The rainy first day and late start of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival capped off a series of unfortunate events out of the fest’s control before it could even get started this year: its 2019 crown-jewel headliner The Rolling Stones— set to perform May 2 – cancelled due to Mick Jagger’s health troubles. Their replacement, Fleetwood Mac— who headlined a day of Jazz Fest in 2016 – cancelled when Stevie Nicks fell ill.
But illness, weather and delays can’t hold down this irrepressible and remarkably consistent perennial of a music and culture festival, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Founded in 1970, Jazz Fest has existed in its modern form as a two-weekend affair since since 1976, a long-running aspirational model to younger blockbuster two-weekend fests like Coachella or Austin City Limits. Jazz Fest is the birthplace of jazz’s iconic yearly music event, bringing in visitors from all over the world, second only to Mardi Gras Holiday in terms of crowds coming into town.
Here’s some highlights from the wet first day (April 25) of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival:
12:30 p.m.: Jazz Fest’s gates open 90 minutes behind the usual scheduled 11 a.m. due to heavy thunderstorms in the region, which include a tornado watch for Orleans Parish issued by the National Weather Service. It would amount to merely some inconvenient mud and waterlogged shoes for most Jazz Fest attendees. However, the skies over the Fair Grounds Race Course started clearing up less than three hours after Gates, with the hot sun baking the grounds’ muddy exterior track back into something walkable by the time the headliners hit. Only the first acts of the day were cancelled.
2:30 p.m.: Jazz Fest producer and emcee Quint Davis is interviewing legendary festival producer and Jazz Fest co-founder George Wein at the Alison Miner Music Heritage Stage to a packed house. It’s not just because of the sideways rain outside. Davis and Wein — as well as the late great Miner — are responsible for making the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival what is and what it became.
The anecdotes fly fast and furious: Wein, now 93, trying to convince a hoteliers’ association in New Orleans in a pre-1964 Civil Rights Act United States that a world-class (read: integrated) jazz festival could never come to a city with legal segregation. “I knew I couldn’t get anything by telling them how stupid they were,” Wein says with a grin. So he left them in the dust, starting his own thing. His wife at the time — Joyce Wein, who passed in 2005 – was black. He couldn’t bring her on trips to New Orleans due to segregation laws. It’s barely a hot take to suggest Wein started Jazz Fest as one big racial-justice “I told you so.”
And even though Wein calls himself a “genius” half-jokingly (“I don’t call myself a genius often,” he adds), he’s not above a little humility. After a young New Orleans rapper performing at the fest asked him backstage what his name was— a humbling moment, no doubt— he offers up a pearl of wisdom: “What you did is what counts, not who you are.”
If Wein is the oracle, Davis is the student and charismatic emcee, always at the ready with a clever comment. “George would tell me real simple things that it would take me six to eight years to understand,” Davis says. “What we were doing here was really a testament to what you could do if you didn’t know any better. That’s the secret of what we’re doing down here.” Wein adds, “I just knew if you could do the first year, you could do the second year and if you did the second year and they wanted a third year, you were off to the races.”
Wein was sitting in a horsetrack grandstand when he said this and he couldn’t have made the metaphor of it all more clear. Round and round Jazz Fest goes, on a track, pulling off festivals with few to no hitches each year. It’s the circle of life, the circle of the track. One term Wein used was “wheels-to-wheels” regarding the multiple generations of Jazz Fest attendees, from eight months old to 80 years old, one who who are in strollers and ones who are in wheelchairs. That’s a beautiful thing and there’s a very small handful of U.S. festivals one can say that about.
3:30 p.m.: The Doobie Brothers hit Acura Stage on all pistons firing, with the driving syncopation and piano of “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” a hit from the band’s Tom Johnston era followed by “Takin’ It to the Streets,” a hit from the Doobies’ Michael McDonald era. With the band’s horn section, the band swells to upwards of 10 members, with a four-man offensive line of guitar/bass headstocks up front.
