New Orleans' Jazz Fest: NoLa Heritage—and Pearl Jam, Too

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival honors Louisiana culture. But in this post-Katrina world, it also mirrors the rifts and tensions about race and class that we find in the rest of the country. You'll have fun anyway.

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NEW ORLEANS--The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival tries to be a mirror of New Orleans culture. The jazz part is relatively easy. When the festival started in 1970, jazz was still somewhat en vogue, though its grip on American culture was weakening. Many of the music's most legendary figures were still alive and performing, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington most notably. There were also plenty of traditional jazz musicians plying their trade at Preservation Hall and elsewhere. Since then, the music has evolved and changed, it's been mixed and diluted, but there's still a fairly clear range of what is and isn't jazz.

The ''heritage'' part is a bit more complicated in that it seeks to encompass just about everything interesting and emblematic about Louisiana culture--and include non-jazz Louisiana music, too. So a few times per day the festival's crowded pathways give way to the street parades of Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, as much as New Orleans streets do dozens of times each year. The center of the festival grounds include demonstrations of woodworking, blacksmithing and other crafts that are often undervalued as components of the city's culture. The African roots of Louisiana culture are on display in the Congo Square area. Long before such late New Orleans legends as Professor Longhair and James Booker had achieved their iconic status, they were celebrated on the festival's stages. In addition to a heavenly array of foods for sale, the festival also features demonstrations by some of the city's best chefs.

Jazz Fest, as the event is known locally, kicked off Friday, despite the rainstorms and mud that often dull the festival spirit. Local favorites like Leroy Jones, Glen David Andrews, Tommy Sancton and Wanda Rouzan shared the grounds with national draws such as Joe Lovano, The Black Crowes, George Clinton, Lionel Richie and international stars like Baaba Maal and Steel Pulse. Simon & Garfunkel headlined a Saturday lineup that also included New Orleans-based artists like Terence Blanchard, Big Sam's Funky Nation, Davell Crawford and Kirk Joseph's Tuba Tuba.

But while Jazz Fest mirrors Louisiana performance culture, it also reflects many of the rifts and tensions so visible in our streets and newspapers and in our nation.

''The great enemy of New Orleans culture is American culture,'' New Orleans writer John Bigunet once said. Corporate sponsorship is the way of the American world now, and the producers of Jazz Fest say there is no way they could make the numbers work without it. The hottest performers charge the highest rates. The daily ticket price of roughly $50 may be a bargain by some calculations. Where else could you see Aretha Franklin, Jose Feliciano, Nicholas Payton, the Gipsy Kings, Kirk Franklin and Stanley Clarke all on one bill for that price? But that ticket price is subsidized by Acura and its Acura Stage, the Sheraton and its Fais Do Do stage and Shell Oil Company which, after the federal levee failures of 2005, became the titular sponsor. On its Web site and elsewhere, the event is called ''The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Presented by Shell.''

Shell sponsorship helped save the festival after Hurricane Katrina and the attendant levee failures all but drowned the city nearly five years ago. The irony is that oil companies are one of the main culprits cited for the death of the Louisiana coast line. Louisiana is home to roughly 40 percent of the coastal wetlands in the United States. We suffer about 80 percent of coastal wetland loss. During the festival four years ago, a plane circled over the event with a banner reading, ''Shell: Hear the Music-Fix the Coast U Broke.''

Tab Benoit, the Louisiana bluesman who has been the tuneful face of the save-the-wetlands movement, gave a rousing performance Saturday. Most of it was all about music. But Benoit can't help himself. He can't be in front of a few hundred people and not mention the impending death of his beloved state.

''It's important to everybody, whether they know it or not,'' he said of the coast erosion issue. ''Y'all know it because y'all come here. But we can't save it by ourselves.''

George Wein, the founding producer of Jazz Fest, the Newport Jazz Festival and many similar events, has said that his events include ''Jazz from J to Z,'' meaning he does not limit his offerings to such narrow categories as ''traditional jazz'' or ''straight ahead jazz.'' He's been criticized by fans of the avant garde on the left and fans of traditional jazz on the right, but the complexity of the Louisiana music scene and the emergence of new genres has resulted in heightened criticism.

The biggest concern has been the ''our'' festival (read: New Orleanians, Louisianans, or fans who have made a habit of visiting the festival every year for the past 20) has been turned into a generic event featuring the same big stars that we are likely to see on the Grammys or late-night TV talk shows. Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Phish, Bob Dylan and other big draws with questionable connections to jazz, New Orleans or Louisiana have been the lightening rods for criticism. In the festival's defense, Wein's co-producer, Quint Davis, points to the dozens of Louisiana acts that greatly outnumber the international stars.