New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest: Thrice Delayed, Back to Live


New Orleans readies for this year’s return of the Jazz & Heritage Festival.

(Photo: Courtesy Jazz & Heritage Festival)

There was a lot riding on the 37th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where tens of thousands of music lovers converged on sacred ground — the freshly repaired Fair Grounds — at the first Jazz Fest since the post-Katrina levee breaches devastated my adopted hometown. The collective healing was a stunning success.

— “Dancing on Sacred Ground,” report filed from Jazz Fest 2006

The situations are not analogous. The levee breaches were a gaping wound that still hasn’t fully healed, not the often isolating, sometimes paralyzing quicksand of the pandemic we’ve all been living through. But there’s also a lot riding on the 51st annual Jazz Fest, and the droves of musicians and music lovers converging on this year’s event (April 29–May 1 and May 5–8) are counting the days until we can finally breathe a sigh of relief. And there’s no doubt among the faithful that the collective healing of 2022 will be a stunning success.

Over the past half-century, beginning with Duke Ellington at the inaugural festival in 1970, Jazz Fest has hosted an entire pantheon of ascended jazz masters (Monk, Mingus and Miles among them). It also introduced the world to the rich musical heritage of New Orleans, from now-iconic legends like Professor Longhair, James Booker and Ernie K-Doe to the feathered glory of Mardi Gras Indian chants and the communal joy of second lining behind an exuberant brass band.

The thrice-delayed 2022 festival honors the vision of George Wein, great-grandaddy of all jazz festivals — who originally conceived Jazz Fest as the Louisiana Heritage Festival — with a Jackson Square Allstars Brass Band Jazz Funeral and star-studded tribute by the Newport All-Stars on the second weekend. It also keeps the torch burning with the forever Legendary Count Basie Orchestra; the great Jose Feliciano (now 76); and elder statesmen like salsa king Gilberto Santa Rosa and trumpeter/pianist/composer Arturo Sandoval on the first weekend.

Two hometown New Orleans heroes at the peak of their powers anchor this year’s Jazz Tent. Terence Blanchard, whose acclaimed Fire Shut Up In My Bones was the first opera by a Black composer to debut at the Metropolitan Opera, performs with the E Collective & Turtle Island Quartet from his lauded Wayne Shorter-inspired release, Absence, a first-weekend gig. And Nicholas Payton, who garnered raves for Smoke Sessions, his “Zen gangster” take on vintage Miles Davis, goes back to the future with his Quarantined with Nick pandemic trio, a second weekend performance.

The Cookers, a hard-blowing septet of post-bop elders, highlight the first-weekend lineup, while the second weekend features two singer-songwriters who stretch the boundaries of jazz: Norah Jones, fresh from a recent New York benefit show with Christian McBride; and the always-intriguing Rickie Lee Jones, who now lives in New Orleans, performing at her first Jazz Fest since 1992.

“When I was first asked to be at Jazz Fest after so many years, I was … well … nervous,” Jones admitted. “Now it’s easy peasy for measy. In the two years we have been waiting for Jazz Fest to return, I have grown into a real New Orleanian, my roots coming out from the earth as surely as any live oak tree on Ursuline Avenue.

During the long hiatus, we also lost many deeply rooted Louisiana giants. Along with jazz funerals celebrating Marsalis family patriarch Ellis Marsalis, Art and Charles Neville, and Dr. John, there are multiple tribute sets. Especially noteworthy is the all-in-the-family tribute to Art and Charles Neville; the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s tribute to Dave Bartholomew; and Sonny Landreth and C.C. Adcock’s tribute to blues and zydeco guitarist Little Buck Sinegal, all during the second weekend.

And that’s just for openers. The sheer scale of Jazz Fest can be overwhelming. Hundreds of national and local acts play on a dozen stages, from huge headliners like The Who and Erykah Badu to foot-stompin’ Cajun and zydeco bands to New Orleans-based blues greats like Little Freddie King, John Mooney and Samantha Fish. But you can cut to the chase with a few sure bets.

Though pandemic travel restrictions precluded the annual international musical exchange, 2022 boasts a bounty of genre-busting world music: mesmerizing Niger guitarist Bombino; Afro-futurist Kizaba, who electrifies Congolese soukus; and Cinefume, “the Afro-Cuban James Brown.” Closer to home, trailblazing Black Americana artists — Joy Clark, Lilli Lewis and The War and Treaty among them — sing so deeply from the heart you feel like you’ve known them forever, while the incandescent Billy Strings reinvents bluegrass picking.

Whatever your musical tastes, you’ll discover artists you’ll remember long after you leave Jazz Fest at the intimate Lagniappe stage. Two personal faves: Belgian-born Helen Gillet, a wildly versatile cellist and singer-songwriter; and folkie-turned-blues-belter Dayna Kurtz, who commands the stage with Lulu and the Broadsides. For New Orleanians like these who plan their entire year around Jazz Fest, the end to the long pandemic drought is marked by unmitigated joy.

“As I begin to perform again, I can see the essential human need for relating through music reflected in people’s faces, and can’t wait to share this passion with a Jazz Fest audience,” enthused Gillet. “When we finally get to jump back into the wild ride that is Jazz Fest,” Kurtz added, “we’ll be playing like we’ve been let out of a cage.”

Or, as the ever-poetic Rickie Lee Jones observed, “We have waited patiently for our time to take off these temporary masks and put our real masks on again.” DB

For more information, go to More of the lineup is below.

  • 23_Carla_Bley_by_Mark_Sheldon.jpg

    ​Bley told DownBeat in 1984: “I’m just a composer, and I use jazz musicians because they’re smarter, and they can save your ass in a bad situation. … I need all the help I can get.”

  • 23_Samara_Joy_Linger_Awhile_copy.jpg
  • image002.jpg

    “Blue Note music has been such an integral part of my musical and life experience for so long,” says Redman. “It’s surreal to be a part of this lineage.”

  • TOny_Bennett_Mohegan_Sun_2013_DSC2627_copy_3.jpg

    Bennett had a wealth of material to draw upon, and he had a direct association with much of it.

  • 2024_grammys_winners_nominations_nominees_full_list_66-grammy-awards-Nominees-Full-List_1644x925_no_text.jpg

    The 66th GRAMMY Awards will air live (8–11:30 p.m. ET) on Feb. 4 on CBS Television and stream on Paramount+.

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December 2023
Pharoah Sanders
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