Various Artists: Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Not just for those who've been to Jazz Fest, this collection offers a distillation of the diverse, whimsical, resolute, occasionally profane, and always heartfelt spirit of New Orleans.

Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Various Artists

Smithsonian Folkways

10 May 2019

Roughly 475,000 people just attended the 50th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which is a far cry from the 300 who showed up to the inaugural event held in Beauregard Square in 1970. Jazz Fest, as it is popularly called, is second only to Mardi Gras in bringing tourist dollars to New Orleans, but it is first in providing a true reflection of the city's soul. Let the college kids have their beads and boobs and Bourbon Street. If you want to experience the real New Orleans' and the depth of its cultural heritage, then you will need to plan a visit for the late April/early May Jazz Fest, when the brightest lights of the region's many musical traditions, along with the magical purveyors of the region's spectacular cuisine, gather at the Fair Grounds.

Led by project manager Jeff Place, Smithsonian Folkways celebrates the golden anniversary of the Jazz & Heritage Festival with a five-CD collection of over five hours of music housed in a 136-page reference book. In all, it's a glorious collection of music, an informative reference work, and a fitting tribute to the people and performers who have made the Jazz Fest a beloved institution.

It would be impossible to encapsulate all that the Jazz & Heritage Festival has meant to its participants, its fans, and to the city itself, but this set makes as definitive a statement as can be made in a concise and affordable package. The collection's producers and arrangers have worked closely with the Festival's leadership to construct a collection that honors both the history and the spirit of Jazz Fest, offering performances from many New Orleans musical legends. It's wonderful to hear Buckwheat Zydeco's infectious cry of "Good Gawd A'mighty!" blast out from the stage during his performance of "Hard to Stop". Of course, Professor Longhair is represented here with "Big Chief", and Boozoo Chavis is heard presenting a live, timeless version of "Paper in My Shoe", which many identify as the first commercially recorded zydeco record.

While, as Keith Spera notes in his history of the Fest, festival organizers made the controversial decision to include nationally-known headline performers from outside the region to the concert line-up in order to draw in the necessary profits to keep the Jazz Fest going, the collection itself smartly focuses exclusively upon Louisiana artists, and it's an often blistering set of music. The Rolling Stones had been announced as this year's big draw before having to cancel due to Mick Jagger's health issues. You can practically taste the spice in Marcia Ball's "Red Beans", while the otherworldly call and response gospel joy of Raymond Myles and the Gospel Soul Children on "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus" could get even the agnostics in the room reaching for the heavens in dance. Even Jazz Fest founder George Wein appears with the Newport All-Stars for a jazzed-up performance of "Back Home in Indiana". And, of course, the Neville Brothers close out the set much like they did the festival for 35 years, offering the final track, "Amazing Grace / One Love".

Of course, one can't talk of Jazz Fest or New Orleans without being aware of Hurricane Katrina's effects, which still haunt the region. It is fitting that disc one closes with John Boutte's 2006 performance of Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927", where, in a late verse, he changes the original's referencing of President Coolidge and "a little fat man with a notepad in his hand" to President George W. Bush accompanied by "about 12 fat men with martinis" wishing everyone "Great job!" to the crowd's massive, cynical approval. The former president's maddeningly inept response to the tragedy reappears in Sonny Landreth's "Blue Tarp Blues" when he sings that "Air Force One had a heck of a view" of the suffering below.

It would be easy to say that Jazz Fest: 50 Years of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the perfect souvenir of the festival (along with one of those no-spill neck-strap drink holders Ray Hackett has been selling by the gates since 1985). But that would cheapen the verve and punch of these 50 tracks while also minimizing the impact of the fine historical essays in the set's book. This is a collection not just for those who have been there but for those who've never been. It is a distillation of the diverse, whimsical, resolute, occasionally profane, and always heartfelt spirit of New Orleans.







A Fresh Look at Free Will and Determinism in Terry Gilliam's '12 Monkeys'

Susanne Kord gets to the heart of the philosophical issues in Terry Gilliam's 1995 time-travel dystopia, 12 Monkeys.


The Devonns' Debut Is a Love Letter to Chicago Soul

Chicago's the Devonns pay tribute the soul heritage of their city with enough personality to not sound just like a replica.


Jaye Jayle's 'Prisyn' Is a Dark Ride Into Electric Night

Jaye Jayle salvage the best materials from Iggy Pop and David Bowie's Berlin-era on Prisyn to construct a powerful and impressive engine all their own.


Kathleen Edwards Finds 'Total Freedom'

Kathleen Edwards is back making music after a five-year break, and it was worth the wait. The songs on Total Freedom are lyrically delightful and melodically charming.


HBO's 'Lovecraft Country' Is Heady, Poetic, and Mangled

Laying the everyday experience of Black life in 1950s America against Cthulhuian nightmares, Misha Green and Jordan Peele's Lovecraft Country suggests intriguing parallels that are often lost in its narrative dead-ends.


Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback

On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.


Finding the Light: An Interview with Kathy Sledge

With a timeless voice that's made her the "Queen of Club Quarantine", Grammy-nominated vocalist Kathy Sledge opens up her "Family Room" and delivers new grooves with Horse Meat Disco.


'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.