Jazz Fest Canceled; New Orleans Reacts

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This year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has been canceled. It was scheduled to take place in October.

(Photo: Courtesy New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival)

New Orleans musicians reacted with distress and disbelief — along with some relief — to the latest COVID cancellation of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the city’s marquee musical event.

Despite the promise of the early summer, when COVID seemed to be subsiding and live music started to re-emerge in New Orleans, it didn’t take a weatherman to know which way the wind was blowing in the birthplace of jazz. Once the Delta variant started relentlessly surging in Louisiana — where just 37% of residents are currently vaccinated and deaths are up 193%, according to the New York Times — the die had been cast.

Still, many held out hope that the rescheduled October dates for the COVID-canceled 2020 and 2021 Jazz Fests, normally held in late spring, would actually take place. And when the festival announced on July 22 that it had booked the Rolling Stones for a one-off, mid-week Jazz Fest show, it seemed a sure sign organizers thought they could pull it off, with the proper safety protocols.

That dream died at the 11th hour on Sunday, Aug. 8, precisely two months before the first day of Jazz Fest, when touring acts normally receive half of their contracted fees. Whether that actually precipitated the announcement is impossible to know. But, regardless of the timing, it sent shockwaves throughout a vast extended network of people who rely on Jazz Fest for the lion’s share of their annual income, from hundreds of musicians and culture bearers to the squadrons of fine artists and food booth operators, to the vast team of stage builders and support workers who create Jazz Fest’s vast acreage of delights. “Lots of molecules in this atom,” as longtime Jazz Fest artist Jimmy Descant put it.

But the musicians themselves are the nucleus of that atom and lose far more than a Jazz Fest paycheck. Most invest in recording new releases for fest season and book dozens of auxiliary gigs, many of them in indoor venues that started cancelling gigs even before the festival’s cancellation.

When reaching out to musicians scheduled to play at the canceled October Jazz Fest, the response was overwhelming. The comments that follow have been edited for style and space, but are quite nuanced and not at all monolithic. They also reflect the can-do spirit of hope in a community that has been repeatedly devastated by hurricanes as well as the pandemic, and often fights an uphill battle to get the support it deserves from the city.

Rickie Lee Jones, singer-songwriter
“It’s devastating for the community of New Orleans, which depends on Jazz Fest for joy and celebration and for the money it generates. And it’s devastating to the musicians, many of whom depend on touring to survive. I know we were expecting it, but we were hoping that they might simply require vaccinations. My opinion is we can’t afford to shut down our economy any longer. It’s costing people more than money — people are losing hope as well as jobs. And for the many millions of us who care about our lives and our neighbors for us to lose our livelihoods because of the people who won’t be vaccinated is becoming intolerable.”

Adonis Rose, Artistic Director, New Orleans Jazz Orchestra
“While it is very unfortunate that the Jazz and Heritage Festival will be canceled in October, I fully support the decision for the health of our community. Musicians have been severely impacted artistically and financially by the pandemic, but we are optimistic that things will get better soon. And we are personally excited about the release of our new album, Petite Fleur, in September.”

Dayna Kurtz, singer-songwriter, leader of Lulu and the Broadsides
“I forced myself to have no expectations about October, though back in June I was cautiously optimistic. But now I’m not sure if I should keep the club dates we booked to coincide. I was feeling weird about them to begin with. Jazz Fest is at least outside. A crowded bar during a surge? My band are not young men. My following ain’t young, either. It feels irresponsible.”

Lynn Drury, singer-songwriter
“It’s a big letdown since I’ll have a new album to share, but nothing has ever kept New Orleans music down. We shall rise!”

Lena Prima, jazz singer
“No one in power is standing up for a vaccine mandate for the entertainment and hospitality community that is the lifeblood of our community. I’m at work after 15 months of not working, wearing a face shield while singing because only a few people have masks on with an indoor mask mandate. It’s out of control. When will someone in power do something?”

