A couple dances at the 50th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Photo by Willow Haley

Jazz Fest 2019: Sights, Sounds & Recaps

The 50th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell kicked off on Thursday, April 25, 2019. Though severe weather caused a 90-minute delay, fans of Jazz Fest weren’t deterred, and Day 1 brought out thousands of devoted festival goers, diverse musical performers, and beloved food vendors.

Here, we’ll update you with photos and recaps of #JazzFest50. Check back for daily additions!

Day 1:

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 1

Let’s hear it for Quint Davis and his merry band of Fessters. After enduring the chaos of the cancellation of headliners The Rolling Stones, then substitutes Fleetwood Mac; wrestling with refunds of old tickets and selling new ones; then juggling the whole festival schedule, heavy rains threatened opening day. Thousands of fans milled around in hotel lobbies checking their phones to find out when the gates would open, but even as the rain continued to beat down the staff started letting people in at 12:30.
Though the first grouping of acts lost their spots, the show went on and the fans frolicked in the swamp. Here are some of my favorite moments from opening Thursday:

— Cynthia Girley’s tribute to Mahalia Jackson at the Gospel Tent. While the heavens poured a howling fury on the shaking tent Girley, dressed all in white with a white headdress, called down the celestial spirits with her powerful voice and dramatic piano playing, backed by a terrific band which included a violinist!

— Lulu and the Broadsides at the Lagniappe stage. Though the band appeared to have been caught in the deluge, drummer Carlo Nuccio was spotless in an off white jacket and fedora. That’s one of the reasons I call him “Mister Natural.” The band was spectacular backing vocalist Dayna “Lulu” Kurtz on a program of blues, ballads and R&B scorchers including her incendiary “Ice Cream Man” and a fabulous reading of Dan Penn’s “Do Right Woman.” Robert Mache on guitar and backing vocals turned in a truly inspired performance, James Singleton got a lot of room for bass solos and Glen Hartman added perfect accompaniment on piano and organ.

— Boyfriend at the Gentilly stage. Gentilly was a great all-woman program with Gal Holiday, the soulful Amy Helm, a rousing set from Darcy Malone (with a guest appearance from Boyfriend) and the Boyfriend stage show, an act which Alanis Morisette probably found hard to follow.

— Taj Mahal at the Blues Tent. My day was made when the indefatigable Taj plowed into “Gonna Move the the Country and Paint My Mailbox Blue,” which I did. The Phantom Blues Band, led by Jon Cleary on keyboards, delivered that mail and some other great packages, like Horace Silver’s “Senor Blues” and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters’ original version of “The Twist.”

– John Swenson

Most surprising cover of the first weekend had to come from Jason Marsalis, who’s moved back to drums after a few years concentrating on vibes. During a set of mostly original new material, he unveiled a cover of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds track “You Still Believe in Me”– without doubt the first time one of Brian Wilson’s most sublime melodies has been reimagined as reggae.

– Brett Milano

Day 2:

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 2

At the Congo Square stage, GRAMMY-winning PJ Morton delighted an early afternoon crowd with renditions of his solo material and covers. “I’ve never played Jazz Fest this early,” he said before launching into “Sticking to My Guns,” off his 2017 album Gumbo. He took longtime fans back a few years with “New Orleans Girl,” which appeared on 2016’s Bounce & Soul, vol. 1. The original version features Trombone Shorty, who wasn’t with PJ for this set. It didn’t matter. Morton’s band made up for the lack of horns, and then some.

For “Claustrophobic,” New Orleans rapper Pell showed up to deliver his guest verse. His mic wasn’t functioning properly at the onset, but the adoring crowd took up the slack, rapping along. Morton really hit his stride when delivering a cover of his musical icon, Stevie Wonder. When “Higher Ground” started, all the folks who had been sitting got up and began dancing. It was clear Morton earned himself fans out of the people who had previously been unaware of his talent.

