Photos and words by Alex Kluft
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival finally returned after two years of cancellations due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The festival included many great groups from New Orleans that are regulars like The Radiators, Dumpstaphunk, George Porter Jr, Cyril Neville, the Rebirth Brass Band, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Revivalists, and the Preservation Hall Band as well as a number of great headliners.
The festival's 50th Anniversary took place in 2019. The first Jazz Fest actually took place in 1970 and started as a five day festival at Congo Square in Louis Armstrong park and included Duke Ellington, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, and Clifton Chenier. Just two years later the festival moved to its current location at the New Orleans Fairgrounds Race Course. In that 50 years everyone from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen to Aretha Franklin to Joni Mitchell to the Allman Brothers Band to Stevie Ray Vaughn to James Brown have all played the festival. What started as a festival with no more than 350 attendees grew into one of the biggest festivals nationally having nearly 500,000 attendees between both weekends each year.
Weekend one headliners included Lionel Richie, Death Cab for Cutie, Third World (Friday), The Who, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, Nelly (Saturday), and on Sunday the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Avett Brothers, Charlie Wilson, and the Legendary Count Basie Orchestra closed out the first weekend.
Weekend two which was four days consisted of Luke Combs, Billy Strings, Ziggy Marley on opening day, Friday was The Black Crowes, Elvis Costello & The Imposters, and Busta Rhymes. Saturday was the big day for female artists with Stevie Nicks, Lauren Daigle, Erykah Badu, and Mavis Staples closing the day out. Sunday the final day which is always jam packed with great artists included an all-star tribute to Dr. John, the Soul Queen of New Orleans Irma Thomas, Kool & The Gang, Jimmy Buffett, Zac Brown Band filling in last minute for Willie Nelson, annual closers Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly, Norah Jones, Buddy Guy, and as always on the main stage Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave, who took over the main closing slot from the Neville Brothers.
A big part of the festival was honoring its founder George Wein who passed away in September of 2021, just a month short of his 96th birthday. Wein also was known for founding the Newport Jazz Festival and along with Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel the Newport Folk Festival. In 2015 Wein received a Grammy Trustee award. Even in 2019 Wein could be seen at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival walking around and playing piano. Wein also attended the Newport Jazz Festival in his 90’s. There were several tributes to Wein over both weekends including a parade and on the second Friday, The Newport All- Stars consisting of Howard Alden, Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen, Jay Leonhart, Lewis Nash, Christian Sands, and Lew Tabackin all paid tribute.
Another major loss came the year before in 2020 with the passing of the Marsalis family patriarch Ellis Marsalis Jr. who played along his sons Wynton, Branford, and Jason at the festival just a year before. Marsalis was one of the first major artists to die of Covid-19. There was a tribute to Marsalis on the first Saturday in the Jazz tent where his final Jazz Fest performance was with his band David Torkanowsky, Oscar Rossignoli, Shea Pierre, Jesse McBride and Jason Marsalis as a special guest.
In 2019 Dr. John Passed less than two months after the festival however he did not perform that year due to his health. With the festival not happening the last two years, this tribute was postponed until 2021. Paying tribute to Dr. John on the final day of the festival was his friends, also fellow New Orleans artists like Irma Thomas, Ivan Neville, Davell Crawford, John Boutte, Jon Cleary, Cyril Neville, and John “Papa” Gros,” with members of Dr. John’s band.
Lastly another major tribute on the second Friday was to Charles and Art Neville who passed in 2018 and 2019. This tribute included Cyril, Ivan, and Charmaine Neville, Leo Nocentelli, the Funky Meters, and the Neville Brothers band.
To name a few of the great bassists over the two weekends
Flea- Red Hot Chili Peppers
Sven Pipien- The Black Crowes
Robert ‘Kool’ Bell- Kool & The Gang
Ethan Farmer- Lionel Richie
Tony Hall and Nick Daniels III- Dumpstaphunk
Ben Jaffe- Preservation Hall Band
Dave Faragher- Elvis Costello & The Imposters
Orlando Wright- Buddy Guy
Jon Button- The Who
Ben Williams- David Sanborn
Corey McCormick (Lukas Nelson & POTR)
Bob Crawford (Avett Brothers)
Matt Mangano- Zac Brown Band
With more than 500 New Orleans groups, covering the full range of street culture, Gospel, Blues, Jazz, R&B, and more, Jazz Fest’s showcase of this incredible musical community continues to set the Festival apart. Highlights included: Tributes to artists central to New Orleans culture and to the Festival legacy—Festival founder George Wein; Dr. John, Art and Charles Neville; Ellis Marsalis, Dave Bartholomew, and others. The tradition of hosting the highest level of special guests included the second Jazz Fest appearance by The Who; the Red Hot Chili Peppers closing out the first weekend; Ziggy Marley performing the songs of Bob Marley; Luke Combs headlining locals Thursday; a signature return to performing after three years by Stevie Nicks, joining Lauren Daigle, Erykah Badu, and Mavis Staples, all on the second Saturday. Also a part of the Festival musical family is the wide variety of international music, which this year featured Cimafunk of Cuba, Bombino of Niger, Lakou Mizik of Haiti, Son Rompe Pera of Mexico, and DakhaBrakha of Ukraine.
Next year’s event is scheduled for April 28 – May 7, 2023. For the most up-to-date Jazz Fest info, visit www.nojazzfest.com and follow the Festival on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.