The Big Event in the Big Easy: Jazz Fest in New Orleans

Jazz Fest in New Orleans (Source: Shutterstock / Adam McCullough)

There are few cultural events that better capture the spirit and legacy of a people or place than New Orleans’ own Jazz & Heritage Festival (aka “Jazz Fest”). Indeed, New Orleans and its surrounding area are known for their deep cultural complexity that folds in influences from Europe, Africa, Asia, the Caribbean – as well as those that are locally grown. The region’s many-layered history of peoples, practices, and norms weave through city life today — not only in its colloquialisms, food, and traditions, but in its music. Jazz Fest in New Orleans is a celebration of this rich heritage.

A marriage of music and culture

As some myths have it, the idea behind New Orleans’ Jazz Fest dates back to 1970 when gospel superstar Mahalia Jackson, meandering through New Orleans’ Louisiana Heritage Festival, spontaneously joined a group of second-line revelers (a post-funeral tradition unique to New Orleans) passing by.

This was a seminal moment, as it captured the deep connection between the music (Mahalia) and unique heritage of New Orleans (second-liners): In short, one could not be celebrated without the other. Who knows whether the details are true, but the story remains the inspiration for Jazz Fest in New Orleans as we know it today.

'...Whereas other major festivals tend to be brief invasions of their locales, Jazz Fest is an institution, inseparable from the city' - Jon Pareles, NY Times Click To Tweet

Growth of the festival

As the newly born festival grew, it embraced much more than music. Festival programming solidified around a large daytime fair with several stages featuring local music styles, food booths showcasing Louisiana cuisine, arts and crafts booths, and an evening concert series. Regarding the musical side to the festival, producer George Wein said at the time, “[Jazz Fest in New Orleans] represents a new and exciting idea in festival presentation. The festival could only be held in New Orleans because here and here alone is the richest musical heritage in America … Newport [Jazz Festival] was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing.”

Musical performers in the early years included Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, zydeco great Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, The Meters, and The Preservation Hall Band. (For more on zydeco music, go here.) Additionally, daily parades with The Olympia Brass Band and Mardi Gras Indians, among others, were central to the fest.

Throughout the ’70s, the festival’s popularity grew significantly. Total attendees increased from 350 in its first year to nearly 80,000 by 1975. By this time, the festival had moved from Congo Square (then Beauregard Square) to the infield of the Fair Grounds Race Course (where it still resides today), and had stretched from a single weekend to five days of music with three days of heritage fair activities. Nineteen seventy-five was also the first year for which an annual limited-edition festival poster was produced.

Growth continued throughout the 1980s and ’90s. By 1989, over 300,000 people were attending the festival and additional days and facilities were added to expand the programming even further. This included the addition of the International Pavilion (celebrating the cultural influences of Cuba, Haiti, Panama, Brazil, Martinique, and South Africa, among other countries) and the Native American stage. During this period, the festival’s significance as a cultural phenomenon became widely recognized. Even The New York Times weighed in, stating that the festival had “become inseparable from the culture it presents.”

Hurricane Katrina

Years later, 2005 proved to be a period of reflection and recommitment for Jazz Fest. Much of New Orleans, including the Fair Grounds, had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina in late 2005 and the festival’s 2006 production was in serious doubt. With the support of new sponsor, Shell Oil, and partners AEG Live and Wein, however, Jazz Fest 2006 was ultimately able to go on as planned. It was a deeply emotional experience for many, and solidified the significance of Louisiana culture, not only to New Orleans, but to the world more broadly. Said Los Angeles Times music writer Randy Lewis about Bruce Springsteen’s festival performance that year, “Sometime, somewhere, a more dramatic and exhilarating confluence of music with moment may have existed … But in nearly 40 years of concert-going, I haven’t witnessed one.”

In 2010, rock powerhouse Pearl Jam made their first appearance at Jazz Fest with a blistering set broadcast live to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lead singer Eddie Veder’s conversation with his friend stationed in Afghanistan via the live feed proved to be another moving and unforgettable festival moment.

Today’s Jazz Fest in New Orleans

These days, Jazz Fest runs over two four-day weekends (Thursday through Sunday) in late April and early May and includes 12 performance stages, crafts, food, and cultural attractions celebrating Louisiana’s rich history and heritage.

Featured musical performances stretch across virtually all genres and regularly include A-listers from the worlds of jazz, gospel, Cajun, Zydeco, blues, R&B, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean, and folk. Many of the great artists from Louisiana have played here over the years, including Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Wynton Marselis, Dr. John, Branford Marselis, and Harry Connick Jr, just to name a few.

Herbie Hancock and Lionel Loueke Jam at Jazz Fest (Source: Shutterstock / Brian Ross)
Herbie Hancock and Lionel Loueke Jam at Jazz Fest (Source: Shutterstock / Brian Ross)

While the festival has received many honors throughout its history, including Festival of the Year four times by Pollstar magazine, it may be Jon Pareles of The New York Times who best encapsulated the spirit and meaning of Jazz Fest with his comments, “…whereas other major festivals tend to be brief invasions of their locales, Jazz Fest is an institution, inseparable from the city [itself].”

Visit Jazz Fest online or our events page for more information about Jazz Fest and this year’s line-up.