By the time the song was done, Mayor LaToya Cantrell was grooving along. Morton eventually ran through more of his own material, including “First Began,” “Go Through Your Phone,” and his GRAMMY-winning take of the BeeGees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.”

– Amanda Mester

Carlos Santana found himself one of the greatest drummers currently working in jazz/rock, so he did the only respectable thing and married her. The addition of collaborator and wife Cindy Blackman has really galvanized Santana’s band: She drove them harder than any previous Santana drummer (and this band’s had too many drummers to count), making chestnuts like “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen” and “Toussaint L’Ouverture” sound positively furious. Carlos easily matched her energy, doing plenty of his trademark high-intensity solos but also playing lyrically on “Mona Lisa” (part of a new, Rick Rubin-produced album). It’s a cliché to say that a long-running band sounds better than ever at Fest, this was one of the rare times it really was true.

If you’re a Meters junkie, there are very few variations you haven’t seen by now. But the set by Foundations of Funk– which was half the original Meters and three-fifths of Dumpstaphunk, plus horns– managed to dig up songs that no Meters incarnation has played (to our knowledge) in decades, including the ballad “Love Is for Me” and the buried single “Stretch Your Rubber Band” (plus the infrequently played “Chicken Strut,” usually overlooked because few members are ever willing to make the requisite chicken noises). The horns also meant that “Hey Pocky Way” could finally be played like the original studio version, and still sounded as fresh.

– Brett Milano

Day 3:

It was a beautiful Saturday at the Fair Grounds for Day 3 of Jazz Fest. Headlining pop star Katy Perry impressed dubious festers with her show, which featured special appearances from The Soul Rebels and a local gospel choir. Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Curren$y, Pine Leaf Boys, Midnite Disturbers, Lil Nathan & The Zydeco Big Timers, Lauren Daigle, Javier Olondo, Erica Falls and Ivory Coast’s Dobet Gnahore were just a few of the day’s spectacular performers. Click below for photos!

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 3

The idyllic setting of Jazz Fest on a perfect-weather Saturday afternoon set the stage for one of the most dramatic moments of this year’s renewal. Songwriter/storyteller Spencer Bohren has been battling an aggressive form of cancer and will be taking a hiatus from performing after these shows. The day before he had played a stunning solo set in the AARP tent accompanying himself on guitar and lap steel. Saturday he opened the Gentilly stage with his band the Whippersnappers, which includes his son Andre on drums and local heroes Ales McMurray on guitar and Aurora Nealand on clarinet and saxophone. Bohren needed assistance to walk, but when the music started he grew wings, and his beatific smile blessed the crowd as he held them spellbound with a mixture of on-the-road tales, homespun observations, homilies on morality and politics, stories of old Rampart Street and the heartfelt finale, “Making It Home to You.”

Less than an hour later Bohren returned to the stage as part of the Paul Sanchez Rolling Road Show for a reunion of the fantastic Write Brothers – Bohren, Sanchez, McMurray and Jim McCormick – to swap verses on an emotionally wrenching version of their classic “We’ll Be Together Again.” I cried as I recalled singing that song with them at the Alison Miner stage during our interview a few years back. Spencer just kept smiling, glowing in the moment. “You’re so beautiful out there” he told the audience in what was something far removed from stage patter.

Sanchez, who has also recently suffered a disabling injury (Nealand and McMurray are also playing injured), used the 14-piece Rolling Road Show format to spread the work around, featuring Michael Doucet, Debbie Davis and Sonia Tetlow in solo spots, but he was in top form running the show and taking the spotlight on “My Life Is On Fire,” “Live Like Laura” and “Love Is Blind.”

– John Swenson

Credit Kevin Griffin of Better Than Ezra for one of the most irreverent and funniest gestures of the first weekend. He pointed out a few times that he’d love to use the catwalk that was added to the Acura stage, but that Katy Perry (who was up two sets later) had forbidden it. Finally he said he didn’t need the catwalk anyway, so he jumped off the side of the stage and went halfway into the packed Acura crowd– at which point guest pianist John Gros struck up Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” which they proceeded to cover. It became a perfect sendup of larger-than-life arena shows.

