NEW ORLEANS — If any popular-music festival was built to last an unbroken 50 years, it’s the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It was already looking back when it started in 1970, assembling a Louisiana Heritage Fair of music and food traditions to glorify connection and continuity. Many of the musical styles it brought together were already generations old. So what’s another half-century?
This year’s Jazz Fest, as everyone calls it, finished its first four-day weekend on Sunday (it continues May 2-5). It’s an institution dedicated to its home city’s particular local and regional culture: not a trademark revived for anniversaries, like Woodstock, or a reboot tied to a cherished name, like the Newport Folk Festival. Jazz Fest’s booking policy leans toward musicians who share something — funk, fiddles, accordions, carnivals, French and Afro-Caribbean connections — with Louisiana lore. And the festival’s physical layout is designed to encourage discoveries. The path from the two main stages to the blues, gospel and jazz tents leads past a Cultural Exchange Pavilion featuring world music and the Jazz & Heritage stage with performances by brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans’s miracles.
Jazz Fest has built its attendance in recent years by adding more pop hitmakers at the top of its bills. But where many pop festivals are simply run-throughs of touring road shows, Jazz Fest visitors tend to incorporate something of New Orleans, having local musicians sit in and savoring the city’s charms. For her appearance on Saturday, Katy Perry performed her hits, but she had her stage set emblazoned with exhortations from the New Orleans-born poet Cleo Wade, and she used the Soul Rebels brass band as a horn section. More than 300 groups performed in the festival’s first four days. I heard a fraction of them, but here are 13 of the standouts.
Jazz Fest presents New Orleans music as both a polyglot cultural mix and as a fountainhead of ideas. Santana’s multifaceted, proudly bilingual blues-Latin-rock-jazz-pop catalog invokes its own migrations and fusions, now linked to messages of positive thinking and global healing. An extended set touched down periodically on hits, with Carlos Santana re-creating his familiar guitar solos only to take off from there. There was ample room for excursions into jazz, boogaloo, cumbia and even a hard-rock version of John Lennon’s “Imagine” sung by Cindy Blackman Santana, Carlos’s wife and the band’s indefatigable drummer. Trombone Shorty, from New Orleans, joined the band for an encore that free-associated through Jimi Hendrix, Swamp Dogg, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, “Fever” and the New Orleans piano standard “Big Chief.”
Ellis Marsalis Family Tribute
The pianist Ellis Marsalis was part of the first Jazz Fest. This year, his four musician sons — Wynton on trumpet, Branford on saxophones, Delfeayo on trombone and Jason on drums — joined him to perform his own compositions. The pieces traversed New Orleans jazz from slightly skewed traditionalism to knotty modernism; solos navigated every twist with brawn and panache. After featuring students from a music school established after Hurricane Katrina and named after Ellis Marsalis, the set concluded with the four sons raucously parading all around the jazz tent.
The soul hits Irma Thomas had from 1959 into the 1960s seesaw between womanly sass (“Don’t Mess With My Man”) and lovesick loneliness (“Ruler of My Heart”). They didn’t quite establish her as a nationwide star, but she became a New Orleans mainstay, and she still sings them with bluesy passion and a trumpetlike clarity. She wished Mick Jagger — whose heart surgery made the Rolling Stones drop out of Jazz Fest — a speedy recovery, but also reminded the crowd that she sang “Time Is on My Side” before he did. And when she moved into a medley of second-line songs and called for people to wave something in the air — handkerchiefs, hats — thousands of listeners happily obeyed.
Flashy, two-fisted piano players are central to the sound of New Orleans. “Piano Professors” was one of the many tribute sets that are increasingly part of Jazz Fest, as — over the last 50 years — mortality has claimed indispensable musicians like Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint and James Booker. Five of their students and inheritors showed what they’ve learned in a brisk set of impossible-sounding piano solos that demanded propulsion, depth and sparkle. Tom McDermott mastered fearsome Jelly Roll Morton compositions like the aptly-titled “Finger Breaker”; Davell Crawford, even brawnier and wilder, flung tremolos and glissandos all over the place in a Booker tribute. They’re local luminaries who are too little known outside New Orleans.
Bonnie Raitt first played Jazz Fest in 1977 and has returned often. She praised it from the stage as a refuge for the “endangered species” of “roots music,” the blues, country, soul and funk that infuse her songs about love and honest acceptance. She augmented her band with two New Orleans-based keyboardists whom she has collaborated with through the years, Jon Cleary and Ivan Neville. And with Jazz Fest serendipity, she brought out Boz Scaggs — who had performed the night before — to join her and Cleary singing a Toussaint song all three have recorded, “What Do You Want the Girl to Do”; they turned it into a hymn.