Every spring for nearly one third of the 20th century, New Orleans has celebrated the music and culture of this region. What started off as a small gathering in Congo Square, where the total of performing musicians outnumbered the audience, is now the premiere music event of America and, as a public party, is eclipsed only by Mardi Gras. This article represents my attempt to place Jazzfest in an overall historical context; in a summary fashion, to discuss the social history of Jazzfest; and finally to ask critical questions about the future of Jazzfest.
Like a number of other New Orleanians. I have a love/hate relationship with Jazzfest (as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is commonly known). Both as a past board member and executive director and as a music critic and activist in the Black community. I have been intimately involved with administering and/or challenging Jazzfest.
While it is easy to view Jazzfest is simply one big colorblind party — the truth is far more complex. more interesting and, in many ways, more symbolic of the confluences and conflicts beneath the epidermis of New Orleans, a city whose culture is a distinctive and intoxicating multi-ethnic gumbo flavored by a foundational African/Creole roux.
From Congo Square to Congo Square
The enjoyment of Black music has been a major tourist attraction going back to the late 1700s when visitors would venture outside the city gates on Sundays to be entertained by the exotic sights of enslaved Africans singing, dancing and selling food and crafts in the open-air marketplace known as “Place de Congo.” Basin Street was a waterway. Rampart Street was literally the wall of defense protecting the city — the French Quarter was the extent of New Orleans. And just like people today travel worldwide to attend the Jazzfest, back then travelers came from far and wide to marvel at and enjoy Black culture. Although Jazzfest itself is relatively young. the phenomenon of Black culture as tourist attraction is more than 200 years old.
Jim Crow or Jazz — People Had to Choose
Jazzfest almost didn’t happen. In the mid-60s when Mayor Vic Schiro first invited George Wein to stage a festival in New Orleans. Wein wanted to, but declined. Wein was a man of principle. At the time the city was segregated and Wein was (and still is) married to a Black woman. The producer would have been breaking the law to sleep with his wife in the Fairmont Hotel. Fortunately, the Civil Rights movement intervened and laws were changed and in 1970 the first Jazzfest was celebrated.
But it is far easier to change a law overnight than to change entrenched racial attitudes. The Big Easy proved receptive to change and within six or seven years, Jazzfest was a successful enterprise. However, some viewed the success as exploitation. Enter a bunch of so-called “Black militants” (including yours truly). We didn’t know (and to be truthful didn’t care) that the festival had been underwritten by loans and investments from Wein, architect Arthur Davis, Judge Gerald Fedoroff and a handful of other men of means who signed bank notes to nurture a cultural dream that subsequently metamorphosed into an economic behemoth. All we saw was that Black music was being used as a draw, while the Black community had very little input in shaping and sharing in the now-profitable Jazzfest.
First it was the restrictions of Jim Crow, then it was the demands of Black Power; for the second time in its short history, Jazzfest was confronted with racial conflict. Nothing in human society just happens. Decisions are made, alliances are created, people are included (or excluded), and not infrequently conflict is brought to bear to bring about change. We threatened a militant boycott — I remember a meeting at St. Bernard Community Center where Miller Beer (the chief corporate sponsor at the time) was poured into a bucket and the empty can scrunched beneath angry heels to demonstrate what would happen if the Jazzfest was not responsive to community concerns.
A number of board members were outraged by the “threats,” but Wein prevailed in counseling that it would be more savvy politically—as well as morally the right thing to do—to include more Blacks on the board and in the inner workings of the Jazzfest rather than to continue the dynamic of nearly all Black performers and nearly all White staff and directors.
At the time, the only Black senior staff person was Doratha “Dodie” Smith-Simmons who was married to English musician John Simmons and, more importantly, was a veteran of the Civil Rights movement. The involvement of people who personally and professionally believed in racial equality is a key reason that Jazzfest has been successful. The tensions between the two communities were and are real. To defuse those tensions and build on the potentials for cooperation require the leadership of people who are truly committed to what is euphemistically called “multi-culturalism” or “integration.” But what it really is is the confronting of the segregationist core of the American status quo.
Segregation, we must understand, is not simply the manifestation of a racist attitude. For more than 300 years segregation was the law of the American body politic. Racial segregation (i.e. Blacks were counted as 3/5 of a man) was enshrined in the same constitution that proclaimed all men were created equal — and of course, sexism is also at the core of America; hence it was not until 1920 that women received the right to vote. Out of eight past board presidents, three have been women: Marion Greenup, Sarah Allen and Roxy Wright. A 40 percent record of female leadership easily outstrips most multi-million dollar companies in New Orleans.
While we can be smugly cavalier and morally self-righteous as we look back, the truth is, at the time when issues such as “Black participation” and “women in leadership positions” were raised, it took people of vision and forward thinking to stand firm and throw open the doors to broader gender and ethnic participation. Moreover, the truth is, legally they didn’t have to do anything because they were privately funded.
