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NOLA History: The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

The first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was held in 1970 at Congo Square with four stages.

Jazz Fest (Photo: Paul Broussard)

This April, thousands of locals and visitors will converge on the Fair Grounds Racecourse for the 50th Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Jazz Fest’s two weekends at the Fair Grounds, along with the week of evening concerts in between, are a far cry from the event’s modest beginnings.

Jazz Fest (Photo: Paul Broussard)

The late 1960s were a time of  grand-scale, big-venue concerts, and the New Orleans Hotel Motel Association wanted to get the city in on the tourism dollars generated from such events. The Association formed a non-profit entity, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, to oversee the project. To produce a festival in New Orleans, the Foundation went to one of the top producers in the business, George Wein. Wein was already well-known as the producer of the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. Wein’s company, Festival Productions, Inc., formed a local affiliate, Festival Productions, Inc-New Orleans, to produce the event, under contract from the Foundation.

Wein wanted to get it right in New Orleans, so he reached out to key players in the local jazz community, such as Ellis Marsalis. He also turned to Dick Allen, who was curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archives. Allen suggested Wein use Hogan Archive employee Allison Miner, and Hogan intern, Quint Davis (son of well-known local architect Arthur Q. Davis), to identify musicians to play the event. Both Miner and Davis were initially volunteers, working with Wein and his staff. When it became clear that Jazz Fest would continue past that first year, the pair took over day-to-day operations of the production company. Davis is still CEO of Festival Productions, Inc.-New Orleans; Allison Miner passed away in 1995.

The lineup that Miner and Davis assembled under Wein’s guidance for that 1970 festival was impressive, including Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, The Meters, and Snooks Eaglin. While not booked to play the fest, Mahalia Jackson heard about the event and came to sing and sit in with other musicians. Mardi Gras Indians paraded around the festival site with brass bands daily in between acts.

George Wein and his local advisers decided to hold that first Jazz Fest in Congo Square, which was known as Beauregard Square at the time. “Place Congo” was sacred ground for local jazz musicians, since the square was the gathering place for enslaved African Americans as far back as the 1700s. The French-Spanish Creoles relieved the enslaved of their duties on Sunday afternoons. During that time, they gathered in Place Congo to make music and dance. Four open-air stages were set up, as well as a “Gospel Tent.”

Wein’s vision for a New Orleans festival involved more than just musical performances. Wein proposed holding a “Heritage Fair.” The festival site would include food booths featuring local cuisine, as well as local arts and crafts. To help increase the financial stake of the festival, he also proposed holding evening concerts with some of the better-known artists.

Jazz Fest (Photo: Paul Broussard)

That first Jazz Fest was not well-funded, so advertising for the event was minimal. The inaugural Jazz Fest in 1970 began on Wednesday, April 22, with a midnight concert by Pete Fountain on a riverboat, and ran until Sunday, April 26. Only 350 people bought tickets (which cost $3) for the festival days held in Congo Square. This was roughly half the number of musicians and production staff who actually put the festival on.

In spite of the low attendance, that first Jazz Fest was an artistic and critical success. Wein’s professionalism and the hard work put in by Miner and Davis paid off. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation secured more funding, so a second festival could be held in 1971. Working with money from a loan from Quint’s father, Miner and Davis held that second festival in Congo Square, expanding by also using the adjacent Municipal Auditorium.

The 1971 festival was a huge success, attracting much larger crowds. It was clear to Miner and Davis they would need a larger venue for the third festival. Davis negotiated to move Jazz Fest to the infield of the Fair Grounds racetrack, where it has been ever since. Those four stages (some of which didn’t even have microphones in 1970) and one tent have grown to a combined 14 stages and tents, spread out over the Fair Grounds infield and grandstand.

In 1975, Jazz Fest decided to release a limited-edition, silkscreen poster to commemorate the event, a tradition that still continues. Artists hired to produce the poster interpret New Orleans music in their own way, and many of the city’s music legends have been featured on Jazz Fest’s annual poster.

As Jazz Fest continued to grow in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, one of the biggest challenges facing Davis and his production staff was attracting interesting and diverse artists. While locals occasionally long for the days when “big-name” acts didn’t play Jazz Fest, those acts serve as a draw to enable lesser-known local bands to get an audience. The local flavor and character of the Congo Square festivals remains, however, in the Economy Hall and Jazz Tents as well as the Jazz and Heritage Stage. There’s also the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, where interviews and panel discussions are held.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Foundation reached out to Royal Dutch Shell to help offset some of the festival production costs, and the oil company became the primary sponsor of Jazz Fest 2006, and every festival since then.

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation owns the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, so all proceeds go to that entity. The most tangible use of those funds can be found in the local radio station, WWOZ, 90.7 FM, the “Guardians of the Groove.” The WWOZ New Orleans radio station is the city’s Jazz and Heritage music station, streaming worldwide on the Internet as well. In addition to the radio station, the Foundation sponsors many educational programs to promote the preservation and growth of Jazz in the city.

George Wein explained why a New Orleans jazz festival would work in 1970: “New Orleans, in the long run, should become bigger than Newport in jazz festivals. Newport was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing.”

Jazz Fest and the over 300,000 people who attend have been proving him right for nearly 50 years.

Author of five books on the history of New Orleans, Edward Branley is a graduate of Brother Martin High School and the University of New Orleans. Edward writes, teaches, and does speaking engagements on local history to groups in and around New Orleans. His urban fantasy novel, "Hidden Talents," is available online and in bookstores. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, @NOLAHistoryGuy.

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