Only about 350 people attended the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, and that number included gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and the other 100 or so local musicians who performed.
Four decades later, Jazz Fest draws hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world to hear bands perform jazz, blues, country, Cajun, rap and rock.
The festival’s 40th anniversary kicks off Friday with a tribute to Jackson by Grammy-winning soul singer Irma Thomas and a performance by New Orleans native trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. This year’s headliners include Bon Jovi, Sugarland, Kings of Leon and The O’Jays.
“Oh, it’s a lot different now,” said jazz trumpeter who has performed at the festival every year. In 1970, he played with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra., a 97-year-old
“It’s a lot bigger,” he added, recalling with a chuckle how that first year “nobody showed up.”
Although more nationally known acts have joined the lineup, the festival’s core remains local: Its producer said more than 80 percent of the acts are from Louisiana. About a dozen performers from the first festival are returning to play this year, including Ferbos, clarinetist Pete Fountain, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, pianist , jazz singer Germaine Bazzle and singer-pianist Ellis Marsalis, patriarch of the Marsalis clan.
“It’s still about New Orleans,” said Fountain, 78, who performs Saturday. “That’s why people like it so much. They like the city, and they like this city’s music. That’s why they come.”
Highlighting the city’s music was what motivated festival founder George Wein to venture south from New England. The Boston native had started the and Newport Folk Festival in the 1950s.
Launching Jazz Fest in New Orleans took years, Wein said, in large part because of segregation during the early 1960s. Discussions with the city began in 1962, but “it was impossible to do it at that time because the musicians were still segregated,” he said.
When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the first festival was announced but later canceled because violence and discrimination around the South continued against blacks who were trying to integrate, he said. But by 1970, things had settled.
“By that time, I knew I didn’t want to do a Newport-style jazz festival in New Orleans,” he said. “I knew that we had to do a festival that totally presented the traditions and atmosphere of New Orleans.”
The first Jazz Fest was held at Louis Armstrong Memorial Park and the park’s, where in the 1800s slaves and free blacks would gather on Sundays to play music, dance, socialize and market goods. At the first festival, musicians shared four stages over two days.
Every performer that first year was from Louisiana, except for pianist and composer , who was invited by Wein to attend and perform an original song to mark the occasion. Ellington performed “The New Orleans Suite,” which earned him a Grammy in 1971 for best jazz performance by a big band.
Looking back on the festival’s four-decade history, Wein said he is “very proud and excited that maybe we’ve made a good contribution to the city and to the world.”
Wein, who is a pianist, will perform next weekend with his band, the Newport All-Stars.
The festival is being held at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course, the event’s home since 1972. Hundreds of acts will perform this year on 12 stages over two weekends — this Friday through Sunday, then the following Thursday through Sunday.
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