Better Living Through Culture
While no one contends Jazzfest is perfect, the truth is that New Orleans is a much, much better city as a result of Jazzfest. Through its parent organization. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, Inc. profits from Jazzfest are reinvested in the community via grants and special events.
Hundreds of neighborhood-based programs and artists have been funded. The world’s greatest community radio station, WWOZ, is owned and sponsored by the Foundation. The board has come up with its own plan to address questions of racial equity — ranging from the Mississippi plan of alternating Black and White board presidents, to affirmative action programs, incentives, and directives supporting ethnic involvement in contracting and vendor operations.
One unique manifestation that was initially fraught with conflict is the now-popular Congo Square area of Jazzfest. Congo Square was a negotiated outcome of the Black community’s confrontation with Jazzfest. When first instituted. the area was known as Koindu and was administered by a coalition of Black community vendors, artists and activists. That coalition eventually splintered. and the Jazzfest staff took over direct operations, but the concept of an area that specifically focused on African retention and African cultural contributions remained a valid and vibrant part of the Jazzfest. Koindu/Congo Square has become a model for the presentation of African/Black culture within a multi-cultural and/or mainstream setting.
Jazzfest exemplifies Blacks and Whites, women and men working together to produce a superior cultural event. Some dissidents argue that in its success the Jazzfest has become insular, that the Blacks on the board have merged with the Whites to become a self-contained and self-perpetuating entity. Certainly, a relatively recent change in the private board’s bylaws that essentially created life-time terms for directors supports that contention. However, having been both a board member and a staff person at Jazzfest, as well as within numerous other community groups, I understand the human tendency toward self-aggrandizement and conservatism. If survival is the first law of nature, a close second is holding on to what you got. I am more concerned about another trend that is often widely lauded in economic terms but not closely examined in social terms.
Entertaining The Ticket Buyer
As one set of problems are addressed another set of problems pop up. Back in the late 1700s when Congo Square first started, there was always the question of audience — a predominately White audience of outsiders who viewed Black cultural rituals mainly—if not solely—as entertainment. For the last 20 years, Jazzfest has wrestled with the question of how to attract more Black ticket buyers in order to address the concern that the audience for Jazzfest is so overwhelmingly White. The answer seems to be: the Essence Music Festival. Say what? Say a subset of the same staff that produces the Jazzfest produces the Essence Music Festival (“The party with a purpose!”). Whether the average Jazzfest-goer realizes it or not, the fact is that music headliners are chosen because of their appeal to specific market segments. Jazzfest has become very sophisticated at appealing to people with money. New Orleans continues to be a city that is overwhelmingly Black and poor.
Thus, even though the festival is held in downtown concert halls/Convention Center venues and at the centrally-located Fair Grounds, Black people stay away in droves. The push of White ticket buyers and the pull of attracting Black audiences has not been missed by the sophisticated planners at Jazzfest.
George Wein’s Festival Productions Inc. (FPI) has been the major player in terms of jazz music production in America. Beginning at Newport, and including the unparalleled New Orleans Jazzfest, impresario Wein has put together a global music production company that is not only economically successful but is also sensitive to social trends and concerns. FPI formed a partnership with Essence magazine to put together a Black music festival in New Orleans. The success of Essence paradoxically marks the de facto failure of Jazzfest to attract a major Black audience.
But it’s not simply a “Black thing.” Essence is much more of a class-oriented event than simply a mass Black music festival. The Black folk who fly into New Orleans and spend their July 4th vacation in the Crescent City represent America’s Black middle class. These are people with discretionary income. Regardless that there are over a quarter-million Black people in New Orleans, most of us are poor. If Essence was held in Atlanta, most of us could not afford to fly over and spend upwards of $2,000 apiece to party for a weekend. It’s a class thing, and not just a racial thing.
As far as Black popular music goes (and arguably even in terms of straight-ahead and contemporary jazz), Jazzfest doesn’t hold a candle to Essence, even though Essence is relatively speaking a newcomer, and even though both festivals are produced by the same people. To put it another way, how come Lauryn Hill is at Essence and not at Jazzfest? Herein lies a paradox. In a sense, FPI is resigning itself to putting on a festival to attract Whites (Jazzfest) and a festival to attract Blacks (Essence). Is this what 30 years of Jazzfest has led to?
Another major concern is the negative influence that results when the majority audience for a music is people who are not of the culture that produces the music. Eventually what starts off as a sincere cultural expression gets transformed into second-class entertainment for an audience that can not tell the difference (nor cares that there is a difference) between singing from the heart and hollering for dollars. Furthermore, there is another level of complexity to this audience-affecting-quality phenomenon.
