NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Gigaboo Modelist played the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970 with their groundbreaking funk band The Meters. After more than 50 years, the Meters are no more, but the Porter and the Modelist are still among the mainstays of the festival.
So is singer Irma Thomas, the famed “Soul Queen of New Orleans,” who first played the festival in 1974; and guitarist and vocalist Deacon John Moore has also been a regular since the 1970s.
“Basically it was all local bands,” Porter said in a recent interview, reminiscing about the days when he would close a Jazz Fest stage with The Meters and play the final gig with piano legend Professor Longhair. Will run to the second stage with the modelist for the set. “Local and regional bands — meaning Baton Rouge, Lafayette — those acts were always the headliners,” he said.
Lots of nationally and internationally known acts populate the roster for the 2023 festival, including current megastars like Lizzo and Ed Sheeran and long-established crowd-pleasing artists like Santana and the Steve Miller Band.
Still, longtime Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis would argue that home-based acts remain the de facto headliners.
The Jazz Fest begins over seven days that span two long weekends. When it ends Sunday night, there will be about 580 plays on more than a dozen stages. Davis estimates that about 500 of them are from New Orleans or southwest Louisiana. “The festival is based on this,” he said.
Thus, on one of the biggest stages of the festival last Friday, there were two New Orleans acts before Lizzo, Big Freedia, then Tank and the Bangus. Louisiana native bands Sweet Crud and The Revivalists were on the same stage before Sheeran’s performance on Saturday. Another veteran of The Meters, guitarist Leo Nucentelli, performed on Sunday.
Thomas takes the big stage this Friday evening before Jon Batiste (a New Orleans-area native) closes. Porter and his band Runnin’ Pardoners play that stage on Saturday, followed by Anders Osborne, then the Preservation Hall Jazz Band – all New Orleans acts – before John Mayer takes the stage with Dead & Co.
Once a small affair attracting only about 350 people in Louis Armstrong Park near the French Quarter, the festival has now spread to the vast area of the historic Fair Grounds horse racing track.
Moore, who turns 82 in June, doesn’t mind the influx of big-name pop acts with no ties to Louisiana.
“We have to bring in more bands like this to attract young people to come to the festival,” he said. “They will be exposed to indigenous culture and older musicians and other styles of music that the festival promotes, such as zydeco, Cajun, R&B, folk, jazz, traditional jazz, avant-garde jazz – the whole thing.”
Celebration veterans such as Porter, 75; Thomas, 82, and Moore are contemporaries of late greats like Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Dr. John, Allan Toussaint and others – royalty among New Orleans artists. They kept the city’s musical heritage alive in the mid and late 20th century with contemporary music evolving from their time, as did jazz pioneers Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and others in the early 1900s.
When Jazz Fest began more than 50 years ago, it provided an essential exposure for local musicians, some of whom had not seen financial gains commensurate with their early recording success. Thomas, who began recording as a teenager, had national or regional hits including “Wish Someone Will Care,” “It’s Raining,” and “Ruler of My Heart” when he first recorded in 1974. Jazz Fest took the stage. was a homecoming of sorts for Thomas, who lived in California at the time. And the gig was needed. He supplemented his income by working occasionally in a department store.
“I worked at Montgomery Ward because my career wasn’t going that well,” Thomas recalled.
If, now, there’s one lament among festival veterans, it’s that the cost of the festival—$95 per person per day, not including food and drink—has put it out of reach for some in the city.
Davis points to other festivals with higher prices and says the nonprofit that owns Jazz Fest distributes 8,000 free tickets per year. In addition, there is a “Local Day” on the Thursday that opens the second weekend, when tickets are $50 for Louisiana residents.
And he speaks with pride about the festival’s distinctly Louisiana flavor—from the wide variety of foods at the booths on the fairgrounds to the acts with a strong Louisiana-based reputation. “Our talent is really known nationally and internationally,” he said.
Among his examples, Davis noted the touring success of trombone Shorty, who first appeared at Jazz Fest as a child and now traditionally celebrates the festival with its dynamic, brassy mix of New Orleans funk, rhythm and blues and rock. -Shuts off with heavy mixing.
Porter, despite expressing some concerns about ticket prices and what he sees as a somewhat diminished role for local black artists compared to early years, has high praise for the festival’s allegiance to local culture. .
“I think the music, the culture, the artistry they put together – from the food to the performers on stage – I think the New Orleans Jazz Festival does better than anyone.”
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