The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Represents Culture And History
Cover photo Josh Brasted/WireImage
When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival started in 1970 producer George Wein said, “The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival represents a new and exciting idea in festival presentation. This festival could only be held in New Orleans because here and here alone is the richest musical heritage in America.”
While the first festival drew 350 attendees and stuck to the music that made New Orleans famous, the current incarnation is a sprawling experience that brings 425,000 people to the Crescent City's Fair Grounds Race Course, spans two weekends, and presents one of the most diverse musical lineups of any modern American festival.
This year's festival had something for everyone. Festival purists enjoyed Trombone Shorty, Buddy Guy, The Meters, Aaron Neville, Dr. John, Patti LaBelle, and NOLA's own Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Dads unbuttoned an extra button on their Tommy Bahama shirts for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dave Matthews, Blues Traveler, and Dawes. Those who wish VH1 still played music videos sipped lemonade in the comfort of their lawn chairs to Maroon 5, Corrine Bailey Rae, and Meghan Trainor. Anyone who came to turn up did so with the help of Snoop Dogg, Usher with The Roots, and NAS. Kings of Leon, Alabama Shakes, and Wilco came to rock. Stevie Wonder covered all demographics and brought the entire crowd together in unanimous joy.
Where the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival truly excels is in showcasing local talent and the roots and culture that influence so many of the acts performing on its various stages. Big Freedia, who regularly performs at small-to-mid-sized venues all over the city, brought her bounce madness to the Congo Square Stage, named after the festival's early home. Tank and the Bangas, an incredible group from New Orleans who just won NPR's 2017 Tiny Desk Contest, lit up the second largest stage at the fest with their hip-hop/funk/soul infused tunes. Trombone Shorty, who made his first Jazz Fest appearance at four-years-old with Bo Diddley, closed out the festival to a huge crowd at the main stage with his band Orleans Avenue.
Between big acts, there is plenty to see, do, and eat. Local artists display and sell their wares along the walkways. Smaller stages feature live gospel, the immaculately adorned Mardi Gras Indians, and traditional African dance groups. One of this year's highlights was the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, which featured all-Cuban artists, musicians, and exhibits.
The entire festival is a pretty amazing experience and it ends conveniently by 7 p.m. every day, leaving plenty of time to cut loose in New Orleans at night. If I had to pick my favorite Jazz Fest Moment it would be when Patti Belle went full queen by kicking off her shoes, reclining on a couch, and waiting for a stagehand to come and put her shoes back on. Runner up would be the massive pockets of people doing the Electric Slide during Maze featuring Frankie Beverly's set.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival returns April 27 – May 6, 2018.