While I know that many of the artists voluntarily choose to put on a show as a means of bolstering their commercial appeal, I nevertheless remain opposed to using commercial appeal to determine cultural value. One of the major raisons d’etre of Jazzfest has been the preservation and exposure of indigenously produced music — the resurrection of Professor Longhair epitomizes this rationale — but the jury is still out as far as I’m concerned. In the long run, the art forms may have been saved from extinction only to be exploited as entertainment. I don’t find that an attractive trade-off.
What About The Working Class?
My focus remains: what is best for our people? What is best for the poor Blacks who are the true creators and sustainers of New Orleans’ world famous culture? As 30 years of Jazzfest makes clear, every solution also contains problems. There are no easy answers. I think there is a need for permanent change, a need for constant examination and critical inquiry.
Always there is a need for new blood, for diversification. With Master P and “Bounce” (New Orleans’ unique variant of rap) now assaulting the top of the Billboard charts, Black music in New Orleans is undergoing a major shift in emphasis and style. Between No Limit and Cash Money Records (whose current hot seller, Juvenile, is in heavy rotation on MTV), the world now looks to New Orleans for more than traditional jazz and quirky R&B.
There are radio stations in New Orleans who crow, like a rooster at dawn, that they don’t play rap. After some tentative experiments with local rap, both Jazzfest and Essence have studiously avoided rap. EssentialIy, both Jazzfest and Essence have consciously appealed to their respective ticket-buying public, which have traditionally been not only uninterested in rap but sometimes even contemptuous of rap.
As Essence’s eschewance of hardcore rap makes clear, this phenomenon is not simply a racial thing. Several years ago, Jazzfest gambled on attracting a youth audience by putting Phish on the line-up. The result was a specific economic success that was too costly (in terms of alienating the larger audience) to continue — the price of attracting a youth audience was the “presence” of a youth audience. Just like Black folk avoid Country & Western, middle-aged Whites (who make up the bulk of the Jazzfest ticket-buying public) are deeply offended by the music and lifestyle of hardcore alternative rock.
The “no-rap” policy is not really about the music itself. No, the avoidance really means “we don’t want to attract hoards of hardcore rap fans — people who are characterized as young, rowdy, loud and uncouth (moreover, you do know that the majority record-buying audience for rap music is composed of young White males?). Besides, if the Jazzfest really wanted Black audiences, they know how to attract them.
The other unsaid issue is that thirty or forty thousand poor Black people packed in with a Saturday or Sunday afternoon crowd of ninety thousand would create anxiety for, and probably emotionally upset, far too many of both the Black and White, middle-class ticket buyers.
Again we are dealing with a phenomenon that reoccurs like Haley’s Comet. Black music always creates itself outside the margins of polite society, always bubbles out of the sweat of the toiling working class and “underclass” — the same group of people with whom money folk of whatever ethnic persuasion generally prefer not to share social space. Indeed, just as jazz in the twenties and rock and roll in the fifties, rap is denigrated as both immoral and unmusical.
Black musical creativity is pushed forward by the most alienated segment of the American society. Innovative popular Black music is always initially perceived as an assault on the mores and manners of the status quo — and indeed that perception is also a major part of its attraction to young Whites in rebellion against the strictures of their parents and the cultural vapidness of the mainstream.
As the audience for rap both broadens and gets older, that audience will increasingly become a major, if not the majority, segment of the ticket-buying, popular music audience. What will Jazzfest and Essence do then? Regardless of how we do or don’t approach the issue, the dynamics of race and culture in America is not going to disappear and, sooner or later, must be directly addressed. Additionally, the race, class and gender composition of board members and senior staff members will continue to be an issue.
Beware Of Big Bucks
While we may appear to be escaping the 20th century Scott-free, the future portends some major concerns; especially, how to avoid being swallowed up by megabuck commercial interests who, if they get control of Jazzfest, will turn it into an unrecognizable hullabaloo.
I am not engaging in idle speculation. The board has historically voted against one company having sole sponsorship, but the offers continue to come, each one seemingly more enticing than the last. Recently that paragon of cultural integrity, Computer Associates, made a bid to outright buy Jazzfest — and though the deal was not consummated, there were more than a handful of people who thought that the merger would have been a good idea. Indeed, the biggest threat to Jazzfest might not be internal racial or class conflict, instead, the rain that ruins the parade might be co-option by big money interests.
You don’t need a crystal ball to see that there are some major changes on the horizon — what and how remains to be seen. Jazzfest thrived during its first 30 years of existence because of dedication and vision on the part of the organizers. They were principled in carrying out their mission and inclusive in addressing the major social issues of the 20th century.
All of us face a world that is both more complex and at the same time dominated by multinational, mega-corporations who are buying up everything in sight. The takeover attempts of big business to control and commercialize cultural expression will be one of the major battle lines of the immediate future. But is bigger better? It is precisely our regional and neighborhood flavor that makes the music and food so distinctive at Jazzfest. Culture or commercialism, which will win? The 21st century is going to be one hell of a show. Stay tuned for the future.