Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
It’s hard to imagine a time when Jazz Fest wasn’t part of New Orleans. It’s as much a part of the cultural identity of the city as Mardi Gras. There are other festivals to be sure. Coachella and Bonaroo make more waves on the popular culture landscape, but they pretty much showcase what’s new and hip. The foundations of Jazz Fest are as deep as the Mississippi and as far reaching as the river and all it’s tributaries. Smithsonian/Folkways records has assembled a fantastic celebration of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival first 50 years. The set collects Jazz Fest highlights over five CD’s and includes a 139 page book that gives you a lot of information you will want to know.
The story of Jazz Fest is a reflection of the changes New Orleans has gone through in the past half century. The New Orleans event was inspired by the success of the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festivals produced by George Wein. When folks from New Orleans first approached Wein about doing a festival in 1962, Jim Crow was still the entrenched. That made the event a non-starter for Wein, who refused to bring black artists to a city where they couldn’t stay in the best hotels or eat in the best restaurants. A jazz festival couldn’t happen in a city where black and white musicians couldn’t share the same stage and audiences has to be segregated. It took the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to set the stage, and a few more years for the changes to become accepted. There was no guarantee that Jazz Fest would be a success. In 1968 and ‘69, the International Jazz Festival got the ball rolling, but they were losing money. George Wein took over producing the event and brought a new vision. Wein wrote, “The festival that I envisioned for the city where jazz was born had to be unique; it had to reflect the entire spectrum of Louisiana’s musical heritage. I wanted to use New Orleans and Louisiana artists, almost exclusively, to showcase this wealth of local culture.” Through all of the changes that the festival has gone through over the years, that vision remains. Today, Jazz Fest is much more than a music festival. Walking around the fairground, there are dozens of food vendors inviting you to try Crawfish Monica or Pheasant, Quail and Andooilie Gumbo and other Louisiana fare. You’ll pass arts vendors, cooking and crafts demonstrations. You’ll get a chance to see Native American cultural represented. Walking from the Blues Tent to the Congo Square stage, you’ll pass the International Pavilion where musicians from around the world represent their homelands. You’ll likely stumble upon a Social Aid and Pleasure Society doing a second line parade or a band of Mardi Gras Indians. It is like Wein and his protégée Quint Davis mixed together a bunch of potentially stand alone festivals with the music.
The Jazz Fest box set brings you the sounds of Jazz Fest. The collection keeps the focus on Louisiana music and musicians (nothing by the big names like Katie Perry, Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen who have been marquis names in recent years). The sounds come from the archives of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. The archive has recordings from Michael Murphy Productions (who filmed and recorded at the Festival between 1989 and 2009) and community radio station WWOZ, who have been broadcasting the Festival since 1993. A third source is Peer Munck of Munck Mix, who has been recording sets and selling them on site since 2004. Add some recorded announcements and vendor to spice things up, and you get a good approximation of being there.
The Golden Eagles kick off the compilation with a version of “Indian Red.” This is appropriate because the song is traditionally sung at the beginning and end of Mardi Gras Indian gatherings. The song is a prayer, an invocation of the ancestors and a calling together of the tribe. Jazz dominates the first disc with selections by Donald Harrison Jr., Danny Barker and Terence Blanchard. The Kermit Ruffins Big Band channels the spirit of Louis Armstrong with “Royal Garden Blues” while Trombone Shorty shows how that spirit continues to manifest in new and exciting ways with “One Night Only (the March).” The disc closes with one of those defining jazz fest moments that have come to define the event. When John Boutte sang the Randy Newman song, “Louisiana 1927” after hurricane Katrina, a song about a long ago flood became an anthem for the survivors of another. Boutte changes the final chorus from “they’re trying to wash us away” to “don’t let them wash us away.”
The second disc showcases some of the legends of New Orleans music. Allen Toussaint starts off the disc with his hit, “Yes We Can Can.” Toussaint’s tune is a call for optimism; a striving to make the world a better place. Following the sadness of Boutte’s version of “Louisiana 1927,” the tune speaks to the indomitable spirit of the people of the region. Other highlights on this disc include the Dixie Cups, a “girl group” who brought the Mardi Gras Indian tune, “Iko Iko” to the world. Dr. John plays a trio of spooky swamp blues tunes he wrote about the Voodoo tradition of New Orleans. “Litanie des Saints”/”Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya”/ “I Walk on Gilded Splinters” evoke the mystery and magic of the states supernatural lore.
