A Prehistory of New Orleans Jazz Fest
Posted on May 6, 2012
Today marks the final day of the 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Officially this is the 43rd annual Jazz Fest in the Crescent City, but a close look at history shows that the inaugural festival in in 1970 in Congo Square (across North Rampart Street from the French Quarter) followed years of earlier efforts to stage such an event
The earliest jazz festivals in New Orleans grew out of the work of the New Orleans Jazz Club, founded in 1948 after its short-lived predecessor, the National Jazz Foundation, folded. The NOJC held a small jazz festival of sorts with several concerts in Congo Square in 1949 and 1950. After a promising start, a series of unfortunate events in the 1950s and 1960s (detailed in J. Mark Souther’s New Orleans on Parade) hampered the event’s success. The lack of a dedicated tourism bureau before 1960 and a general disregard of jazz as an essential component of the city’s tourist draw kept the festival out of the limelight.
In 1962 a small cohort of New Orleans tourism leaders began discussing how to make the jazz festival reach its potential. (This was one year after the official opening of Preservation Hall, which as described in American Tourism was in itself a key player in creating a space for tourists to encounter jazz on its own terms apart from “beer and burlesque.”) They secured George Wein, the nationally famous jazz promoter who had started the nation’s first full-scale annual jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island, to hold a major jazz festival in New Orleans in May 1965. Unfortunately, however, the first half of 1965 was a difficult time in New Orleans.
On January 10, 1965, twenty-one African American professional football players in town for the AFL All-Star Game faced repeated acts of racial discrimination in and near the French Quarter, leading to such an outcry that the American Football League relocated the big game to Houston, Texas. Just four days after the incident, the jazz festival promoters abruptly called off their campaign to host the festival, citing the need for more thorough planning. Surely the stakes were high and no one wanted to risk stepping off on the wrong foot after more than fifteen years of struggles to create a successful event. No one except Mayor Victor Schiro. In keeping with his defensive reaction following the incident of the twenty-one All-Stars, Schiro insisted the city would have its jazz fest, so Jefferson Parish D.A. Dean Andrews hastily put together a jazz festival that hardly resounded even with locals.
The same planners who had called off the 1965 event had more confidence by 1968, thanks to real improvements in compliance with the provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The New Orleans International Jazz Fest debuted in 1968, attracting about 20,000 people. Produced by Tommy Walker, known for his football halftime shows and Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, the 1968 festival and a repeat in 1969 achieved little success. Critics charged that local jazzmen got short shrift in the presence of imported talent.
The shortcomings of the 1968 and 1969 festivals did not diminish the resolve of the city’s growing community of jazz supporters. In 1970, George Wein returned five years after the football fiasco derailed his initial effort. This time, New Orleans had more racially inclusive leadership, including Mayor Moon Landrieu (whose support of the city’s public accommodations anti-discrimination ordinance the year before and appointment of African Americans to municipal offices signaled a new direction in New Orleans) and the newly formed, more racially inclusive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. Thus, some two decades after the fledgling NOJC festival, the official Jazz Fest fired up Congo Square, by now renamed Louis Armstrong Park, for two years before moving to the more capacious New Orleans Fairgrounds, where it sprawls across two long, hot weekends every April and May.