It's springtime, and with that comes one of the year's best events--the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Each year, for two weeks at the end of April/beginning of May, people swarm to the Crescent City to envelop themselves in the music, food, and culture of this great town. I've made the trip the last five years, and always look forward to learning new things, hearing new music, and becoming more familiar with New Orleans culture and history. Yet this year, I told myself I wasn't going to go. Yes, it's an amazing experience, but I've done it. After all, how different is it from year to year? Brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, crawfish, po-boys, beignets, Second Line parades, etc. But then I came to realize something: those are exactly the things that make Jazzfest so special and what keeps myself and countless others coming back year after year.
New Orleans is like an under-developed nation, with its traditions and cultural heritage, and it retains these like no other place in this country. While things change and life evolves down here, a constant has remained for hundreds of years. Jazzfest is the same way; not much has changed since the festival began--multiple stages, food and crafts, parades, and evening concerts were all part of the first event and every one since. 35 years ago, it was a lot smaller and in a different part of the city, but the overall feeling is the same, and that's why people mark New Orleans Jazzfest on their calendars every year. It's really like anything in life--people find comfort in what's familiar. They know what to expect, they can see the same bands, eat the same food, visit the same nooks and crannies of the Fair Grounds Race Course, and experience New Orleans like they have for the last however many years.
Much like the festival has remained the same, many of the popular songs are woven into the history of New Orleans. New Orleans songs have become part of the history of many an artist, from New Orleans funk to jazz to rock to pop. You can still hear songs today that were heard at the first Jazzfest (and the second, third, and fourth...). A tune like "Iko Iko" may have been performed by the Meters 35 years ago, but you can now hear it done by Dr. John, the Wild Magnolias, the Dixie Cups, or Buckwheat Zydeco. Beyond that, artists as diverse as Ringo Starr, the Grateful Dead, Bernard Purdie, and even Cyndi Lauper have made this song part of their repertoire. "Junko Partner" is another New Orleans staple, played at the festival by R&B artists, blues artists, zydeco bands, and so on. Back when George Wein was first putting this festival on the map, Professor Longhair may have been the man to play this tune, but now you will probably hear it numerous times during your visit, by the likes of Dr. John, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, or Anders Osborne.
New Orleans music has had a great influence throughout musical history. Louis Armstrong remains one of jazz's most storied performers. Allen Toussaint has produced records for artists from Robert Palmer to The Band to Paul Simon and everyone from Devo to the Judds has covered his music. And look at the list of people that have played on the Fair Grounds Race Course--pretty much every popular artist has graced these stages. Along with all of the current stars, you can still hear a lot of the same artists at the Fair Grounds you always have, such as Allen Toussaint, The Neville Brothers, and Kermit Ruffins. Seeing the Nevilles close the festival on the main stage is one of the most popular spots to be all weekend.
By Bradly Bifulco