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.