The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival just wrapped its 50th edition. If you've never attended, there's no way to effectively convey the feeling of entering the grounds and hearing the energy surging at you from multiple stages. It's a roots music and American culture life goal. Those memories get a stir on a new silver anniversary box set, out today from Smithsonian Folkways. It's a trove of unreleased recordings drawn from the years 1974 to 2016.
Recent years have seen JazzFest headlined by heritage rock stars; this month's cancellation by the Rolling Stones showed one peril of that strategy. But the box set appropriately dedicates its 53 tracks to the traditional strains of New Orleans music that make JazzFest exquisitely regional and unique. Those sounds include the Cajun pulse of the Savoy Family Band, the graceful R&B of Allan Toussaint, the mainstream jazz of Donald Harrison, Jr. and the hard core parade funk of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
As the 100-plus pages of carefully researched liner notes points out, there weren't many recordings from JazzFest stages from before 1990 to work with. Which makes exceptions such as Professor Longhair's "Big Chief" from 1974 such an exciting conjuring. Another track from the mid 70s lets us hear the great Irma Thomas singing Toussaint's "Ruler of My Heart." But even numbers like "Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups in 2010 sound beautifully unevolved from the 1960s.
Some of my own most powerful sense memories at JazzFest come from the Gospel Tent, where centuries of African American struggle and catharsis express as nuclear powered passion. In this box set, a variety of styles issue forth, from the all male Zion Harmonizers in 1976 to the mass choir surge of Raymond Myles and the Gospel Soul Children. These make for some of the most transporting listening.
Mainstream stars of the NOLA scene are here spanning generations: Dr. John and Marcia Ball, Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Trombone Shorty, Snooks Eaglin and Anders Osborne. There's Dixieland and straight electric blues and zydeco. New Orleans, as wonderfully trapped in amber as it is and should be, does innovate, and its hip-hop infused genre called bounce gets a shake from Big Freedia.
In a long and detailed liner note history of the festival, veteran New Orleans music journalist Keith Spera writes that JazzFest "both celebrates New Orleans culture and serves as a catalyst for its continued vitality. In the brilliant plumage of the Mardi Gras Indians, the matching suits and choreographed steps of the second-line parades, the potent kick of the brass bands, the flags and totems that flutter and bob above the crowd, even in the painted memorials honoring festival “Ancestors,” Jazz Fest feels alive, with a celebratory spirit and sense of community all its own."
If you've been, you know. If not, you've got it to look forward to. And here's the ideal motivational soundtrack for your travel planning. Does the set come with a crabmeat po-boy and an Abita beer? No, but play this collection outdoors, close your eyes, and you'll feel halfway there.