A Brief History of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

In April of 1970, Mahalia Jackson, often called the greatest gospel singer, returned to her hometown to appear at the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. While attending the Louisiana Heritage Fair in Congo Square (then known as Beauregard Square), she and Duke Ellington, who also appeared at the event, came upon the Eureka Brass Band leading a crowd of second-line revelers through the Festival grounds. George Wein, producer of the Festival, handed Ms. Jackson a microphone, she sang along with the band and joined the parade… and the spirit of Jazz Fest was born.

This spontaneous, momentous scene—this meeting of jazz and heritage—has stood for decades as a stirring symbol of the authenticity of the celebration that was destined to become a cultural force.

From the very beginning, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was envisioned as an important event that would have great cultural significance and popular appeal. The Festival was the culmination of years of discussions and efforts by city leaders who wanted to create an event worthy of the city’s legacy as the birthplace of jazz. A couple of other festivals were held in the years leading up to the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, but those events, different in format, did not take hold as the Jazz & Heritage Festival would.

In 1970, George Wein, jazz impresario behind the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival (begun respectively in 1954 and 1959) was hired to design and produce a unique festival for New Orleans. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization, was established to oversee the Festival.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Wein’s concept of the Louisiana Heritage Fair—a large daytime fair with multiple stages featuring a wide variety of indigenous music styles, food booths of Louisiana cuisine, and arts and crafts booths, along with an evening concert series—formed a construct that would prove vastly appealing and enduring.

In addition to Mahalia Jackson and Duke Ellington, the first Festival lineup included Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, The Meters, The Preservation Hall Band, parades every day with The Olympia Brass Band and Mardi Gras Indians, and many others.

In announcing the first Festival, scheduled for April 22 – 26, Wein said, “The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival represents a new and exciting idea in festival presentation. This festival could only be held in New Orleans because here and here alone is the richest musical heritage in America.” He also noted, with great prescience, “New Orleans, in the long run, should become bigger than Newport in jazz festivals. Newport was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing.”

Wein hired Quint Davis and Allison Miner, two young, knowledgeable New Orleans music enthusiasts, to work on the event. Davis would quickly become the main creative force behind the Festival, establishing the event as a dynamic annual showcase of Louisiana music with a bold blend of national and international flavors. Davis remains producer and director of the Festival, guiding the event through its entire existence. Miner, who passed away in 1995, would make numerous contributions to the Festival’s evolution, including the creation of the Music Heritage Stage, which has been renamed in her honor.

In the Festival’s inaugural year, only about 350 people attended the Festival, about half the number of musicians and other participants in the event. But the Festival, which became known as “Jazz Fest” almost immediately, was a great artistic success. When Jazz Fest was held the next year, it was clear that the event had already outgrown Congo Square.

For the 1972 Festival, the event moved to the infield of the Fair Grounds Race Course, the third-oldest racetrack in America (open since 1872). Jazz Fest would grow quickly over the next few years, constantly expanding its use of the 145-acre site. In 1975, the Festival, still just a five-day event with only three days of the Louisiana Heritage Fair, had an attendance of 80,000. This was also the first year of the Festival’s popular, limited-edition silkscreen poster, now recognized as the most popular poster series in the world.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

From 1976 to 1978, Jazz Fest expanded to two full weekends of the Heritage Fair, and in 1979, for the 10th anniversary, the Festival scheduled three weekends, though one entire weekend was cancelled due to rain.

In the 1980s, Jazz Fest continued to experience tremendous growth in popularity and began to gain wide acclaim as one of the world’s greatest cultural celebrations. By the end of the decade, more than 300,000 people attended the Heritage Fair, evening concerts, and workshops. The 1989 Festival marked the 20th annual event, which was commemorated with a classic poster featuring Fats Domino, ushering in an era during which the poster would celebrate many of Louisiana’s music legends with iconic portraits.

The decade of the 1990s saw the appeal of Jazz Fest and the Festival’s significance as a cultural symbol soar. The New York Times would note that the Jazz Festival had “become inseparable from the culture it presents.” The Festival added features like the Thursday that kicks off the second weekend (1991); an International Pavilion that celebrates other cultures (Cuba, Haiti, Mali, Panama, Brazil, Martinique, South Africa and more); and the Native American stage and area.

In 2001, the Festival celebrated Louis Armstrong’s centennial, and the total attendance eclipsed 650,000, shattering records for virtually every day of the Heritage Fair, including the all-time single-day attendance record of 160,000. Wein’s prediction that New Orleans would become the first city of jazz festivals had clearly come true.