You can’t talk about Jazz Fest without talking about Professor Longhair. Fess has become the secular patron saint of the festival. His likeness looks down on the crowd from the peak of the main stage. Jazz Fest resurrected Professor Longhair’s career when George Wein heard “Go To The Mardi Gras” on a jukebox and told Quint Davis to book that guy. Longhair’s syncopated piano playing and infectious afro-Caribbean rhythms are represented on disc two by “Big Chief.” Until his death in 1980, Professor Longhair closed out the main stage on the last day of the festival. The third disc focuses on tradition. “Blackbird Special” by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band takes the street parade tradition on stage and into the modern era. The Dirty Dozen were one of the groups that re-energized the New Orleans brass band tradition. The Al Belletto Big Band gives us a taste of swing era jazz with “Jazznocracy” The Original Liberty Jazz Band (featuring Dr. Michael White) and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band represent aspects of trad jazz (some still call it Dixieland).
The second half of disc three focuses on gospel music. You will often read about major blues and soul artists talking about who they began their careers in church choirs. Listening to the gospel groups represented here makes clear the link between the sacred and the secular. You can hear the roots of blues and R&B in the Zion Harmonizers take on “I Want To Be At That Meeting”/”Golden Gate Go.” You may not be a churchgoer, but you’ll be mover by the spirit when Johnson Extension revs up, “I Can Go To God In Prayer.”
We get out of the city on Disc four and go out to southwest Louisiana, Cajun country. The Savoy Family Cajun Band give us a sampling of a traditional, accordion and fiddle dance number with “Midland Two Step.” For a modernized take on the Cajun tradition, we have Recherché d’Acadie by Beausoleil. Beausoleil have been the ambassadors of Cajun culture, taking their music to new audiences around the world for the past 40 years. “Recherché d’Acadie” is a haunting, beautiful ballad about the people of Francophone Louisiana. The same cultural roots gave rise to Zydeco; the African American interpretation infused with blues and R&B elements. Boozoo Chavis recorded the first Zydeco record, “Paper in my Shoe” back in 1954. We hear a version of that song from the Fais Do-Do Stage recorded in the year 2000. A selection of blues tunes, including John Campbell’s version of “When the Levee Breaks” and John Mooney’s take on “It Don’t Mean A Doggone Thing” close out the side.
Jazz Fest’s final disc brings the diverse elements of Louisiana music up to date. Artists like Deacon John, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and Walter “Wolfman” Washington are keeping blues alive. Anders Osborne gives us a fun little number called “Back on Dumaine” that has a kind of Van Morrison vibe. Sonny Landreth gives us the topical blues rock number, “Blue Tarp Blues.” The song is about the aftermath of Katrina and references the ubiquitous blue tarps used to patch damaged roofs after the storm. “Thorn in Her Side” by the pioneering Americana group, the Subdudes, takes a swipe at FEMA’s feeble response to the flooding of New Orleans. They ask the question that was on many people’s minds, “How about taking care of our own, like the people down South drowning in their homes?”
In the ’70s, the Meters brought New Orleans funk to the rest of the world. Art “Poppa Funk” Neville and George Porter Jr. keep the legacy of the Meters current with the Funky Meters. “Fire on the Bayou” is one of their classic tunes inspired by Mardi Gras Indian lore. The Wild Magnolias took the Indian culture to the masses by infusing traditional call and response vocals with funk grooves. Their tune “Smoke My Peace Pipe” broke into the Hot 100 upon its release. The jazzy version found here comes from a 1974 performance. Bringing the beat into the new Century, we have Big Freedia singing “N.O. Bounce.” Bounce music is the locally grown variety of hip hop. Bounce is responsible for starting the twerking craze. You can thank Big Freedia for that one.
Jazz Fest opened with the traditional Mardi Gras Indian invocation, “Indian Red.” The compilation ends on a spiritual note as well. After the passing of Professor Longhair, the Neville Brothers took on the tradition of closing out the festival’s main stage. The last song, of the last set, of Jazz Fest was always this mash up of “Amazing Grace”/ “One Love.” The song is a prayer that sends off the Jazz Fest community with hope and love until the tribes gather again next year.
In New Orleans, music is a living tradition. The musical traditions are front and center in people’s lives. The music grows and changes with the people. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has become a deeply rooted part of that tradition over the past 50 years. The festival grows and adapts, just like the people of New Orleans. The festival has overcome many challenges and threats over the years and still finds ways to thrive. I like to think that long after I am gone, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will still be inspiring performers and patrons.