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The now internationally acclaimed festival celebrates its 40th anniversary and, as the saying goes, it’s come a long way, baby. The brainchild of George Wein (who already enjoyed prominence as the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival), the New Orleans event debuted in 1970 in Congo Square – then known as Beauregard Square. As noted by Davis, it didn’t exactly draw huge crowds. Most of the folks that did show up were friends of the organizers or local jazz enthusiasts and not the throngs of people from around the world who now almost religiously head to the Fair Grounds each spring.
While the festival has seen huge growth and gone through numerous changes, remarkably, the bones of the Jazz Fest, its core concepts, have remained intact. Then as now, there were performances by traditional and modern jazz groups, Cajun and zydeco bands, blues players and rhythm and blues artists. Brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians paraded and there was even a little gospel tent with an upright piano sitting right on the grass. Wonderful aromas emanated from the food booths laden with Louisiana delicacies like crawfish etouffee0 and jambalaya.
“The whole idea of the festival really was to be an indigenous celebration of the culture by the culture and to be the world’s biggest backyard barbecue,” Davis explains. “It’s hard to remember the lack of awareness in New Orleans and Louisiana, much less the rest of the world, of our cultural roots. I mean, nobody had seen Mardi Gras Indians except on Carnival Day or St. Joseph’s night, and almost nobody had experienced a jazz funeral or Cajun and zydeco bands. In 1970 there were no paid-admission music clubs in New Orleans as we now know them.”
The festival’s impact on Louisiana’s musicians cannot be overstated – careers were reborn and great artists “discovered.” By 1970, New Orleans’ rhythm and blues heydays that produced musicians like Ernie K-Doe and Lee Dorsey were extinguished by what has been dubbed the “British invasion” when ears turned to groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The purveyors of the rich New Orleans musical era of the 1950s and early ’60s had been all but forgotten. Except for pockets of devoted music fans, most people only knew of the city’s major players like Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Al Hirt and Pete Fountain. Professor Longhair – who’s that? Irma Thomas – who’s that? Snooks Eaglin – who’s that?
“When the festival put all the music together in a much more visible way, locals and those outside of the city got to see this incredible culture that we had that wasn’t really celebrated,” Davis says.
“We always used to say, ‘Come to the festival; it’s going to be the greatest musical discovery you’ve ever had,’” he recalls. “You’re going to walk around from stage to stage, and you’ve never heard of any of these people, and you’re going to be blown away.’”
National and international festival producers, music critics, record producers and nightclub bookers took that advice just as many locals did and were introduced or reintroduced to the wealth of talent and rich cultural traditions to be found here. New Orleans musicians began to make their way into the mix on U.S. and European festival schedules that once-favored Chicago blues men like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Many would agree that one of the greatest jewels to be unearthed was pianist/vocalist Professor Longhair who first took a Jazz Fest stage in 1972. In his memory, the Acura Stage – often lovingly called the Fess Stage – now bears his likeness. Artists like Irma Thomas, the Neville Brothers, Clifton Chenier and many others from all fields of Louisiana music increasingly obtained record deals and went on to garner Grammy awards.
“It’s not only that the musicians got known,” Davis says, “but the music is beloved. It is a lot of people’s favorite music now. That’s a fantastic thing.”
The first major change to the festival was relocating from Congo Square to the Fair Grounds Race Course. Davis credits George Rhodes, the food and beverage manager of the racetrack, for this significant step. Being a jazz fan, Rhodes was aware of the event.
“He came to us and said, ‘I have a proposition for you. I think you should move the festival out here to the Fair Grounds,’” Davis remembers. “He said, ‘I won’t charge you any rent but we will sell the drinks. So that’s how it happened that we went there – we could have gone somewhere else. George Rhodes should be recognized. He birthed the festival at the Fair Grounds.
“We didn’t move in bigly,” Davis adds. The area that the festival occupied, though larger than Congo Square, was near the trees between the two ponds. The public actually parked on the infield. There were no backstage areas, there were no barricades, and there was no security.
Many still remember those early days when folks would bring wagons hauling ice chest full of beer, soft drinks and food.
“It was never officially allowed; it was just never officially un-allowed,” Davis clarifies. “And at a certain point, the food got so good that people really wanted to purchase it and weren’t looking so much to bringing their own.”
Out of necessity, those days, of course, are long gone.
“It’s just like the evolution of civilized society from when people lived in caves until they got into cities,” Davis explains. “As the festival grew – as civilization grew – you started to have more structure.”
Within Jazz Fest’s gates, little cultures sprang up under their own volition, most notably the “pole” people. They are the folks who carry long, decorated poles that both celebrate and identify their “tribe.” Functionally, they are waved in the crowd so friends can find friends. The first one to be seen bobbing to the rhythms had Professor Longhair at its pinnacle. The rubber chicken pole has also been around a long time.
“When you look out it looks like a medieval gathering of the tribes,” Davis observes. “I think it’s a beautiful – just an incredible sight on a pretty day, to see the poles in the air with their streamers. They add another depth and dimension. They are not art pieces that were put out there by us –they are created and brought out there by the people.”
With the growth of the fest and addition of national acts and big name rock bands, Davis and company has had its share of detractors. “Some people say, “Ahh, it’s just a pop festival,’” he says. He points out, however, that when the festival made preparations to introduce a new stage, there were suggestions to make it a proscenium for Indie, up-and-coming, and jam bands. Instead, the festival added the Jazz & Heritage Stage to spotlight New Orleans brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians.
“That’s who we are,” he says passionately. “We are who we thought we were. What the festival has always done is to make something where the sum is greater than its parts by taking all of these things that don’t exist in nature together and put them all in the same place.”
In its 40-year history, the Jazz Fest has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations in bringing the music of Louisiana to the world. Davis’ goal for the future is simple.
“We’d like to survive,” he says bluntly. “In five years we’ve been through two years of almost rain-outs, we’ve been through 9/11 and we’ve been through the city being destroyed by a flood and now we’re in a recession. It’s been a stretch. It used to be years and years of normal festivals and life in New Orleans. Now every couple years it’s a life-and-death thing.
“I think more than ever, since Katrina, the festival has been beating with a more local and regional soul. Our cultural fabric and traditions are not just for entertainment they are the glue that holds us together – our families, our social organizations. When you put the festival in that equation, it’s all the more needful and just good for people – to get their spiritual batteries recharged.
“It’s been a helluva ride,” Davis says with no exaggeration.
Most would agree, though enthusiastically adding, “It’s been one helluva magnificent ride.”