and there's only one cure—you must attend the city's Jazz Festival.

With over five decades on the festival scene, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell is one of the most lucrative and anticipated festivals in the city. Bringing in about $300 million each year, the festival (locally nicknamed "Jazz Fest") highlights a diversity of local culture, music, and food while also bringing in some of the biggest mainstream artists of the time. Today, we know Jazz Fest as a major festival promoted around the world, but it started from rather humble beginnings.

The Beginning of An Era

Roosevelt Sykes plays the first Jazz Fest in Congo Square , 1970 [courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection]

While the first official Jazz Fest was held in April of 1970, the story of the festival actually started in the 1960s. During that decade, the city leaders and officials had ideas to create an event that displayed the city's legacy as the birthplace of jazz. Of course there were smaller jazz events and festivals that lead up to the official Jazz and Heritage Festival, but they did not compare to the extravaganza that was to come in 1970.

That spring, under the direction of famed jazz promoter and pianist George Wein, the city's first Jazz Fest was held in Beauregard Square (now Congo Square), located in Louis Armstrong Park. Then titled the Louisiana Heritage Fair, the festival was a celebration of the originators of jazz, alongside local food vendors, arts, and crafts, complete with second lines.

George Wein (center) ushers in (from left) Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson to the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970 [courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection]

That establishing year, the legendary Mahalia Jackson returned home giving an impromptu appearance and performance alongside Duke Ellington and the Eureka Brass Band. The approximately 350 attendees that year excitedly witnessed performances from headliners including Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, Fats Domino, the Meters, the Preservation Hall Band, Mardi Gras Indians, the Olympia Brass Band, and many other local musicians.

Under the guidance of George Wein (who had previously run the successful Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island) and run by The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation [a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization], the fest set out to become not only the biggest Jazz festival in the country but also the ultimate display of the culture of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana. With its rising popularity, growing numbers and interest forced the festival to relocate to the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course in 1972, a location where it is still held today. A few years after the relocation, the festival added more days, making it a two-weekend celebration, traditionally held the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May.

The Glory Years

Roosevenlt Sykes plays to a much larger crown at Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds , 1973 [courtesy The Historic New Orleans Collection]

This may seem unbelievable, but there once was a time when Jazz Fest cost $3. Yet, as the festival grew and expanded, rising prices were inevitable. In the '80s, the attendance grew from the hundreds to the thousands with a multitude of added events from evening shows to workshops. At the end of that decade, with 20 years in the game, Jazz Fest was commemorated with the memorable Fats Domino poster, which not only spearheaded the annual Jazz Fest poster tradition but also aided in the growth of the local poster collection scene.

During the '90s, the International Pavilion was added to celebrate other cultures that have influenced the city, including places including Haiti, Cuba, South Africa, Brazil, and many more.

The 2000s was a decade of mass attendance for the festival. In 2001, the festival shattered records with over 600,000 attendees that year creating major buzz and opening the door to more international, world-famous entertainers.

From Katrina to COVID

Festing in Place during the pandemic [Courtesy WWOZ]

While the fest was consistently growing and gaining recognition, there was a storm brewing—literally—that was prepared to jeopardize everything. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall, leaving the city and citizens of New Orleans broken, displaced, and devastated. With more than 80% damage around New Orleans, the Fair Grounds Race Course (festival grounds) was not spared. In fact, it suffered an immense amount of damage, leading festival officials scrambling to decide whether the 2006 festival would be able to take place.

Sponsors, including Shell Oil and backed by AEG Live and George Wein, the festival happened, and it didn't miss a beat. That year, Jazz Fest became more of a homecoming celebration for local musicians and patrons to enjoy.

The years went on seamlessly as the festival continued annually until another disaster shut down the city in March 2020. The Virtual Years

One of the biggest joys of attending Jazz Fest is that it feels like you're entering a small musical village or mini city. There's a sense of community and a feeling of culture and expression that is like none other. Unfortunately, that experience was halted in 2020 when the entire world shut down for the then mysterious virus, COVID-19.

New Orleans was one of the U.S. Cities that instantly faced the effects of the pandemic.

As time moved forward, it was clear that a festival attracting multitudes would not be able to assemble in person. With that realization, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation teamed up with WWOZ to create Jazz Festing in Place—an On-Air Festival, (also known as porch festing), where they played music from previous festivals for listeners to enjoy from their homes.

Many came together to listen to the previous years of festing. It was a sad time, but porch festing gave the city hope, something to look forward to. After 50 years of festing, the years of 2020 and 2021 became the first break that the annual festival ever experienced.

Now and Years to Come

Joyce & George Wein [The Historic New Orleans Collection]

After two years of "festing in place," festival goers were more than ready to attend the 2022 Jazz Fest. The festival was met with great weather and amazing performances. Everything from the food to the art to the cultural experiences were exactly what the city needed after missing the beloved event.

From the unmatchable experience, to the immense history, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival lives on to be one of the best festivals of many in our lifetimes. As it continues, the city can only hope for another 50 years of the spectacular event.

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