The 2015 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival wrapped up last Friday. Mark Hertsgaard’s Daily Beast review of the festival includes this lament.
Yet for all of Jazz Fest’s celebration of the music, food and culture of New Orleans, some locals complain that a central element is missing: the people. The daily ticket price of $70 is just too high in a city where many folks struggle to get by. In recent years, Jazz Fest’s crowds have become increasingly affluent, old, and white as the festival’s promoters, the AEG corporation, book acts such as The Eagles and this year The Who and Chicago that have precious little to do with the music of New Orleans.
That point activates an irritation that flares up every year around this time. New Orleans is by no means the only major festival that includes jazz in its name as a marketing ploy, not as a description of the music. That raises a question: if these festivals headline performers from rock and roll, folk, funk, blue grass and other non-jazz genres, why do their proprietors think that the word “jazz” will attract, say, rock and roll aficionados?
In a Facebook discussion of the Daily Beast piece, Fellow critic Ken Dryden wrote:
Another slight problem with this article: Willis Conover (pictured left) produced and booked the music for the first New Orleans Jazz Festival in 1969, when it was the real deal. Doug Ramsey knows: ‘The house band for the week was Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Jaki Byard, Milt Hinton and Alan Dawson, and 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.’ It overshadows any New Orleans Jazz Fest which followed it.
Ken’s information is accurate, except that the 1969 Jazzfest was not the first. It was the second. To know what Jazzfest was in the beginning, it helps to know who was there. The festival in 1968 included Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Gary Burton, Woody Herman, Dick Hyman, Ramsey Lewis, Pee Wee Russell, Art Hodes, Ray Bryant, Teddi King, Max Kaminsky, Carmen McRae, Cannonball Adderley and Dave Brubeck with Gerry Mulligan. In addition there were dozens of New Orleans musicians covering the wide spectrum of jazz in the city, among them Danny Barker, Pete Fountain, Willie Tee And The Souls, Al Hirt, Al Belletto, the Olympia Brass Band, Sharkey Bonano, The Dukes of Dixieland, Thomas Jefferson, Roy Liberto, Ronnie Kole and the Crawford-Ferguson Night Owls. The ’68 Jazzfest was put together by a board of directors comprised of New Orleans musicians and people from the business and professional community. Willis Conover was the MC. Following the festival’s success, the committee hired Conover to be music and program director for the ’69 festival that Ken Dryden describes above.
In 1970, the board voted to turn the festival over to George Wein’s Festival Productions. Now it is run by the sports and entertainment giant AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group). New Orleans is a party town. Good times will always roll. If the board’s intention was to have a second Mardi Gras, they succeeded. But the 1968 and 1969 New Orleans Jazzfests were jazz festivals.
Here’s one reminder of what the word jazz implies, and of its heritage.
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Trummy Young, trombone; Danny Barcelona, drums; probably Squire Gersh, bass, Marty Napolean, piano. Timex TV special, 1958.