If there’s anything that encapsulates the joy, strength and buoyancy of New Orleans, it’s the fact that its annual Jazz & Heritage Festival has now notched up an “unbroken” half a century.
The 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival didn’t really need an extra reason to celebrate. As this effervescent event – which attracts around half a million visitors each year – always delivers on energy and top performers.
The Festival contributes an incredible $300 million to the local economy, yet it seems to steer well away from blatant commercialism. It beats with the same heart as its glorious home city.
Authentic Louisiana celebration
Jazz Fest – as it is often referred to – certainly stays true to its origins. The 2019 event provided an authentic, rich flavour of New Orleans’ music and culture, featuring a vast range of performers who all had at least a toehold in Louisiana musical heritage.
Even the big name performers from outside the cultural framework were clearly determined to “sing from the same song sheet” and promote regional flavours and influences. For example, in Katy Perry’s colourful set she was backed for some numbers by the horns of the Soul Rebels brass band. Also, Perry’s stage backdrop featured quotes from New Orleans-born poet Cleo Wade.
Another great way the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2019 reflected the best sides of its home city, was in the way it still managed to keep a “community” feel. The organisers make sure to include evenings when locals go in for discounted prices. Just one way it stays inextricably connected to New Orleans residents.
Highlights of hundreds of performers
The authenticity of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival also meant there were abundant trombones, fiddles, accordions and riotous party and mardi gras music. Along with plenty of musical treats influenced by (or totally concentrated on) blues, gospel, Cuban, French and Afro-Caribbean music.
It’s difficult to select just a handful of top performers from the hundreds who appeared over the two-week festival; though Earth, Wind & Fire, Alanis Morissette, Van Morrison and the Dave Matthews Band were worth the ticket price alone. Rock band Widespread Panic was a last minute addition when ill health forced Fleetwood Mac to cancel, but they certainly rose to the occasion.
One of the emotional high points was when the Ellis Marsalis Family Tribute band got up on one of the stages. Marsalis appeared at the first Jazz Fest back in 1970, and here he was with his four sons performing some of his own original pieces. The set also featured music students from the Ellis Marsalis music school, an institution founded after Hurricane Katrina.
There were truly original and inspiring performances from less established musicians too. One of the standouts – and someone to watch for the future – was singer-songwriter Moonlight Benjamin and her band. This Haitian songstress had a surreal quality to her voice, and a blues-rock and voodoo vibe to her set. The sort of music that stays with you long after the final note.
Organisation and festival experience
As you would expect from an event with a prestigious 50-year history, the organisation was slick and there was an incredible array of vendors and entertainment, as well as sufficient welfare units scattered across the New Orleans locations.
One of the best features of the festival was how well the organisers laid out what was on offer, over the two long weekends. Main stages were easy to navigate to, but you could also roam around in a spontaneous way to soak up lots of new sounds, sights and sensations.
As an outsider, it was easy to feel immersed and welcomed by the festival atmosphere and comfortable wandering at will.
Spending time in the Louisiana Folklife Village and Native American Village was particularly fascinating, and these were just two of the diverse cultural offerings. The artisan craft booths provided tempting retail therapy, and there were handy diversions from the crowds such as the soothing drums in the Healing Roots Altar Tent.
To be honest, it was sometimes hard to pull away from reading the mouth-watering menus at food concessions and put attention back to the stages! No crawfish or Alligator Pie, or Po-Boy, is ever going to live up to that festival food!
For future reference
Ticket prices have risen considerably from the $3 for the first-ever Jazz Fest in New Orleans, but even so, it represents great value for money, especially if you want to fall in love with this amazing place – or fall in love with it all over again!
For anyone considering attending in 2020, it pays to do a lot of homework and plan your time wisely, to get broad brush strokes of all that’s on offer. That way, you can head for your list of unmissable acts, but also leave time to explore the organic, living, breathing heart of the event.