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

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A second-line parade at the 2017 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, one of many sights underlining the event’s place-based identity.

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

 

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.

 

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Roosevelt Sykes performs at the inaugural Jazz Fest in 1970.

Photograph by Michael P. Smith © The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2007.0103.4.604

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.”

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