I once more knew what it means to miss New Orleans when I read Jay Pareles' New York Times article Thursday about the 50th Jazz and Heritage Festival, which begins this weekend in the Crescent City.
While New Orleans is known for its dysfunctional local government, high murder rate and economic distress, the Jazz and Heritage Festival is an overwhelming success.
As Pareles reports, the festival each year raises $3 million for the nonprofit foundation that puts on the event, which covers two weekends. The foundation uses the money for a range of educational programs and support for local musicians.
Perhaps the Jazzfest owes its popularity to being a daytime event. Going against New Orleans' reputation as a city that never sleeps, the Jazzfest closes each day at 7 p.m., as Pareles reported. That puts the focus on the music, rather than high-tech light shows and such.
Purists have criticized the festival for booking big names like this year's Katy Perry, but out of 688 performers, 600 are New Orleans and south Louisiana acts with mainly local followings, according to Pareles.
This year, a heralded appearance by the Rolling Stones stirred excitement, but the venerable group had to drop out because of Mick Jagger's heart surgery. Then replacement Fleetwood Mac canceled because of some mysterious illness suffered by Stevie Nicks. Now, Widespread Panic will perform.
The event began in 1970 at Beauregard Square, later known as Congo Square, a slave market where jazz originated with the slaves' chanting and dances. Growing success after a few struggling years led to the event moving to the New Orleans Fairgrounds. Jesus, I also remember betting on horse races there as a young man. I attended several of the early festivals at the fairgrounds, but didn't go to another until years later, when the event resumed after Hurricane Katrina.
Along with the music, the festival offers a great selection of Cajun, Creole and other varieties of New Orleans food. Sometimes I think of going just to get another helping of jambalaya.
You can have the Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Widespread Panic. I'm homesick to see New Orleans performers Irma Thomas, the Meters, the Neville Brothers and so on. I'd especially love to see master pianist Ellis Marsalis perform April 28 with his sons Wynnton, Branford, Delfeayo and Jason. Now in his 80s, Ellis played a big part in the festival's early success.
Every year when the Jazzfest rolls around, I think of my late friend Loftin, who had a complete collection of Jazz Festival posters. Hard to imagine that this will be the fifth Jazzfest he'll miss.
This year's poster shows the family of performers who have appeared at Jazz Fest, including those no longer with us like Professor Longhair and Fats Domino.
Many believe New Orleans won't survive. Old and new generations of Jazzfest musicians say otherwise.