Spencer Bohren played an inspired set on Saturday morning, full of elegant playing and generosity of spirit. Acoustic blues is always his forte, but threw in some stirring gospel (“doing church a day early,” he noted) he ended the set with a strong rock ballad, “Making it Home to You” (his latest CD’s title track). His stage chat included a few references to the cancer he’s been fighting, but it was the positivity and musicality that came through. (Bohren also appeared later that morning in a reunion of loose-knit supergroup the Write Brothers, one of the highlights in Paul Sanchez’s Rolling Road Show set).

– Brett Milano

Day 4:

Weekend 1 of #JazzFest50 wrapped up on Sunday, April 28, with performances from Van Morrison, The O’Jays, Al Green, the Marsalis family and tons more.

Jazz Fest 2019, Day 4

It took Bonnie Raitt one glance to size up her crowd as she stood front and center of the Acura Stage. In front of her had cropped up the beloved festival forest, a canopy of primary-colored umbrellas casting shade over lawn chairs and slouching tank tops.

“You look beautiful and hot and greasy! Just like I like it,” Raitt said. With that, she encapsulated the first sunny Sunday of Jazz Fest 2019.

Jazz Fest staff introduced Raitt as the “blues queen of Jazz Fest,” a quintessential edition to the 50th anniversary lineup. Indeed, she embodied the romance of the festival. Her performance shined with infinite youth and a dash of gray in her fire red hair; both playful, yet calm and wizened. Isn’t that, at least in part, what Jazz Fest is all about? The ability for anyone, no matter their age, to throw on a floppy hat and maybe a pair of chaco sandals, and be playful? And to keep doing so for decades?

Raitt’s crowd far outsized that of younger act The Bleachers, a testament to the quality of her music and career, but that didn’t keep the New Jersey band from bringing sold-out-stadium-sized enthusiasm to its set at the Gentilly Stage. Lead singer Jack Antonoff dramatically slid to his knees for a low tempo moment, and guitarist Mikey Hart climbed the bass drum of one of the two the drum sets more than once (way more than once).

According to Antoff’s introduction, Hart is a New Orleans native and is fittingly full of tricks. He adeptly handled both the guitar and the bass and played the guitar behind his head while standing atop a bass drum with Antoff hugging his waist. It looked as complicated as it sounds.

After a crowd pleasing performance with highlights like “I Wanna Get Better,” “Rollercoaster,” and a few skillful tenor saxophone solos, The Bleachers ended their performance with a security escort off stage, not for themselves, but for an eager few teenage girls who broke onto stage and hugged Antoff.

On the other side of the Fair Grounds, New Orleans musical dynasty the Marsalis family geared up for one of the most anticipated and intimate events of day, a tribute to their father, jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. The WWOZ Jazz Tent was packed to the brim, crowded enough for people to bicker over prime viewing spots. Everyone wanted to see Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason Marsalis, trumpeter, saxophonist, trombonist and drummer respectively, play in with their father in this rare family reunion.

Watching them play felt like sitting at the Marsalis family dinner table as they lovingly ribbed each other about their day. Instead of fighting for attention like most kids do, they each worked to make the other heard, playing to make each one sound best in his solo. Ellis, at his piano bench with his children standing in front of him, obviously sat a the head of the table. They played some of Ellis’s famous compositions, including “Crescent City Strut” and “Duke in Blue.”

The Congo Square Stage closed out with a different type of brass band, the musical stylings of Al Green. The crowd pushed back to the boundary line of the Congo Square African Market Place denoted by a long line of large wooden paintings of figures like Larry McKinley and a Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs. A couple slow danced between the staggered art as Al Green luxuriated in his music, drawing out his songs. His brass band has a heavier, but no less soothing, sound that that of the classically oriented Marsalis family. It’s a funk that runs up your spine and gives you the good kind of shivers, the kind that leaves you swinging your hips and bopping your head.

