The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is one of the pre-eminent music festivals in the United States. Held annually in the Crescent City since 1969, after a few fits and starts earlier in the decade, it celebrates New Orleans arts and culture of all kinds. The sprawling fest at the city’s Fair Grounds runs for two weekends in late April and early May, and features arts and crafts, parades, truly gourmet food at some 90 booths, and multiple stages for all the kinds of music that find their roots in New Orleans: jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco, r&b, funk, gospel, and now even bounce, the city’s native rap style. As well as rock and country, to pay the bills.
Because, as longtime festival director Quint Davis says, speaking of jazz, blues and gospel in particular, “This is the least commercial music there is.”
Smithsonian Folkways’ new box set commemorating 50 years of Jazz Fest, as it has come to be called, is as sprawling and amazing as the city, its history, and the festival itself. It’s a comprehensive box set if ever there was one, its five discs presenting “the sounds of the festival as you’d hear them while wandering across the 145 acres of the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track in the Gentilly neighborhood,” to quote the press release.
Thus Disc 1 starts with the inspired mumbo-jumbo of “Indian Red” as the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian Tribe prepares for its entrance, and Disc 5 ends with Aaron Neville leading the Neville Brothers in a medley of “Amazing Grace” and “One Love” which for many years was the festival’s traditional closing number on the second Sunday night. In between you’ll hear Larry McKinley (Jazz Fest’s much more urbane equivalent to Woodstock’s Chip Monk and Wavy Gravy) welcoming festival-goers, and giving them warnings about impending rainstorms, a constant threat; a vendor or two hawking their wares; many spoken song introductions and other interjections by the artists. And the music. My God, the music.
I alluded to the big rockstars who often headline Jazz Fest to help draw the kind of crowds that’ll pay the bills. As far as this set is concerned, they don’t exist. You can hear the likes of Eric Clapton or Jimmy Buffet anywhere else, but where are you going to hear Snooks Eaglin, Deacon John, Big Freedia, Wild Magnolias, Tommy Ridgley, Bruce Daigrepont, John Campbell, Kenny Neal? This set focuses on Louisiana music.
To be sure, there are some big names here, even a few household names like Bonnie Raitt (who plays her signature licks behind Allen Toussaint on his song “What Is Success.” And Dr. John, and the aforementioned Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas and Buckwheat Zydeco. The kind of acts that might appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, even if they don’t fill stadiums or top the charts. Professor Longhair, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Kermit Ruffin, Henry Butler. Plus a whole bunch of pretty big acts that fill clubs and mid-sized venues, and appear at festivals, around the U.S. and indeed around the world: Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Trombone Shorty, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Marcia Ball, Beausoleil, Funky Meters, Anders Osbourne, the Subdudes…
Every year on nearly every stage the festival has seen the kind of special moments when a big-name artist sits in with a local favorite band to perform some New Orleans staple song, and brings the house down. Or when a well-known younger artist sits in unannounced with a venerable performer, to the astonishment and delight of the lucky audience – as happened in 1990 when Allen Toussaint joined Champion Jack Dupree on a medley of “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living/Rub a Little Boogie,” which somebody fortunately caught on film.
This is all pretty much unreleased material, and it’s just a treasure trove of Louisiana music. Live recordings of Louisiana music, which means magic happens much more often than in the studio. There’s that kind of magic on every one of these five discs, which are loosely organized by theme and style.
Disc 1 is mostly jazz, New Orleans style. So you’ve got your elder statesman “Basin Street Blues” from 1992 by the great Danny Barker and his band, all the way up to Trombone Shorty leading his hot band on “One Night Only” in 2010. Perhaps the most potent track is the last one, John Boutté singing a plaintive cover Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” at the fest in 2006, just a few months after the city was devastated by Katrina and some were ready to write the obituary of the Big Easy.
Disc 2 is loosely R&B, and it starts with a bang as Allen Toussaint delivers “Yes We Can Can,” which to tell the truth is the first track I played when I dug into this set. It’s hard to believe he’s been gone nearly four years now. This song is a hard act to follow, but the disc rises to the occasion with performances by Irma Thomas (“Ruler Of My Heart,” which Toussaint wrote for her in 1965), Snooks Eaglin pickin’ and shoutin’ his way through “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” the Dixie Cups slaying on a medley of “Iko Iko / Brother John / Saints Go Marchin’ In,” Marcia Ball’s “Red Beans” and wrapping up with some major voodoo from Dr. John. But the whole thing pivots on Professor Longhair’s lightning fingers on the electric keyboard as he whistles and sings “Big Chief,” backed by a band that includes Dr. John and members of the Meters.
This is a good place to mention those backing musicians. There’s often just one performer’s name on the track, but the musicians behind them are some of the best in the world. New Orleans is stuffed to the gills with world-class musicians, and they can play this music like nobody’s business. So pay attention to them and give them some props!
Disc 3 is split between the big bands and gospel. The sparks fly as the likes of Dirty Dozen or Preservation Hall or Henry Butler’s band power through these bluesy, rocking, jazzy New Orleans tunes. I’m partial to Butler and his piano playing, and what an ensemble he has with him on “Hey Now, Baby.” On the gospel numbers, Irma Thomas especially shines as she leads a gospel choir on “The Old Rugged Cross,” and The Zion Harmonizers rock hard on “The Meeting,” recorded by NPR in 1976.
Disc 4 is split between Cajun and zydeco up front and blues on the back end, and what a dance party this one is. There are so many musicians in Louisiana making all of these kinds of music, so these few tracks just hit the high points, but the compilers did a good job. Buckwheat Zydeco and Boozoo Chavis for zydeco, and the Savoy Family, Beausoleil and Bruce Daigrepont are good representatives of fairly traditional Cajun music. The Neville Brothers bridge this traditional music and the rocking blues to follow, with their funky “Yellow Moon.” I wasn’t familiar with Tommy Ridgley, Kenny Neal or John Mooney, but man, all three of them made a believer out of me. Ridgley’s “Double-Eyed Whammy” is a total knockout, a great way to end this disc, his band including a sweet horn section, funky B-3 and knockout rhythm section plus Richard Rowley killing on guitar.
Disc 5 highlights some classic New Orleans performers in styles that aren’t so easily corraled. There’s the funk of the Meters, the Texas-influenced jump blues of Gatemouth Brown (a furiously hot take on Ellington’s “A Train”), funky Americana of the Subdudes, the deeply Louisiana blues of Sonny Landreth and Anders Osborne, and more. Big Freedia was a revelation to me, this Queen of Bounce with her powerful vocals and totally in-the-groove sense of rhythm.
In order to commemorate the festival’s golden anniversary, you need a book to go with the music, and this one is superb. The 135-page book is filled with exclusive photographs drawn from the archives of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, The Historic New Orleans Collection and independent photographers, as well as historical essays by journalist Keith Spera and author Karen Celestan, a retrospective of the music heard at Jazz Fest by Robert H. Cataliotti, and in-depth notes by Jeff Place and Huib Schippers of Smithsonian Folkways, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation archivist Rachel Lyons, WWOZ’s Dave Ankers, and Jon Pareles of the New York Times.
If you like any kind of American popular music at all, from the most classic of classic rock to the most esoteric jazz, it is likely influenced in many ways by the music and musicians of New Orleans – past and present. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has spent the past 50 years helping to showcase and preserve that music. I can’t imagine anybody with a speck of soul who won’t absolutely dig this beautiful box set.
(Smithsonian Folkways, 2019)