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As Jazz Fest Looks At 50, What Keeps It Alive?

A second-line parade featuring the Original Pigeon Town Steppers at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, one of many sights underlining the event's place-based identity.
Jacqueline Marque
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
A second-line parade featuring the Original Pigeon Town Steppers at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, one of many sights underlining the event's place-based identity.

At 46, Ben Jaffe is almost exactly the same age as Jazz Fest. Like a lot of New Orleans natives, he has memories of the annual event stretching back to childhood, though his experience is a little more rarefied than most. "That's where I got to sit on Fats Domino's lap and then hear him play," he says. "It's where I heard Allen Toussaint play for the first time as a child. It was the first time I heard live hip-hop — I think it was like 1981 or '82, and it was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. And I was like, 'Wow.'"

Jaffe is the creative director of Preservation Hall, a role he inherited from his parents Allan and Sandra Jaffe, who took over stewardship of the local music institution in 1961. A conservatory-trained bassist and sousaphone player, Jaffe credits Jazz Fest — officially, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell — as one of the most powerful influences throughout his life: first, tagging along as a child with his parents, then the important adolescent milestone of being set loose to wander the grounds with friends, and lately, bringing his own five-year-old daughter. "I'd say it's as important to our cultural calendar as Mardi Gras," he says. "You always look forward to Jazz Fest."

And it'd be a challenge to avoid, anyway: In effect, it's a season more than a single event. In late April and early May, people in bars and restaurants and in the streets wish each other a happy Jazz Fest in the same tones as "Merry Christmas." Nightclubs book special events for the nights after and the days between the two festival weekends; social and professional groups throw their own parties and gatherings. In a city that both defines and supports itself through culture and tourism, it's one of the biggest and most active economic engines for both.

But as the festival looks at 50, a milestone it'll hit in 2019, it also must face the fact that it's essentially cycled through a full generation of performers, and also of audience. The Louisiana music icons it was launched to celebrate have begun to submit to the passage of time, and the fans who first showed up to support them may be less thrilled about long days in the sun — or the arrival of acts like Lorde, Kings of Leon and Meghan Trainor, all of whom played the 2017 festival this spring. If Jazz Fest were a person, it would be in late middle age, winding down a bit, less up for a party — but of course, that's not how festivals work. Each year, its organizers have to consider how to attract new fans, book acts that reflect its spirit, and maintain its symbiotic, passionate relationship with America's most eccentric city.

Roosevelt Sykes performs at the inaugural Jazz Fest in 1970.
/ Photograph by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.4.604
Photograph by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.4.604
Roosevelt Sykes performs at the inaugural Jazz Fest in 1970.

In 1970, the first Jazz Fest, helmed by Newport Folk and Newport Jazz impresario George Wein, was held just outside the French Quarter in a park that was once the site of Congo Square — the space where, during the 18th century, enslaved people gathered to trade, dance, and play music from their countries of origin. Homegrown acts like Domino, zydeco king Clifton Chenier and acoustic bluesman Snooks Eaglin, as well as then-upstart funk gang The Meters, played to a crowd of about 350 people paying $3 a head.

The current version of the festival, which moved to the grounds of a racetrack about three miles away in 1972, has a stage called Congo Square; its capacity alone is easily four times that original number. The total attendance numbers for the 2017 festival, about 425,000 over seven days (though that count does include repeat visitors) were greater than the last official census estimation of the total population of Orleans Parish. Jazz Fest also keeps up a presence beyond the event itself: The nonprofit foundation that owns it puts on half a dozen smaller festivals, funds a free music education program and disburses grant money to cultural programs year-round.

In the crowded landscape of American popular music festivals today, Jazz Fest's position is unique. Among those in its bracket of economic impact, it is the oldest by decades. Its model — multiple music stages supplemented by curated crafts, food, presentations, demonstrations and other non-musical bells and whistles — is the raw template that festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza, and particularly Bonnaroo (whose founders met as college students in New Orleans) are built on. What's remarkable, then, is how Jazz Fest has maintained a certain primacy in a marketplace that, Desert Trip aside, is now geared toward the taste of fans young enough to be the founders' grandkids, while managing to preserve a sense of place-based identity. Quint Davis, the festival's longtime producer and director, still refers to performers who aren't from the region — even the ones whose names appear at the very top of the bill — as "guests."

Davis was still an undergraduate at Tulane University when George Wein hired him to work on the first Jazz Fest. "Not enough people realize that the first couple years, it lost money," he says. "Fifty thousand dollars of 1970 or '71 or '72 money — that was a lot of money." Looking at the success of Woodstock and Monterey Pop a few years prior, Davis wondered if mimicking their approach might do the trick.

"We just need to go get one of those big rock bands, Zeppelin or something," Davis remembers telling Wein. The founder didn't budge. "He said, 'Absolutely not: If you do that, then you'll lose the festival forever. That's what the festival will be, it'll be a rock festival. If you're going to have a family festival, which is what the culture is about, then you need to build that."

A Jazz Fest tableau from 1977. Left to right: A youthful Quint Davis, Gospel Tent godfather Sherman Washington and radio DJ Vernon "Dr. Daddy-O" Winslow.
/ Photograph by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.1.567
Photograph by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.1.567
A Jazz Fest tableau from 1977. Left to right: A youthful Quint Davis, Gospel Tent godfather Sherman Washington and radio DJ Vernon "Dr. Daddy-O" Winslow.

By the numbers, Jazz Fest has kept to its mission of amplifying the rich musical heritage of the region. Seven of its 10 music stages are dedicated to Cajun, zydeco and Americana music, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, blues, gospel, brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians, and up-and-coming local acts. The festival's looming presence on the city's calendar means that people are passionate about its booking and presentation, and even minute changes become topics of heated debate.

