Seven days, two weekends, forty years. No matter how you measure it, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell is a musical and cultural rite of spring for hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. From its humble beginnings at Congo Square, to this the 40th anniversary, Jazz Fest always provides enough musical variety to satisfy even the most diverse musical appetites.
Yet, it's the variety of musical styles that has been perceived as both a blessing and a curse depending on the individual doing the perceiving. To the purist, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival long ago abandoned the "jazz" in its title and became more of a general music festa place to be seen, but one that is not a serious festival like Monterey or Newport. While to others, dependence on the tradition can sometimes make the festival seem stale or stodgy. Wherever you fall in the vast spectrum of musical opinion, a little objectivity provides festival goers a chance to experience what Jazz Fest really is abouta great time to experience music, food and culture influenced by southern Louisiana.
While the specific times for each act are yet to be published, it's not too early to plan on catching some of the big and not so big names performing at this year's event.
The obvious choices are here as Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra perform in New Orleans for the first time since April 2006 and for the first time ever at Jazz Fest. Terence Blanchard, Dave Matthews, Etta James, Wilco and James Taylor are a few of the other big names that will grace the stages during the first weekend, April 24th-26th, but some of the local, less widely known acts are worth a try. While no list is complete, following are some potential hidden highlights of the first weekend.
If traditional mainstream jazz is your thing, vocalists Stephanie Jordan, Leah Chase and Germaine Bazzle are perennial fest favorites, while drummer Herlin Riley, formerly of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, is definitely worth sampling. Fans of New Orleans funk should plan on Ivan Neville and Dumpstafunk, Papa Grows Funk and Walter "Wolfman" Washington. Brass bands are as much part of Jazz Fest weekend as food is and brass bands Rebirth, the Hot 8 and the Fairview Brass Band Reunion Tribute to Danny Barker should all be special sets. Other sets worth checking out include Trombone Shorty, Big Sam's Funky Nation and the Dew Drop Inn Reunion featuring Deacon John and Allen Toussaint.
The big names are here again as Aretha Franklin makes a rare festival appearance in week two. Add to that Tony Bennett, Buddy Guy, the Kings of Leon, Dr. John and Los Lobos and you already have a full plate for the weekend. But the local acts will not disappoint.
Kermit Ruffins and the Barbeque Swingers bring a uniquely New Orleans experience that you won't forget. For more brass band sounds, Dirty Dozen is a party waiting to happen, while Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Swingers bring the sounds of Cajun Country with a distinctly R&B flavor. Bonerama is a trombone funk festival. There are performers who live on the fringes and the intersection of musical styles and the results are at the very least, intriguing. The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, Bamboula 2000, and the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra all defy traditional categorization and are favorites among experienced fest folk. Other notables include clarinetists Dr. Michael White and Tim Laughlin, improvisational master and educator Kidd Jordan and violinist Michael Ward.
One more thing, the Mardi Gras Indian tradition is one you can't afford to miss over both weekends. Representing a tradition that goes back generations, theirs is a special brand of music and performance that is not easily described but is easily one of the most unique experiences you'll enjoy anywhere.
It's nearly impossible to highlight all that's good about Jazz Fest. You'll find yourself having to make some tough choices as great acts are always scheduled against each other throughout the days. Bottom line is this; it's hard to go wrong at a music and cultural festival as diverse as this. If you're predisposed to categories, toss them aside for these two special weekends and just go out to enjoy some good food, some good art and some great music.