The first fest: Remembering the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
Dixieland great Pete Fountain treating fans to a steamship concert on the river. Woody Allen giving an impromptu clarinet show at the Municipal Auditorium. Mahalia Jackson belting “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” in Congo Square — then Beauregard Square — with Duke Ellington closing the whole thing out. Just 350 folks attended the first, very modest and freewheeling New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest in April 1970, but with a lineup of legends like that — not to mention Al Hirt, Fats Domino, The Meters and Clifton Chenier — the local music extravaganza immediately became a quintessential part of Crescent City culture, heritage and lore.
Jazz Fest has grown mightily from that first humble year, to become a vital part of the city’s spring calendar, drawing a variety of acts to perform for the jam-packed Fair Grounds — to say nothing of the food and craft booths. What’s more, the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which puts on the annual party, consistently makes good on its promise to “promote, preserve and perpetuate” local music and culture.
- The Jazz Fest emerged in the wake of the establishment of arguably the world’s greatest jazz event, the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. That event kicked off in 1954, thanks to promoter and producer George Wein, who subsequently attracted the interest in 1962 of several New Orleans business leaders and tourism operatives interested in molding a similar celebration in the Crescent City. Wein and his wife, Joyce, rolled up their sleeves, and eight years later, the curtain rose on the local event.
- The first performer at that first Jazz Fest was Fountain, who performed aboard the S.S. President as part of a kickoff concert cruise. That was on April 22. The rest of the 1970 Jazz Fest spanned just four days, from April 23 to 26. Concerts were held in the Municipal Auditorium, with nearby Beauregard Square serving as the “Heritage” grounds, featuring food, crafts, workshops and smaller concerts.
- Attendees of the first fest paid $3 to access the Heritage grounds at Beauregard Square, and $3.50 to $6.50 for the concerts at the Municipal Auditorium. By comparison, single-day tickets to the 2017 fest are $65 if bought in advance and $75 on-site.
- You want “modest beginnings”? Newspaper ads touting the first wingding in 1970 were nestled snugly and inconspicuously alongside routine cinematic schedules for everything from classics like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “Easy Rider” to not-quite-as-classic movie adventures as “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” and “Bloody Mama.”
- Just two years after the inaugural fest, the 1972 celebration migrated to its current ground zero, the 145-acre Fair Grounds Race Course in the Gentilly neighborhood. The shift came, as it turned out, exactly 100 years after the opening of the horse racing track, which is considered the second-oldest such facility in the country.
- The move to the Fair Grounds didn’t start well; the first day of the ’72 festival was rained out. But things have happily picked up from there. Festival attendance in 2016 was pegged at 425,000 by festival organizers. That was down from 460,000 the year before and compares with 435,000 in 2014, 425,000 in 2013 and approximately 450,000 in 2012.
- The first limited-edition, silk-screen Jazz Fest poster, an annual collectible, was produced in 1975.
Sure, there have been growing pains and criticisms — that it’s too sprawling, that it excludes the local population, that it’s become more corporate than cultural. But overall, nearly a half-century later, Jazz Fest remains one of New Orleans’ key tourist attractions, economic linchpins, public visages and embodiments of the city’s soul and spirit. Hundreds of musicians, artists and culinary masters entertain thousands upon thousands of revelers at the Fair Grounds each year, but the essence of the event hasn’t changed. For many, both locally and globally, Jazz Fest, quite simply, <em>is</em> New Orleans.