50 Years of Jazz Fest Classic Cuts

50 Years of Jazz Fest Classic Cuts

Spread over eight spring days on more than 10 stages, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is an unforgettable cultural experience befitting its surreally cosmopolitan city. Musical offerings run the gamut, maintaining a baseline in Louisiana roots music and branching out into all manner of jazz, blues, gospel, world music, pop, rock, hip-hop and more.

The festival’s recently wrapped 50th anniversary edition, for instance, had the Rebirth Brass Band, Logic, Katy Perry with the Soul Rebels, Gregory Porter, the Semolian Warriors Mardi Gras Indians, Dobet Gnahore, Steve Earle, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Pine Leaf Boys scheduled throughout the same Saturday. And then there’s the 70-plus cuisine vendors, the cultural exhibits and demonstrations, the live interviews, the parades, the people watching…

Just as no article can come close to encapsulating Jazz Fest, no audio stream can really do justice to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ new five-disc box set celebrating the event’s half-century milestone. In addition to the Louisiana-focused live tracks, it includes a 136-page book featuring classic photos, a beautifully crafted festival history by journalist Keith Spera, detailed track notes by New York Times critic Jon Pareles and others, plus additional writings.

Here we underscore a handful of cuts from the Smithsonian set, with a bent toward current artists you should make a point of hearing in or out of New Orleans — preferably in, at next year’s Jazz Fest. 

Trombone Shorty, “One Night Only (The March)”

Beyond New Orleans, on the road and on albums like 2017’s Blue Note release Parking Lot Symphony, Trombone Shorty can seem like all things to all American music fans. Brass-band funk, contemporary soul and hip-hop, hard rock, various strains of jazz and fusion, peerless showmanship — 33-year-old Troy Andrews melds it all organically and seamlessly, in time-honored NOLA fashion.

Within city limits he’s even more, a cultural celebrity and favorite son whose profile feels like that of a sports hero. To wit: he now holds down Jazz Fest’s sacred Acura Stage finale slot, an honor he and his band, Orleans Avenue, shared in 2019 with the Nevilles, the event’s longstanding previous closers.

This track, recorded in 2010, is typically combustible, and it underscores the shortcoming in Andrews’ stage name; he’s, in fact, an equally dynamic soloist on the trumpet.

Donald Harrison Jr., “Free to Be”

The saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. has been described as a one-man jazz festival, which is a clever and memorable way of saying that he embodies the range of New Orleans’ musical-cultural history more profoundly than pretty much anyone.

He’s appeared regularly at the festival as both the Big Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group and as a consummate modern jazzman. That duality, and Harrison’s willingness to fuse his identities, was used in part to shape characters on HBO’s Treme, for which he served as a consultant.

An alum of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and an essential component in the generation of bop-centered talents known as the Young Lions, Harrison co-led a brilliant quintet in the ‘80s with his fellow Messenger and New Orleanian Terence Blanchard. As a bandleader he’s recorded robust postbop, unabashedly commercial contemporary jazz and many things in between, and his lengthy list of mentees includes the innovative trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, Harrison’s nephew.

This quartet cut, captured at the Jazz Tent in 1999, highlights Harrison’s rare gift for matching no-nonsense improvisation with an unstoppable sense of groove.

Kermit Ruffins Big Band, “Royal Garden Blues”

There might be New Orleans musicians who can sing and blow better, but you’d be hard-pressed to find one who can make you laugh harder or man a barbecue grill with more authority than the trumpeter, vocalist and raconteur Kermit Ruffins.

That’s not to say that Ruffins isn’t a coup on purely musical terms; in the ‘80s he co-founded the Rebirth Brass Band, helping to revolutionize one of the city’s deepest musical traditions in ways that were essential to its survival.

And, as heard on this ’90s performance of “Royal Garden Blues,” his abilities and enthusiasm reach back much further than Rebirth’s rock-club-friendly funk. Ruffins’ affinity for Louis Armstrong transcends instrumental and vocal homage, as he pays tribute as well to Satchmo’s good humor and life-affirming spirit.