Every bit of sound and harmony proves particularly vital on a revved-up arrangement of the instrumental “Busted Down Around O’Connelly Corners” followed by “Ukiah” (tracks nine and ten off the Doobies’ landmark 1973 LP The Captain and Me) with tight vocal harmonies and crisp horn lines. Later on comes “Sweet Maxine” and “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me,” rounded out by the singles “China Grove,” “Black Water” (one of the Doobies’ two Hot 100 number ones) and “Listen to the Music,” inspiring a huge singalong closer.
Johnston sat down with Billboard earlier in the day and talked legacy. Which seems right, since the Doobies are almost as old as Jazz Fest itself. “The energy has been going on— I hate to say this— for 50 years next year. But I don’t think we’ve changed a lot energy-wise, we still feel like we’re 25,” he tells Billboard. The band’s Best of the Doobies has been RIAA-certified Diamond in sales, ranking it among the likes of The Beatles’ 1 and The Eagles’ Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975).
Good company to be in, Johnston says, but the Doobies never tried to be anything they weren’t. In fact, they’re as ad hoc of a band as they come. “This band is an amalgamation, it’s not a studio or hothouse band. We’ve never been a concept group. Whatever happens happens. One thing that’s important to me that people know about The Doobie Brothers is that it represents: folk music, bluegrass, rhythm and blues, soul music, blues, even a little bit of country and western and it’s all thrown together. And that’s what makes this band work.”
4:35 p.m.: Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire sits down with Billboard behind Acura Stage to talk his forthcoming solo jazz LP, Love Will Find A Way. Bailey goes on about working with a litany of big contemporary jazz names over the years he’s been making (and self-funding, he says) the record, which is out in June: Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Chick Corea, Christian McBride and more outside the jazz world like singer Bilal and producer will.i.am, who served as producer on Love Will Find A Way. “It’s inspired by the times we’re going through, the political and social unrest,” Bailey says. He and a jazz combo will be riffing off the catalogs of conscious soul singers Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye sprinkled among his on a short tour of City Winery venues in June.
5:30 p.m.: Before Earth, Wind & Fire hits Acura Stage, festival producer Quint Davis introduces the band and singer Bailey, bassist Verdine White and the whole band get a crowd clap going to a snippet of “Let Your Feelings Show” to funky sci-fi Egyptian visuals, getting the set properly started with the one-two joyful punches of hits “Sing A Song” and “Shining Star.” The band keeps a funky pulse throughout the set ebbing and flowing through “Getaway,” “Kalimba Story” and its Motown-funk arrangement of The Beatles ditty “Got to Get You Into My Life.”
“After the Love Is Gone” makes the audience sway and swoon, doubly so with Bailey’s soaring falsetto on “Reasons.” Through the whole set, the front line of the band never stays in one place (or on one instrument) for very long. On high-energy hits like “Boogie Wonderland” is where the band’s peppy choreography is less spontaneous and more exact with hops, bounces and twirls into formations like The Temptations consulting a football playbook. It’s a nickel formation for the funk of it all with a clavé break at the end. EWF polish off the set with a spectacular duo of “Let’s Groove” and — of course — “September.”
5:40 p.m.: Alanis Morissette starts her headlining set at Gentilly Stage straight away without a word, with “You Learn,” only afterward making minimal chat with the audience (“It’s been a while since we’ve been back,” she remarks to the New Orleans crowd) and it’s onto “All I Really Want.” Morisette introduces her band between every song or two: Victor Indrizzo on drums, Jason Orme on guitar, etc.
Then “Hands Clean” or a big singalong to “Head Over Feet.” It seems methodical and skilled for her, but to a fairly large Jazz Fest crowd it’s catharsis bathed in sunlight. All her Jagged Little Pill era songs hit the hardest: the lapsed Catholicism of “Forgiven,” “Perfect” and of course the scream-therapy “You Oughta Know” near the end of her set. There was at least one sweet song, though, when she played “Guardian” (“this is a song I wrote for my son,” she says, adding a wan “I thought it might be a good idea to write for multiple multiple inner children.”) Morissette polishes off the set with three of her biggest hits: “Ironic,” the appropriate send off of “Thank U” and finally “Uninvited,” which likely ran over her allotted set time.