What makes a jazz fest a jazz fest? Hello, New Orleans.


So maybe it’s a communications issue.

In the last few days, I’ve noticed several jazz people — musicians and other well-intentioned folks who support the music — getting up in arms over the announcement of the lineup for this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the subsequent press coverage.

Stevie Wonder, Tom Petty and Lorde aren’t jazz, they’ve complained, citing  the three big-name headliners highlighted in Rolling Stone’s story on an event that annually draws hundreds of thousands of music lovers. It’s the city’s second biggest money maker, after Mardi Gras; this year’s fest will be held over two weekends, from April 28 through May 7.

Well, yes, that particular charge, made by folks who may are may not have ever attended an affair long dubbed “Jazz Fest,” which has for decades included pop/rock/rap acts in the mix, is certifiably 100% true.

While I’m a big fan of Stevie (whose music indeed frequently nods to jazz harmonies and improvisation; his Jazz Fest show, under rainy skies in 2008, was inspired and inspiring) and I like Petty, the Florida-bred purveyor of rootsy rock ‘n’ roll, they’re by no means jazz artists.

Nor do Maroon 5, Dave Matthews, Kings of Leon, Usher & the Roots, Snoop Dogg, Meghan Trainor, Pitbull, the Alabama Shakes, Earth, Wind & Fire, Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio (of Phish) or Wilco, among the acts given the greatest attention in the fest’s own promotional video,  remotely fit the definition of jazz.

The naysayers, to their credit, seem to be genuinely and legitimately concerned about how the word “jazz” is so frequently abused, to the point where it is routinely misused in the names of festivals. One local festival in my region, for instance, offers a program that last year was almost entirely given over to pop/rock, R&B and Americana (aside from the good local jazz artists on the bill). Another festival, in Florida’s panhandle, focuses on the kind of “jazz” that begins and ends with whatever it is that Kenny G plays on his annoyingly chirpy horn.

I get the spirit of the complaints. And I agree with the sentiment behind them. If a fest’s headliners and all of the secondary national-act slots are represented by say, the likes of Ryan Adams, the Dazz Band and America (not that there’s anything wrong with those artists), then, sorry, it’s not a jazz festival. Far past time to change the name and let someone else put on an event focused on jazz. Why do these types of fests continue to use the name “jazz,” anyway? They want the cachet but not the music? How special.

But I digress. Trying to say this gently: Bashing New Orleans’ fest for its non-jazz content amounts to missing the forest for the trees. And to having little knowledge of what the fest is about.

For starters, its full name is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Not the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Names matter, right? It’s never been 100% jazz. From its inception, the fest has offered a huge mix of genres, many reflecting the city and state where it’s located. So festgoers get the opportunity to hear a long list of top-shelf jazz artists (see below) PLUS great soul, R&B, funk, world music, zydeco, Cajun, gospel, brass band, jamband, folk, hip-hop and more. And there’s no better place to see great New Orleans acts, including, over the years, Dr. John, the Meters, the Neville Brothers, the Subdudes, the Iguanas, the Radiators, Irma Thomas, and countless others.

Was I happy when the fest, a long while ago, began adding superstar radio-hit acts to the mix? Not necessarily, because I hated seeing the cheese (Bon Jovi) injected into “my” festival, which I’ve covered umpteen times over the years for various magazines and newspapers. It also made for a much more crowded affair. On the other hand, I’ll never forget that 2010 performance by Levon Helm and friends, followed by the Allman Brothers. And Stevie. And James Brown. And Randy Newman. And…

Also, there are twelve — 12, count ’em! — stages at the festival. Not just one or two. Those superstar non-jazz artists are relegated, if you will, to the two big stages located on either end of the Fair Grounds Race Track. Two stages are devoted to jazz, with my favorite stage, the WWOZ Jazz Tent, featuring top-shelf modern/contemporary jazz from New Orleans and elsewhere. Seeing the World Saxophone Quartet + African drums at that venue practically amounted to a religious experience for me. McCoy Tyner, Randy Weston, Mose Allison, Astral Project, Arturo Sandoval, Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison and various Marsalises are among some other personal highlights.

Which brings us to (drum roll) the jazz or jazz-rooted artists playing this year’s fest. Here’s a partial list: Terence Blanchard, Kenny Barron, Ellis Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, George Benson, Astral Project (James Singleton, Johnny Vidacovich, Tony DaGradi, Steve Masakowski), Chucho Valdes, Lee Konitz, Pedrito Martinez (several times), Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, Delfeayo Marsalis, Herlin Riley/Shannon Powell/Jason Marsalis, Wess Anderson, Donald Harrison, SFJAZZ Collective, Henry Butler, Dr. Michael White, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Rebirth Brass Band, Preservation Hall Jazz, Band, Kermit Ruffins, Bill Summers, Joey Alexander.  

Finally, speaking of the communications issue, Jazz Fest itself certainly plays a part in fostering the confusion/anger — at least, among jazz fans — regarding the event’s jazz content. How? By failing to give any special emphasis to the fest’s jazz artists. The lion’s share of the marketing goes to promoting the arena acts.

But it probably makes sense, from a bang-for-the-buck business perspective. Those big names pull in the big attendance numbers. And, according to Fest logic, the superstars’ ability to drive ticket-sales helps fund performances by the lesser-known artists who don’t draw.

On the other hand, why not do both? Pump up the big names AND make a targeted effort to promote the jazz fare? (Short answer: Because the current marketing formula appears to be working).

Headlines to the contrary, Jazz Fest still offers loads of great jazz, along with other great music, much of which can be fairly described as “rootsy” — you know, not bound up in commercial instinct. And a few household names. Now if I could only afford the time and money to get back this year.


New Orleans’ other big music event is the French Quarter Festival, which might be described as a version of Jazz Fest with many of the same great New Orleans and Louisiana musicians, but without the big-name Billboard-charting acts.

I last attended the free-admission FQF in 2013, and yes, it was indeed a blast,  with performances by artists representing multiple genres on stages spread across the French Quarter.

Among the artists slated to play this year’s 30th annual fest, April 6-9: Aaron Neville, Irma Thomas, Ellis Marsalis, The Iguanas, Astral Project, Roland Guerin, Bonerama, Naughty Professor, New Orleans Suspects, Walter Wolfman Washington, Dr. Michael White, Evan Christopher, Joe Krown, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, Leroy Jones, Shannon Powell, Dash Rip Rock, New Orleans Nightcrawlers, John Boutte, Little Freddie King, Bill Summers & Jazalsa, Treme Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins, Tom McDermott, and Organic Trio. And more TBA on March 1.


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