Since its inception, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has sought to pair big name touring acts with local talent. This was meant to maximize crowds: tourists unfamiliar with Louisiana music would come for the big names, and New Orleanians who regularly attended live local music gigs could now justify a ticket purchase for the festival. While the sound of the mainstream “tent pole” artists have evolved over the years, this idea of balance has been a constant throughout the festival’s long run.
In this sense, 2017 boasts a quintessentially “Jazz Fest” lineup, mixing big-name stars, mid-level touring acts, and a healthy portion of local music. But the 2017 lineup also feels strikingly familiar. Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg were scheduled to perform in 2016, but had to cancel due to rain. Tom Petty and Maroon 5 both have played within the last five years, as have Alabama Shakes, Wilco, and Pitbull. Widespread Panic and Dave Matthews seem to be in the lineup every other year. And of course, the same Louisiana acts have regular annual spots on the roster.
But much like the logic behind Jazz Fest’s musical identity, recurring artists have been a part of the festival since the beginning. Local gospel institution the Zion Harmonizers and blues legend Little Freddie King have played at every Jazz Fest since the inaugural 1970 festival. The festival’s early years were also marked by recurring folk artists and vendors like Sister Gertrude Morgan, Jeanne and Claudia Dumestre (a.k.a. the “pralinéres”), and the Roman Candy man.
This is, of course, no accident. The modern New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s culture may be light on the “jazz,” but the festival’s authenticity is built on “heritage.” The local customs and quirks that separate Jazz Fest from other major American music festivals—the Mardi Gras Indians, the presence of a Gospel Tent in the first place, the exceptional local food vendors, the folk art passed down through generations, even the bells and cheers that come with tips at the beer tent—are all part of the Jazz Fest heritage.
Heritage is built on tradition, and tradition, by definition, is repetition. Jazz Fest developed its identity over decades of customs being tried, accepted or discarded, and established through repetition. Those traditions eventually became an inseparable part of the Jazz Fest experience and “brand.” It is not a stretch to believe the same mentality may extend to booking musical acts.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. In fact, Jazz Fest may be ahead of the curve in the tradition business. Many musical acts have staged lucrative tours performing decades-old classic albums in their entirety (including 2017 Jazz Fest headliner Stevie Wonder, who toured performing Songs in the Key of Life in 2015). Many of the most successful films of late are revivals of old franchises, like Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and the endless stream of comic book reboots and remakes. We even elected a president on the vague promise that he would make America great again, suggesting the restoration of faded glories.
In short, nostalgia is all the rage right now, and Jazz Fest was into nostalgia before it was cool.
But Jazz Fest serving as a 1970s time capsule is why the tourists keep coming back. While Jazz Fest has always been a vehicle to generate tourism dollars, part of the balance that has kept the festival successful over five decades is also catering to locals. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation, Inc.—the organizing body of the festival that was incorporated only two months before the first Jazz Fest—lists in its Articles of Incorporation that its purpose, among many other things, is to “promote, preserve, encourage, and advertise New Orleans jazz, folklore, blues, gospel music, Cajun music, and soul music.” The Foundation has always redistributed the profits of Jazz Fest (whenever there have been any) back into the New Orleans music community. The intent to preserve New Orleans culture has been a driving force behind Jazz Fest, but that cannot be done without preserving the festival itself.
So yes, Jazz Fest is basically the same every year. That is also the point. The revenue from the festival goes toward grooming the next generation of New Orleans musicians. The Mardi Gras Indians and heavy focus on folk art allows cultural traditions to thrive in a living museum. The festival brings into harmony the disparate elements of Louisiana culture from African to Cajun heritage. It is probably safe to assume that Jazz Fest is the only major American music festival to feature both a stage honoring the vital importance of Congo Square to jazz history and headliner Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
This balance—between tourist and local, mainstream and underground, even black and white—took decades to perfect. Trial and error yielded both good years and bad as the identity of the festival took shape over time. The result is a unique American institution that provides a good time for tourists, a cultural ambassador for locals, and an economic boom for musicians and artists. That is not something worth changing just for the sake of change.