On stage, a man dressed in all white did nothing but dance his heart out next to Green. While his presence was inexplicable, it was appreciated. Everyone could feel the energy he was feeling.

A few highlights that pulled in the ears of passersby, Canadian DJ collective A Tribe Called Red with their almost spooky electronic, and the New Breed Brass Band that held their own with people fresh off the sounds Al Green and the Marsallis family.

– Emily Carmichael

One of the beauties of Jazz Fest is its malleablility. There are literally thousands of ways you can approach a day at the festival, from the Gentilly land rush of staking out your claim to a piece of ground you hold tenaciously through the day to taking in the ever-nurturing stream of conversation and music that takes place at the Alison Miner stage. I used to subscribe to the smorgasbord approach, walking constantly from stage to stage to take in as much information about as many different acts as possible. Now I’ve relaxed and I tend to pick my spots, let circumstance guide me, and enjoy interaction with friends as much as the music. The first weekend I spent quality time talking with Mark Stone and Tom McDermott about Doctor John; chatting with Michael Cerveris and Kimberly Kaye about the New Orleans production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and the roster depth of Paul Sanchez’s Rolling Road Show; and marveling with Rueben Williams and David Kunian about the magnificent Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who seems to have discovered the Fountain of Youth.

Monk’s gathering of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians Sunday at the Jazz and Heritage stage was a joyous affair, packed with people dancing to favorites like “Dance With Me” and singing along to “Indian Red” and “Little Liza Jane.” Resplendent in his sky blue Mardi Gras/wedding suit dappled with bright red gems, Monk demonstrated his mastery of the Mardi Gras Indian idiom with a version of “Shallow Water” that started out as a medium tempo chant, then went into a double time section with Monk rapping a story about heading out to mock battle on a Mardi Gras morning. Grandson J’Wan Boudreaux, Spy Boy of the Golden Eagles and leader of the Grammy nominated Cha Wha band, took a turn singing Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.” Tom Worrell turned in outstanding musical support of the Indians on keyboards.

There is music you pretty much only get to hear at Jazz Fest and private events, so if you couldn’t decipher the secret code of Zeke Fishhead and Los Reyes de Legartos you wouldn’t know it was Ed Volker of Radiators fame backed by the magnificent Iguanas. The announcer at the Lagniappe stage has mangled the name every time he’s introduced them, so this time Zeke got the drop on him by launching into “Where Were You When the Light Went Out?” before he could announce them. Much of the material is taken from the numerous Zeke Fishhead projects released over the last few years. “Go Down Swinging” featured a muscular tenor saxophone exchange between Joe Cabral and guest Rob Wagner, whose disparate styles complemented each other well, and some powerful percussion breaks from Michael Skinkus, who seemed to be compensating for losing his Fest-opening performance with his band Moyuba to the deluge of rain that postponed Friday’s opener.

I thought we’d hear many Rolling Stones covers at this year’s Fest (there’s still plenty of time for that), but as far as I know only Sweet Crude checked in with “Paint It Black” before Zeke Fishhead sent one out of the paddock with a crippling version of “Jumping Jack Flash,” hypnotic and incessantly wobbling like a Junko Partner, highlighted by a Cabral solo that clocked in somewhere between Bobby Keys and Pharoh Sanders and ending with a “Jump Back Baby” coda. “Coup de Gras” was an appropriate finale to this masterful set.

– John Swenson

Based on my unscientific survey, most festgoers had Johnny Rivers as a distant third choice for Sunday’s headline set, behind Al Green and Van Morrison (both of which were packed; Rivers had plenty of open seats in the blues tent). But let’s hear it for dark horses: The reports I heard all say that Van and Green walked through their sets, while Rivers and his group revved it up like a first-class roadhouse band, packing a good dozen hits into his hour-long set.”Secret Agent Man” is the one everybody remembers, but the beautifully wistful, end-of-the’60s ballad “Summer Rain” was the real standout.

– Brett Milano