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.

Getty Images
Getty Images

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.

But a festival that this year alone features Pearl Jam, Anita Baker, Widespread Panic, Jeff Beck, Drake, Teena Marie, Band of Horses and My Morning Jacket can hardly claim to be wedded to New Orleans, Louisiana, jazz or roots music. Critics wonder aloud whether New Orleans has been relegated to little more than host city status.

And as always in America, there is the race question. Though many if not most of the local performers hired for Jazz Fest are African American, black attendees in this majority-black city are always in the minority. Critics contended that the festival reflected the sort of black artists that middle-aged, middle-class, white people like to hear. Meanwhile, Wein and Davis’ company, Festival Productions Inc., manages to book acts to the Essence Music Festival that were far more popular with black audiences.

In recent years, the festival has broadened its offerings, invited hip-hop performers like Juvenile and national draws like Frankie Beverly and Maze, Anita Baker and Lionel Richie. Bounce music, the New Orleans take on hip-hop, has also been incorporated into the festival and this year two bounce performers, Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby, were interviewed in the festival’s grand stand. The audience listening to the two performers was mostly white, by there was a standing ovation at the end of the interview, perhaps an acknowledgment that fans of this music were especially happy that their genre was accorded such recognition.

As the festival has grown, it has made more compromises, included more groups that seem far afield of its mission. But the saving grace of this festival, indeed the seat of its integrity, lies in the fact that no matter how hard-core you are, there is plenty, not merely to whet your appetite, but to get you genuinely excited.

Lolis Eric Elie is a writer whose credits include the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans and the new HBO television series, Treme.

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