"We used to have this dance floor in Economy Hall [the traditional jazz area] and we decided, we don't really need that — let's just put out some more chairs," Davis says. "Within a day, I was stopped on a golf cart with eight pages of signatures or something: 'Bring back the dance floor.' Let me tell you, they let us know."

People have also let Davis know what they think about the festival's smattering of pop acts, who noticeably increased in wattage after a 2004 partnership with the entertainment monolith AEG Live, which also owns Goldenvoice, the company that produces Stagecoach and Coachella. Since then, the roster of headliners at Jazz Fest, which still draws more than half its talent from South Louisiana, has included Gen X rockers like Pearl Jam and No Doubt — and, increasingly of late, contemporary chart-toppers.

Putting aside the question of whether stars like Ed Sheeran — whose 2015 set may have been the first time Jazz Fest saw teens, overcome with passion, trying to climb over barriers to the stage — are the de facto Led Zeppelins of today, Davis maintains that these guests help underwrite the performers who embody the true meaning of the event.

"To have a traditional music, jazz, blues, Cajun music festival that draws 300,000 people over seven days — how else could it happen?" he said to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2009. "How many tickets and records do those acts sell? Those of us who have spent our lives producing and promoting blues, gospel, jazz in particular, we know: This is the least commercial music there is. But more people have seen gospel at Jazz Fest than anywhere else. Really straight white people come up to me in airports and say, 'I just go sit in the gospel tent.' These people go home and go to a blues club they never went to, or buy a Cajun or zydeco record."

Davis reiterates this in our conversation, stressing that pop artists remain a tiny portion of the festival's bookings. "When we have the big-name acts — Stevie Wonder, Elton John — sometimes that's all people can see," he says. "But if you look at it hour by hour, day by day, stage by stage, it's all New Orleans people except for that last one. I mean, Bonnaroo is great, but I don't think all the bands come from the woods in North Tennessee."

Among the giants of Louisiana music, there's been attrition: artists like Allen Toussaint, Pete Fountain and Harold Battiste, who have died, and those like Fats Domino, who no longer perform. Naturally, the same has happened among the fans: The 20-somethings who went to Congo Square back in 1970 are hitting retirement age. If the Louisiana terroir that Davis puts his money on really is still a core draw, what exactly does that look like in the 21st century, as the fest stares down its golden anniversary?

Ben Jaffe has been confronting that question himself from the helm of Preservation Hall, which hit its own 50th in 2011 and has since then experimented with broadening its program. Last year, for example, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band organized a French Quarter memorial parade for David Bowie with members of Arcade Fire, whom they'll also join this fall on several dates of Arcade Fire's "Infinite Content" tour.

"Someone will fill those shoes — it's just like, who will that person be?" he says. "Who's going to be the Neville Brothers, and who's going to be Irma Thomas, and who's going to be Dave Bartholomew, and who's going to be Allen Toussaint? And who was it before them? I think of our community as like a cultural ecosystem, because Preservation Hall can only reflect what New Orleans is."

To Davis' mind, Jazz Fest's longevity is bound to the same principle: Reflect Louisiana culture — not just its music but its street rituals, its rural crafts practices and its broad culinary heritage, from Cajun country cuisine to elegant Creole dining to the African, Latin and Caribbean flavors that inform it all from the roots up — as it stands. "Look, I mean, the festival is just a microcosm," Davis says. "Jazz Fest is about something, and the people know it."

It is, he points out, the only place to see New Orleans phenomena like Mardi Gras Indians or social aid and pleasure clubs — the venerable African-American community organizations behind second-line parades — on a schedule. And it's a rare chance to see a full slate of church choirs outside of actual worship services. ("They didn't want to come at first," he says of the gospel acts. "They said, 'We're not going to a place where people are drinking beer.") But more than that, Davis believes Jazz Fest has evolved from a showcase for this community's culture into an authentic and inseparable part of it.

"We were putting it together for a festival," he says. "But then, as the years went by, it became legitimately the culture. That's something I was really thrilled about."

Trombone Shorty takes the stage for Jazz Fest 2017's closing set.
Douglas Mason / New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
Trombone Shorty takes the stage for Jazz Fest 2017's closing set.

It's a challenge to find a festival that can compare apples to apples with Jazz Fest. Most other urban destination festivals that draw on their cities' complementary attractions aren't driven by roots traditions or historical legacy. Few that focus on regional culture or folkways have the budget or the interest to book pop megastars — and perhaps no one besides Davis who bothers to bring in an Ed Sheeran or a Meghan Trainor would also say out loud that those marquee names aren't the point. Davis and his team have made it through close to 50 years by banking on the city to give the festival its content and its flavor — so the answer for the future, he thinks, is to keep tuning into that, however it evolves.

"There's a lot of people, when they think of heritage, it's old," he says. "But heritage is not just in the rearview mirror. For us, heritage is through the windshield in front. It's going forward."

Kings of Leon played the second-to-last set at the Acura Stage, Jazz Fest's prime venue, on the final day of this year's festival. ("Guests" never play the headlining spot on the closing day; homegrown star Trombone Shorty would follow to shut things down.) In the crowd, I struck up a conversation with Molly, a 27-year-old attendee who had a great spot right near the front. But as it turned out, she was just pausing on her way to the real action.

"It's cool to see the headliners that are really big — but you really want to go to the Jazz and Heritage Stage," she said, indicating a small area of the grounds that presents mostly brass bands. "That's New Orleans."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.