Marc Stone, blues guitarist and band leader
“This is devastating. Like a lot of artists, I was pushing hard to complete my new album in time for a Jazz Fest release, and a lot of my reserves went into finishing the album. I think the amount of money and effort musicians expend on getting their albums out in time for fest is something a lot of folks don’t understand. Unlike last time around, there is no cavalry coming. No federal money, no private money as many charities and large donors have shifted away from COVID relief, and individual supporters are drained and fatigued.”

Sage Rouge of Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes
“The promise of Jazz Fest’s return this fall was a shining beacon of hope to musicians, festival workers and fans. Unfortunately, because of people who would rather risk everyone’s health than wear a mask and get vaccinated, that rug was just ripped out from under all our feet again. I’m tired of being out of work because people refuse to take this seriously.”

Joy Clark, singer-songwriter and guitarist
“This cancellation is devastating. The ball was in our court and we dropped it. I hope this will further encourage people to do the right thing and get vaccinated for the safety of our families, friends and culture.”

Alex McMurray, of the Alex McMurray Band and the Washboard Chaz Trio
“I was not too surprised by the news but I am struck by how this thing keeps outsmarting us (really how we keep out-stupiding the virus) and how the optimism of a few months ago vanished completely in just a few days. I’m seeing some real rage happening among the vaxxed crowd toward the anti-vaxxers.”

Darcy Malone & the Tangle
“After being thoroughly depressed from losing all my gigs and Jazz Fest last year knowing this was coming up helped lift me out of a major funk. Now it feels like my heart’s been ripped out all over again and the fear of living another year broke is starting to set in once again. I really believed we were back.”

Carlo Nuccio, drummer, Paul Sanchez Band, Alex McMurray Band, Lulu and the Broadsides.
“Musicians are surrounded by other musicians and we weeded out the socially inept long ago. So, to find out that half of America is stuck on stupid is news to us. I’m disheartened by the amount of non-caring, selfish people that are out there. The universe needs to intervene. Perhaps it has?”

Dr. Brice Miller & Mahogany Brass Band
“This was to be Mahogany Brass Band’s 30th anniversary, a group of kids from St. Augustine High School who started a brass band. We have all traveled the world. My dad, Dwight Miller, cofounder of the Original Pinstripes Brass Band, first performed at the festival with the Doc Paulin Brass Band, and I’ve attended the festival every year of my life. So the cancellation hurts.”

Joe Krown, keyboardist, Joe Krown Trio
“Once again my heart is broken. Jazz Fest is so much more than just another music festival for me. I play the festival every year and I spend the entire year thinking about what I can do to make it different and fresh from previous years. I look forward to all of my club dates and the WWOZ piano night. It’s an amazing time of the year and it has again been dangled in front of me and again cancelled. It’s understandable, but it’s still heartbreaking.

“This COVID epidemic is not a political event. It is not a freedom versus non-freedom thing. It’s not a conspiracy. It’s a worldwide health crisis and the only way I can see out of this is to vaccinate. 99% of the hospitalized COVID patients are unvaccinated. I’m getting older. We’re all getting older. Can we please stop arguing about this and get the vaccine so we don’t waste any more time with this virus?? Choose wisely for all of us.”

Debbie Davis, vocalist
Now that everyone’s schedule is wide open for October, what local entity would like to have me curate a responsible, outdoor concert series for them — say, the second and third weekends in October? I’ve got a bunch of great ideas, a couple dozen phone numbers and a city full of wide-open calendars. Let’s make this happen!”

Johnny Sansone, band leader and harmonica player
“As unfair and disappointing as it feels to lose the much-needed resources of Jazz Fest 2021, it also feels necessary. New Orleans musicians are as much a family as fans of Jazz Fest. My hope is that people will still come down here those two weeks and we will be able to create a different way of doing things with homegrown smaller outdoor events all throughout the city while providing an income. We have always done things differently here. If we can come together we have a chance to make something good out of this.”

Carol Fran, 87-year-old Cajun icon, who just recovered from COVID
When asked if the Fest should have been canceled, Fran said, “Truthfully, no I don’t. I didn’t want them to postpone it. I’m ready to go to work. You know I’ve been away from work for a long time.” DB



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