NEW ORLEANS — The sound of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a syncopated beat: rooted in Africa, mingled with elements from Europe and the Americas, transmitted through generations, played by hand and determined to get people dancing. The beat doesn’t have to sell a song; it’s a joy in itself. It’s proudly old-fashioned, celebrating its own history. Yet it lives in the immediate present, the moment when music generates motion.
Jazz Fest, as everyone calls it, is as stubbornly exceptional and as proudly nostalgic as the city it reflects. First presented in 1970, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival became one template for the modern pop festival, like Coachella or Bonnaroo, with music on multiple stages, assorted nonmusic exhibitions, and food and crafts vendors geared to the crowd.
But where other major festivals tend to be brief invasions of their locales, Jazz Fest is an institution, inseparable from the city where it also sponsors free events through the year and supports the only-in-New-Orleans public radio station WWOZ. And where other major festivals have current pop hitmakers as their big draws, along with an undercard of new acts striving to reach the main stage in a year or two, Jazz Fest prizes the regional over the national, putting just a few big names in headlining spots.
Its first weekend this year, which started last Friday, included Lorde, Usher with the Roots, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Elle King, the Trey Anastasio Band, Alabama Shakes and Maroon 5. Its second half, starting on Thursday, has scheduled Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews, Snoop Dogg and Wilco. Nearly everything else — except, this year, for a contingent of superb bands from Cuba — stays local and familiar, as untrendy as a festival can be. (The festival ends of Sunday.) Onstage during the festival, I saw more sousaphones than laptops.
The visiting pop headliners attract hometown residents and a youth contingent. Out-of-towners — many grizzled and wearing Hawaiian-style souvenir shirts from previous Jazz Fests — return for an annual immersion in Louisiana lore. That means brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians, who perform on stages and — simulating the city’s continuing street traditions — in miniparades through the fairgrounds where the festival is held. It also means blues, zydeco from bayou country and a Jazz Fest touchstone, the gospel tent, where singers, preachers and choirs of everyday worshipers belt out praises and gratitude.
Jazz Fest’s New Orleans aesthetic is defined not by the big pop chorus but by live, danceable grooves. New Orleans audiences appreciate instrumental music; Jazz Fest has long been hospitable to jam bands and, this year, to bands like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, whose live sets move toward improvisation. The “heritage” in the festival’s name also looms large. Jazz Fest glorifies genre as much as individual musicianship; New Orleans is full of performers who proudly steep themselves in vintage styles and a shared repertoire, handed down from parent to child and embraced by musicians who move into the city.
New Orleans honors its ancestors, keeping old songs current and paying tribute in ways that go deeper than borrowing surefire hits, although this year’s Jazz Fest had its share of crowd-pleasing Prince covers. Inevitably, over 48 years Jazz Fest has faced generational change and loss; this year’s lineup included sets devoted to definitive New Orleans figures like the traditional jazz clarinetist Pete Fountain and the songwriter Allen Toussaint.
Visiting musicians often adapt to Jazz Fest, not the other way around. Nas, the New York rapper, played with the Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band, reminding listeners that “these are my roots, too.”
More subtly, the festival leads listeners to hear musical kinships — particularly, this year, from a Cuban contingent that included Gente de Zona, a reggaetón group that has won a Latin Grammy, and the Septeto Nacional de Ignacio Piñeiro, founded in 1927, playing vintage-style Cuban son. There are longstanding ties between the music of New Orleans and of the Caribbean, particularly Cuba; what Jelly Roll Morton called the “Spanish tinge” was actually the Afro-Cuban rhythms that made their way into New Orleans Mardi Gras music, jazz and R&B.