THROUGH THE LENS: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Returns In All Its One-of-a-Kind Splendor
The War & Treaty - New Orleans Jazz Fest 2022 - Photo by Jim Brock
First held in 1970, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is more than a music festival, it is a celebration of music, crafts, culture and food. It is a spicy stew comprised of many distinct cultures: African American, Cajun, Creole, Latin, French, Cuban, Isleño, Native American, and practically everything in between. One could say that it is like Louisiana’s signature dish, gumbo, only much larger.
Following cancellations due to COVID the previous two years, the 2022 edition of “Jazz Fest” was highly anticipated, and we are fortunate that frequent ND contributor Jim Brock was there the last weekend of April and first weekend of May to cover it. It was his 18th(!) Jazz Fest, so he knew his way around.
The 2022 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival by Jim Brock
Held on the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course, where two sections of New Orleans (Gentilly and the Bayou St. John) meet, Jazz Fest is an annual tradition for a legion of locals and fans from all over the world to celebrate New Orleans music, culture, and food.
The return of Jazz Fest this year felt especially soul tugging. Fest founder George Wein, as well as Art and Charles Neville, Ellis Marsalis, and Dr. John — all integral to the fest — are gone since the last Jazz Fest in 2019. But, as I bore witness, Jazz Fest was back nonetheless!
What has survived is the melange of sounds of gospel, blues, jazz, brass bands, and even some headliners that pull you from one end up of the Fair Grounds to the other during a leisurely 10-minute stroll. What has survived is being swept up in a flurry of colors and feathers as a parade envelops you without warning. What has survived are the smells and tastes of local dishes like Crawfish Monica or a cochon de lait po-boy that many waited three years to savor again.
Unlike other two-weekend festivals, Jazz Fest never caves to the “do-over” weekend. There are no repeating acts, and with the festival’s 13 stages and tents, and over 500 performances, each day is utterly unique and full of unscheduled surprises.
One of the highest points this year was The War and Treaty and the waves of raw emotion they unleashed in the Blues Tent on the very first day. While there were big headliners such as The Who and Red Hot Chili Peppers during the first weekend, the moments that stuck with me most those first three days were sounds you can only hear in New Orleans. Bands like Bonerama, a rock-funk ensemble led by three trombones that owes as much to Led Zeppelin as to the New Orleans brass band tradition.
Trumpet Mafia, a youth brigade of trumpets and other brass instruments, filled the Jazz Tent stage with 20 musicians playing as a band, not an orchestra, as well as the steel-driven funk of Galactic. Anders Osborne’s Sunday set from the same big stage on which I first heard him 22 years ago, followed by Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, were both smoldering. Of course, no Jazz Fest is complete without some time in the Gospel Tent, which is assured to lift anyone’s spirits.
Each day of Jazz Fest brings joyful parades of the Mardi Gras Indians or any of the nearly 70 Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, a tradition of fellowships dating back to the earliest days of Africans in America. There are jazz funerals, as well, which are more celebratory than somber, and full of dancing and brass instrument playing. Memorable jazz funerals for Jazz Fest founder George Wein, Dr. John, and Ellis Marsalis moved through the Fair Grounds the first weekend, and for Art and Charles Neville the second weekend.
Mr. Sipp, “The Mississippi Blues Child,” and his rousing 10-minute solo around the Blues Tent, pausing for selfies and never dropping a note, was unforgettable from the second weekend. As was The Rumble, with Joseph Boudreaux Jr., who has one foot rooted in Mardi Gras Indian Funk and the other in beats of the present. The Midnite Disturbers, a who’s who of New Orleans brass players, and their send-off to the recently deceased Kevin O’Day, was deeply felt.
Hometown heroes The Revivalists seized the main Festival Stage and never let up, while New Orleans resident Rickie Lee Jones finally got her long overdue Jazz Fest spot. But it was Mavis Staples, a last minute sub for Melissa Etheridge, who shook the Blues Tent with her calls for social change. As the last fest day wound down, one could go from The Radiators to Kool & the Gang to Ricky Skaggs to the Zac Brown Band (subbing for Willie Nelson) to Norah Jones, Buddy Guy, and traditional closer Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ funk and soul. This just doesn’t happen anywhere else.
This was my 18th Jazz Fest, so, yes, I’m partial. But the numbers are in and over 475,000 made their way to the Fair Grounds over the seven days of music, arts, food and culture. Yes, Jazz Fest is back, and I will be, too, April 28-May 7, 2023.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slide show.