New Orleans Jazz Fest at 50: Keep on Rolling (Without the Stones)

For its golden anniversary, the Crescent City festival looked to both the past and the future

Mardi Gras Indians at the 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Mardi Gras Indians at the 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (photo: Joel A. Siegel)

The Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is its only properly indoor venue, inside the grandstand of the Fair Grounds Race Course on whose grounds the festival’s other dozen or so stages and tents are spread out. Miner, who died of cancer in 1995, was working at Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive when George Wein, the impresario behind Newport Folk and Newport Jazz, came around looking for young music fans to help find local talent for his brand-new New Orleans festival. She introduced him to her boyfriend, Quint Davis—then a student, now Jazz Fest’s top producer and director, and its de facto face for nearly all of its 50 years.

Miner, who went on to manage artists like Professor Longhair and the Rebirth Brass Band, cared deeply about musicians’ stories. It was through her efforts that the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the festival, started an archive to document its history. The stage that bears her name is where local authors and historians sit in conversation with Jazz Fest performers, and on the stormy opening Thursday of the big 50th-anniversary festival, its attraction was her two old friends and coworkers, Wein and Davis, telling stories that stretched back half a century. (In a nice bit of symmetry, a tribute to Miner herself was held at her stage on the fest’s closing Sunday.)

In a lot of ways, the story of the festival mirrors the story of the city’s own struggles and evolution. Although it was founded in 1970, city stakeholders had actually approached Wein with a pitch years earlier, but he refused to consider producing an event that would subject black talent to the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South. Years later, the 2006 festival—just eight months after Hurricane Katrina—would come to be a symbol of the beginning of recovery, of the effort to reclaim the storied culture that felt (and was) so threatened by the floods and their aftermath.

Regional and local culture has always been at the core of the fest’s mission. There are separate stages dedicated to Cajun and zydeco music, blues, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz, gospel, brass bands, and rising local acts of indeterminate genre (the aptly named Lagniappe Stage). There’s a stage for cooking demonstrations and several tents for demonstrating folk practices, from making crawfish traps to painting Carnival floats. Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs and Mardi Gras Indian tribes parade through the grounds on a schedule—the only time you can ever buy a ticket to see those traditions in action.

A brass band outside the grounds of the 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
A brass band outside the grounds of the 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (photo: Joel A. Siegel)

Still, fans love to debate—on social media, in coffee shops and bars, calling in to radio stations, in the comments sections of local websites—whether, as the refrain goes, “there’s no jazz at Jazz Fest,” whether the festival has become something else along the way. That debate amped up especially after 2004, when the fest inked a deal with A.E.G., the entertainment monolith that owns the company that produces Coachella. With that backing, the names at the top of the Jazz Fest bill increased exponentially in wattage and decreased in Louisiana pedigree: Elton John, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, No Doubt, Katy Perry. And this year, for the celebratory 50, Quint Davis seemed to have pulled off the biggest possible Big Get: The Rolling Stones were going to headline. Predictably, opinion was totally polarized. Some people huffed that this was the final nail in the festival’s coffin; others lined up in the rain to buy the special $185 tickets (more than twice the regular price, and this was a reduced rate for locals too) for the day Mick and Keith would appear.

Obviously, they didn’t, and Fleetwood Mac, briefly scheduled to replace them, bowed out too. (Widespread Panic finally filled the slot, and the ticket price returned to normal.) But the whole wild act of musical chairs made it even weirder when, on the Allison Miner Stage that Thursday, Quint Davis triumphantly told a story that he’s told in one form or another to the press a lot over the years: that early on, he went to Wein with the idea that they should get a big rock act, “like Led Zeppelin,” to really knock their festival up to the next level. Wein counseled him no. A move like that, he said, could make their festival “lose its heart.”

Even among the packed house of fans who wanted to hear Davis and Wein talk to each other enough to come out in the rain, there was a murmur. (Remember? The Stones?) Wein clarified, with a quick, pragmatic comment: “Sometimes you have to have a name up top that people recognize,” and they moved on.

Fifty years is a milestone that deserves a big victory lap, but also a prompt to consider what comes next—and how to ensure more longevity, considering that the festival’s earliest and most loyal baby-boomer fan base is approaching the end of that part of their lives when walking through crowds in the sun all day seems like fun. Jazz Fest’s booking appears to have addressed that in the last few years, as the “names up top that people recognize” have included Gen X and millennial favorites like Pearl Jam, No Doubt, Alanis Morissette, and Ed Sheeran. (Largely, the new generation of stars has continued the unofficial Jazz Fest tradition of paying tribute to the city onstage; just as Elton John might play a Fats Domino tune or Bonnie Raitt, the first non-Louisianan to play the Fest, would join her friend Allen Toussaint for a duet, recent fests have seen Arcade Fire share the stage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Nas performing with the Soul Rebels brass band, and Katy Perry inviting up the New Orleans Gospel Soul Children.)

Left to right: Charlie Gabriel, Walter Harris, and Branden Lewis of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Left to right: Charlie Gabriel, Walter Harris, and Branden Lewis of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (photo: Joel A. Siegel)

It’s worth mentioning that while tribute sets are always a big part of Jazz Fest’s programming, this year featured a remarkable number—more than 20—of those revues, in which the friends and contemporaries (or more likely, as time goes on, musical descendants) of the kind of pioneers that inspired the Fest in the first place perform their work. The 2019 fest included tributes to long-departed icons like Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, and Louis Prima, as well as more recent losses like Fats Domino, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Toussaint.

If that sounds elegiac, it sort of is, here in the city of jazz funerals. But two of the biggest tribute sets over the 50th fest’s eight days were for living artists and, in a sense, living ideas. One was the first Sunday’s Jazz Tent closer, featuring a rare all-Marsalis-brother set in tribute to their dad, Ellis, who played too; the other was the traditional slam-bang second-Sunday festival-closing set on the main Acura stage, which wove together the legacy of two of the city’s other storied musical families with that of the festival itself. The Neville Brothers had traditionally played that final slot for decades, until 33-year-old Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews (who literally grew up at the fest, performing there for the first time at age four) inherited it in 2012. To close the 50th fest on Sunday, May 5, Andrews shared the stage with Neville Brothers Aaron and Cyril, as well as Aaron’s son (and onetime Stones sideman) Ivan Neville and nephew Ian Neville—a multigenerational mashup that looked both past and forward.

Alison Fensterstock

Alison Fensterstock is a former music writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and a columnist for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities magazine, 64 Parishes. Her work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, NPR Music, MOJO and The New York Times