Reading, hearing and seeing stories this week about the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival triggers memories of the festival’s beginnings and of the years I lived in the Crescent City (please, not The Big Easy). JazzFest, as it was christened at its birth in the late 1960s, began as the purest of jazz festivals, integrated with a judicious smattering of associated events involving Louisiana food and culture. The 1968 and ’69 festivals, along with certain years at Newport and Monterey, were among the music’s milestone large events. They were not big money makers and they did not fit some New Orleans movers’ and shakers’ vision of what a festival should be in a city whose motto is “Let The Good Times Roll.”
From an earlier Rifftides piece about Willis Conover, who produced the 1969 JazzFest:
The ’69 festival turned out to be one of the great events in the history of the music. It reflected Willis’s knowledge, taste, judgment, and the enormous regard the best jazz musicians in the world had for him.
I won’t give you the complete list of talent. Suffice it to report that the house band for the week was Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Jaki Byard, Milt Hinton and Alan Dawson, and that some of the hundred or so musicians who performed were Sarah Vaughan, the Count Basie band, Gerry Mulligan, Paul Desmond, Albert Mangelsdorff, Roland Kirk, Jimmy Giuffre, the Onward Brass Band, Rita Reyes, Al Belletto, Eddie Miller, Graham Collier, Earle Warren, Buddy Tate, Dickie Wells, Pete Fountain, Freddie Hubbard and Dizzy Gillespie. The festival had style, dignity and panache. It was a festival of music, not a carnival. An enormous amount of the credit for that goes to Willis. His achievement came only after months of infighting with the chairman and other retrograde members of the jazz establishment who did not understand or accept mainstream, much less modern, jazz and who wanted the festival to be the mini-Mardi Gras that it became the next year and has remained since.
To read more about Conover’s role in the festival, go here.
In 1970, George Wein’s Festival Productions company took over JazzFest from the locals who created it, renamed it the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and—with promotional skill and canny marketing—made it the world-famous party it is today. The fact that the bash is overwhelmingly pop, secondarily heritage and minimally jazz doesn’t bother the promoters and doesn’t bother New Orleans. It was probably inevitable in the city that care forgot, that JazzFest would become a big, fat, swirling celebration full of R&B, rock, gospel, Zydeco and soul. The headliners this year are Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Herbie Hancock, The Meters, Dave Matthews, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Keith Urban and Fats Domino. Perhaps you’ll have no trouble finding the one jazz name in that list.
In the aftermath of Katrina, with much of the city resembling a post-war nightmare, a party called a jazz festival symbolizes New Orleans’ determination to recover. That speaks of a spirit that rises from within New Orleanians and cuts through a malaise of failed leadership, politics and bureaucracy. For eight years, I was a New Orleanian. I understand that spirit. It grows out of the curious combination of laissez faire and obstinance that animates folks whose blood has a component of coffee with chicory.
Partying is wonderful. Food is wonderful. Boogying and getting down is wonderful. Few Orleanians would disagree with any of that. But this is the city that gave us Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Jelly Roll Morton, Henry “Red” Allen, Barney Bigard, Raymond Burke, Danny Barker, Paul Barbarin, James Black, Johnny Vidacovich, Al Belletto, Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison and the Marsalises.
Clearly, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is here to stay as a kaleidoscope of entertainment. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the city also had room for a festival that honored and nurtured the music that is the living symbol of the New Orleans spirit. Somehow, jazz ended up in a minor role at what the natives still call JazzFest.