For 50 years, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, known to Fest-goers as simply Jazz Fest, has brought the sights, sounds, and tastes of the Big Easy to millions of festival goers. In celebration of Jazz Fest’s golden anniversary, venerable record label Smithsonian Folkways is proud to present a comprehensive box set of live recordings from the festival’s past. The five discs in Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival present the sounds of the festival as you’d hear them while wandering across the 145 acres of the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track in the Gentilly neighborhood.
Though the festival attracts some of the biggest rock stars on the planet, the focus of this ambitious new box set is on the roots of Louisiana music, which comprise the vast majority of the festival’s bookings, from Jazz to Bounce, Zydeco to Gospel, Brass Bands to R&B. Carefully selected from countless hours of live recordings, the box set includes unreleased material spanning the years 1974 to 2016 and features key moments with celebrated artists like Trombone Shorty, Irma Thomas, Big Freedia, Professor Longhair, The Neville Brothers, Allen Toussaint (solo and in a duet with Bonnie Raitt), Dr. John, Kermit Ruffins, Terence Blanchard, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Champion Jack Dupree, and Buckwheat Zydeco, among many others. The music is accompanied by a 135-page book, filled with exclusive photographs drawn from the archives of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, The Historic New Orleans Collection and independent photographers, as well as historical essays by journalist Keith Spera and author Karen Celestan, a retrospective of the music heard at Jazz Fest by Robert H. Cataliotti, and in-depth notes by Jeff Place and Huib Schippers of Smithsonian Folkways, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation archivist Rachel Lyons, WWOZ’s Dave Ankers, and Jon Pareles of the New York Times.
“We are simply delighted with this collaboration,” says Smithsonian Folkways director and curator Huib Schippers. “It immediately made sense to us as soon as we started discussing it. There is a compelling and beautiful synergy between the first fifty years of an iconic music festival and a 70-year old record label committed to documenting and celebrating this country’s sound legacy and keeping it available in perpetuity, in whatever format, for a listenership of 230 million and growing. We are so pleased that we can bring some of the amazing sounds and sights and impressions from New Orleans to new and familiar audiences.”
The box set starts with the song “Indian Red,” sung here by The Golden Eagles, a song traditionally sung at the opening of iconic Mardi Gras Indian parades and gatherings. And it ends, as the festival did for many years, with a rousing version of “Amazing Grace.” Between these bookends, five albums of music, taken from WWOZ radio recordings and live stage recordings, bring us some of the best Louisiana artists to ever grace the stage. Each track was selected by a committee of individuals who know the 50 year history of the festival intimately. The set recreates the joy and spirited energy of Jazz Fest, placing each listener on the grounds of the festival, walking between stages, discovering new music and great moments. Most of these recordings have never been released commercially and sparkle with life. Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is an immersive experience, both for listeners discovering the festival for the first time and for some of the millions who’ve been there in person.
Musical genres roll and flow across the Fair Grounds at Jazz Fest, and the varied arrangements of the discs showcase this musical diversity. Disc One strolls through the powerful jazz offerings at the festival, with a festive jam from New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr and a racing traditional jazz tribute to Louis Armstrong from Kermit Ruffins, plus boogie-woogie piano from Champion Jack Dupree. Discs Two and Three guide the listener through Jazz Fest’s many ties to New Orleans blues, soul, and R&B, from the legendary Allen Toussaint to definitive soul singer Irma Thomas, with detours to virtuoso guitarist Snooks Eaglin, and New Orleans soul natives Dixie Cups. Highlights include the great Dr. John on “Litanie des Saints,” and a remarkably spirited cover of “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” from Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Gospel deep dives come in Disc Three with a powerful performance of “Old Rugged Cross” from Irma Thomas, and inspired sets by the Zion Harmonizers and Johnson Extension. Disc Four brings the listener to the Cajun and Zydeco Fais-Do-Do stage, with sets from Buckwheat Zydeco, Boozoo Chavis, The Savoy Family Cajun Band, and Beausoleil, before moving to the mainstage and major live sets from The Neville Brothers and Allen Toussaint & Bonnie Raitt. Disc Five is the most genre-smashing selection, with mainstage sets including a surprising cover of “Take the ‘A’ Train” from blues guitarist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, and a burning “Fire on the Bayou” from The funky Meters. As a city that’s always birthed new American music forms, New Orleans’ hip-hop is paid homage to here with a blazing set from Bounce ambassador Big Freedia.
To thrive for fifty years, any festival needs to learn how to fight and survive, and some of the story of this box set speaks to these battles for cultural survival. The indelible impact of Hurricane Katrina, which shook the festival itself and almost led to its cancellation, echoes through these selections. New Orleans singer John Boutté’s impassioned reworking of the song “Louisiana 1927” is one of the most powerful moments in the set, and, to this day, in the festival’s history. Sonny Landreth’s “Blue Tarp Blues” speaks to the devastation of Katrina as well. Beyond Katrina, it’s been a fight to keep the festival going so long with so many cultural changes and the economic pressures on festivals today. The foundational vision of Jazz Fest that has helped it endure so long is a boundless love for the music and people of New Orleans and Louisiana. It seems like a simple idea for a festival’s core mission, but Jazz Fest’s embrace of little known but locally celebrated musical geniuses like Professor Longhair or Dr. John is still radically out of step with the profit-driven world of big music festivals. Though later years have seen huge headliners on the main stage, there’s a humility to everyone who performs at Jazz Fest, no matter how famous, a recognition that New Orleans is the birthplace of American music.
Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival was created by The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, utilizing its Archive and with the assistance of the Jazz & Heritage radio station WWOZ; the production was made possible through the generous support of The Helis Foundation, a Louisiana family foundation dedicated to increasing access to the arts. The Helis Foundation has pledged to donate copies of the box set to every branch of New Orleans Public Library, ensuring all citizens of New Orleans can access this unparalleled collection.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell is a co-production of Festival Productions Louisiana, LLC. (a wholly owned subsidiary of Festival Productions, Inc.-New Orleans) and AEG Louisiana Production, LLC. (a subsidiary of AEG Presents).