John Boutté, “Louisiana 1927”

The vocalist John Boutté, whose “Treme Song” kicked off each episode of HBO’s Treme, has a remarkable command of the spectrum of musical styles performed in New Orleans. He also has a knack for making time stand still in front of a Jazz Fest audience — employing his insight as a frontman to bend rhythm and tempo and space to his will, and then slicing through that atmosphere with his crystalline voice.

As detailed by Jon Pareles in the box set’s book, this performance of a Randy Newman song, about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the devastation it caused in New Orleans, harbored a special poignancy and an extraordinary opportunity for healing.

Recorded in 2006, during the first Jazz Fest following the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, Boutté’s performance offers both a pointed update of Newman’s lyrics and a gorgeously embattled reminder of New Orleans’ legacy of tragedy and resilience.


Irma Thomas, “Ruler of My Heart”

Irma Thomas, now 78, is a Jazz Fest institution and an unimpeachable force in American music. Her early A- and B-sides, among them “Don’t Mess with My Man,” “Breakaway,” “It’s Raining” and “Time is on My Side,” are faultless two- and three-minute R&B pearls, packed out with earworm hooks and the singer’s youthful blend of grace and grit.

“Ruler of My Heart,” lifted later for Otis Redding’s “Pain in My Heart,” was written by Allen Toussaint, the gentlemanly maestro of New Orleans R&B, and first released in 1963, when Thomas was in her early twenties.

This live version, recorded at Jazz Fest in 1976, finds her well on her way to becoming the sage, womanly royal you’ll experience onstage today — the Soul Queen of New Orleans, as the sobriquet goes. The box set also thankfully includes a Thomas track recorded in the Gospel Tent, since she’s a rare Jazz Fest regular who can enrapture sacred and secular crowds with equal might.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It”

In and out of jazz culture, a pilgrimage to the French Quarter to take in a set at Preservation Hall is crucial for any first-time New Orleans visitor (even if there’s a decent chance that visitor has already seen the Hall’s flagship ensemble in a theater back home).

The venue and touring band, fostered in the ’60s by Allan Jaffe, a devotee of traditional New Orleans jazz who hailed from Pennsylvania, offered an invaluable platform and clubhouse to a generation of musicians who quite literally invented jazz.

Since then, the organization’s commitment to carrying the torch for two-beat rhythms and collective improvisation hasn’t abated. In fact, under the leadership of Jaffe’s son Ben, the Preservation Hall band has enjoyed visibility that most contemporary jazz bands can only dream of, with a repertoire that digs into age-old standards like “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” recorded here at the 2015 festival and sung by trombonist Ronell Johnson.

In the last decade, the Pres Hall band has continued its crossover tradition in collaboration with Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, Mos Def and others, and its last two releases for Sony, That’s It! and So It Is, have focused on original material.

funky METERS, “Fire on the Bayou”

No Jazz Fest experience would be complete without some variation of the original Meters — organist Art Neville, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Zigaboo Modeliste — honoring their ‘60s and ‘70s standards, undoubtedly some of the most extraordinary recordings in the history of groove music.

Neville, Porter, guitarist Brian Stoltz and drummer Russell Batiste Jr. coalesced as the funky METERS in 1994. Too expansive and interesting to be called a repertory band, they’ve nonetheless paid homage to the snappy, simmering grease of Meters staples like “Cissy Strut,” “Hey Pocky A-Way” and “Fire on the Bayou.” This properly stretched-out “Fire” was recorded at the 2010 fest, with Brint Anderson and Ian Neville on guitars.

Big Freedia, “N.O. Bounce”

There’s party rap and then there’s bounce, the New Orleans strain of hip-hop that implores you to shake it with all the subtlety of an atomic bomb. Over the past two decades, Big Freedia has become the subgenre’s highest-profile export.

Her Jazz Fest sets, which commenced in 2010, bring to the sprawling outdoor crowd the sweat-soaked atmosphere of the bars and parties where bounce was conceived.

“N.O. Bounce,” captured here at the 2016 edition, is Big Freedia’s calling card jam and an anthem for the tradition — three and a half minutes of socially liberated uplift and dance-fueled catharsis.

Trombone Shorty image courtesy of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archive/Smithsonian Folkways Recordings and David Kabot

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