In 2004, AEG Live, the second-largest concert promoter in the world, joined forces with Jazz Fest, opening doors to even more international stars to appear at the Festival. 

August of 2005 changed the course of history forever for New Orleans and the Festival as Hurricane Katrina left the city devastated and much of the community displaced.  Under the circumstances, the presentation of the 2006 Jazz Fest was in serious jeopardy.  Like most of New Orleans, the longtime home of the Festival, the Fair Grounds Race Course, was also severely damaged in the storm.  But with the invaluable support of Shell Oil, who signed a long-term presenting sponsorship arrangement with the Festival and the backing and encouragement of AEG Live and George Wein, Quint Davis confirmed that the first post-Katrina Jazz Fest would be held over the traditional two weekends in late April and early May.  Jazz Fest 2006 became more than just the annual festival- it became a homecoming and an emotional celebration of the city and the importance of its culture to the world. 

Los Angeles Times music writer, Randy Lewis, described one special performance in a way that truly captured the spirit of the 2006 Festival, “Sometime, somewhere, a more dramatic and exhilarating confluence of music with moment may have existed than Bruce Springsteen’s appearance tonight at the 37th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival here. But in nearly 40 years of concert-going, I haven’t witnessed one.” Springsteen also notes in his biography that his 2006 Jazz Fest performance was one of the most memorable and moving of his career.

The 2010 Jazz Fest featured the first-ever Pearl Jam appearance at the Festival with the powerhouse set broadcast live to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The broadcast allowed lead singer, Eddie Vedder, to speak back and forth with a friend of his stationed in Afghanistan live on the video screens alongside the Acura Stage in an unforgettable experience for all who attended.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

The 45th anniversary Festival in 2014 featured Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Christina Aguilera, Phish, Arcade Fire, Santana, The String Cheese Incident, Robert Plant,  Public Enemy, The Avett Brothers, Charlie Wilson, Alabama Shakes, John Fogerty and hundreds more.  That same year, a major national television broadcast of Jazz Fest on AXS-TV allowed millions of viewers to experience the Festival over the four days of the second weekend including over 28-hours of live performances, interviews and behind the scenes footage.

With 12 stages of soul-stirring music—jazz, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, blues, R&B, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean, folk, and much more—the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is firmly established as a singular celebration of both historic and contemporary significance. The event has showcased most of the great artists of New Orleans and Louisiana of the last half century: Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, The Neville Brothers, Wynton Marsalis, Dr. John, Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick Jr., Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Ellis Marsalis, The Radiators, Irma Thomas, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Allen Toussaint, Buckwheat Zydeco, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Better Than Ezra, Ernie K-Doe, Vernel Bagneris, The Zion Harmonizers, Beausoleil and many others.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

The Festival has always blended in a wide mix of internationally renowned guests, among them: Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Sarah Vaughan, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffett, Max Roach, B.B. King, Dave Matthews Band, Patti LaBelle, Tito Puente, the Allman Brothers Band, Joni Mitchell, Al Green, Pitbull, Linda Ronstadt, Lenny Kravitz, Sonny Rollins, Bonnie Raitt, James Brown, Keith Urban, Kings of Leon, Celia Cruz, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hugh Masekela, Cassandra Wilson, Willie Nelson, The Temptations, Burning Spear, Van Morrison, LL Cool J, Abbey Lincoln, Neil Young, Erykah Badu, Dave Brubeck, Gladys Knight, Youssou N’Dour and many, many others.

Over the years Jazz Fest has received many honors, including being named the Festival of the Year four times by Pollstar magazine. The Wall Street Journal has said that Jazz Fest “showcases a wider, deeper lineup of essential American musical styles than any festival in the nation…” and which Life magazine has called “the country’s very best music festival.’’  ’And in reviewing the 2017 event, Jon Pareles said in the New York Times, “…whereas other major festivals tend to be brief invasions of their locales, Jazz Fest is an institution, inseparable from the city….”

Inspired by the spirit of Mahalia Jackson and the Eureka Brass Band back in 1970, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival continues to celebrate the culture of Louisiana with the combined fervor of a gospel hymn and the joy of a jazz parade.

The 2021 Festival takes place October 8 through October 17 and it will be the 51st annual celebration. 

Mahalia Jackson photo courtesy of Michael P. Smith. Poster images courtesy of ProCreations Publishing Co.