The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival inherited part of the Woodstock myth, becoming a symbol for a place where music and culture brought people together in a spirit of social harmony. Instead of a peace symbol, the image of a joyous, nonviolent second line parade became the festival’s trademark.
In a way, Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis tried to negotiate with the opposing festival myths of peace and chaos, by bringing the Stones to Jazz Fest for the 50th celebration of the signature New Orleans event. If the Stones could play in this fairytale setting without the kind of crowd violence that has never occurred in a half century of Jazz Fest, then all the vestiges of negativity surrounding the band would be removed.
But the idea produced a different kind of imbalance. The festival has always relied on a collective identity, the strength of Louisiana culture, with seven or eight days of music, food and crafts all sharing equal weight. Ticket prices were uniform day-to-day, even when big-ticket names started to be added to the lineup. Part of the festival’s strength was that the presence of Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen or Aretha Franklin on the bill didn’t mean you had to pay more than on a day when lesser-known but equally valued musicians were featured.
The price of bringing in the Stones was to upset that balance. By creating a special day for the Stones with tickets roughly double what they usually cost, Jazz Fest created an imbalance with its own sense of equanimity. The Stones immediately reverted to lightning rod status. Many griped about the ticket costs, or about the fact that the special day tickets sold out so quickly that access to the festival was limited for the first time. If you wanted to see Glen David Andrews or Mavis Staples you had to pay the same big-ticket price as Stones fans. Even worse, the cornucopia of music and stages all going at once were to be shut off for the first time ever, in order to make the Stones the only musicians playing from 4:30 to 7:00.
Over the years, the festival has had a charm for averting and overcoming disaster. Extreme weather had cancelled entire days and truncated others. The inundation of the Fair Grounds host site after Katrina postponed horse racing for a year, but did not stop the festival from resuming on schedule. In the end, an unsexy medical emergency caused the Stones to cancel their No Filter tour, and upended the Jazz Fest apple cart. For the first time, festival organizers came face-to-face with intractable decisions regarding single day refunds and a wholesale juggling of the lineup.
The lightning hit hard. Stones fans were naturally devastated and many just cancelled their trips to New Orleans. Refunds required Solomonic wisdom that could never satisfy everyone. Rumors of “Who will replace the Stones?” went viral when the simple truth became clear: no one could totally replace the band, not with the special ticket pricing. Most unhappily (and predictably), social media became inundated with the schadenfreude of people making gleeful remarks about the perils of growing old. The fact that Mick Jagger got ill at 75 and could not make the tour became cause for derision. Maybe rock ’n’ roll is just a young person’s game, but music isn’t, as so many greats of Louisiana music have proven right here at Jazz Fest.
What worries me, though, is that perhaps Jazz Fest has reached a tipping point; so many of its bedrock figures are gone, and so many more are unable to perform. Won’t it lose some collective link to its identity? I don’t have to make a list of who we’ve lost, but just consider who else has dropped out since this year’s lineup was announced: Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Seger. Those defections were noted, but taken in stride. It wasn’t until the Stones cancelled, that lightning struck.