Various Artists, Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Smithsonian Folkways)

One of the beauties of the five-CD box set, Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, is that on the very first cut on disc one, The Golden Eagles open with the Black Indian prayer, “Indian Red,” magnificently led and improvised by Big Chief Monk Boudreaux. Starting a festival day with the Mardi Gras Indians is a ritual among many festival regulars as it sets a spiritual tone to carry one through the rest of the day.

Likewise, the final cut on disc five features the Neville Brothers closing out the Acura Stage in 2001 with Aaron’s stunningly trilled vocals on “Amazing Grace” leading into “One Love” that can be considered an “amen” to the Fest. As always, producer Quint Davis steps to the microphone to announce the end of Jazz Fest and introduces each of the iconic siblings while the crowd cheers. It’s a moment that so many folks have shared through the decades.

Between these significant cuts are some 50 selections, most of which were recorded live at the Fair Grounds and credited to community radio station WWOZ, the Michael Murphy Collection, or Munck Mix. Several gems, like Earl King’s “Trick Bag” and Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief,” were caught in 1974 at the now-defunct Warehouse at the Professor Longhair Fire Benefit. A nice touch in the mix is the addition of the voice of radio personality and record producer Larry McKinley, who was known as the “Voice of Jazz Fest,” welcoming folks to the festival—a recorded announcement that once greeted them at the Fair Ground gates.

Visually and informationally, the 135-page book fills out the musical tour. Impressively, not only are the years and stages that the performances took place given, but often the complete list of the band members. Also included are short bios and information on the songs on the discs.

Music journalist Keith Spera provides a very comprehensive history of Jazz Fest, some of which comes from his personal experience of covering the event for various publications during several decades. He knows of what he writes.

The historic photos, of course, take the reader through time and are both featured at the beginning of the book, or accompanying the musicians’ individual contributions.

There’s a smiling pianist/vocalist James Booker in 1978 with his young protégé Harry Connick Jr. who was ten years old when the prolific photographer Michael P. Smith captured the image. Smith, whose work is prominent in the beautifully conceived book, also snapped a classic of Quint Davis standing between the Chenier brothers, rubboard master Cleveland and his sibling, accordionist/vocalist/composer Clifton Chenier, the King of Zydeco. Veteran photographer, the late Jules Cahn, is responsible for the 1975 picture of the Hurricane Brass Band, while Sandra Russell Clark took a rather rare 1977 photograph of the Wild Tchoupitoulas.

The earliest recordings included in the collection come from the aforementioned Warehouse benefit as well as those credited to the NPR such as the Zion Harmonizers’ outrageously incredible 1976 performance of “I Want to Be at That Meeting/Golden Gate Gospel Train.” One can relive the dynamic power of leader Sherman Washington when he was feeling the spirit.

The House of Blues Stage, in the vicinity of where the Jazz & Heritage Stage now stands, was a rich source for the recordings of artists like vocalist Tommy Ridgley, who in 1998 got down on the tune “Double-Eyed Whammy.” “Hit me with one, Charlie,” he yells to trumpeter Charlie Miller, who immediately responds with an inspired solo.

Miller is back performing with Dr. John at the Acura Stage in 2007. The good doctor takes the listener through a medley of the elegant “Litanie des Saints” that eventually leads to his signature “Walk on Gilded Splinters,” all backed by his ace band.

To hear a duo performance of pianists and vocalists Champion Jack Dupree teamed with Allen Toussaint performing “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living/Rub a Little Boogie,” recorded live in 1990 from the Music Heritage Stage and preserved by the Jazz & Heritage Foundation, is a real wow.

It must have been quite a feat determining which artists to include in this 50th anniversary package. Of course, the obvious New Orleans legends like Irma Thomas, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, John Boutté, Snooks Eaglin and Raymond Myles are there. When questioning the choices, it’s important to consider that portable recording devices, especially those that could produce a quality product as heard on these CDs, were not available in the Fest’s early years. Still, one might ask where is Ernie K-Doe, the Emperor of the Universe, and why wasn’t a Danny Barker cut chosen that teamed him with his wife Blue Lu and featured his guitar and banjo prowess? It’s odd that trumpeter/vocalist Kermit Ruffins performs with his fine, yet short-lived, big band, rather than with his Barbecue Swingers or the Rebirth which he founded with brothers tuba man Phil Frazier and bass drummer Keith.

Perhaps they and other beloved acts and important performances will be found on a future edition of a Jazz Fest box set.