Many of the special moments that happen each year at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival don’t take place at the star-heavy Acura and Gentilly stages or the nine other outdoor stages dotting the Fair Grounds Race Course.
In addition to Jazz Fest’s 11 performance stages, the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, set snuggly inside the Race Course’s grandstand, presents intimate visits with an eclectic range of performers. Interviewees range from international stars to little-known regional artists.
The big names who’ve appeared on the tiny Heritage Stage include Elvis Costello, Santana, Randy Newman, Pete Seeger, Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and country chanteuse Emmylou Harris.
Other Heritage Stage interviewees through the years include New Orleans music people Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and the late but unforgettable Ernie K-Doe. Even Alex Chilton, the reclusive singer-songwriter from Memphis (The Box Tops, Big Star) who lived under the radar in New Orleans until his death at 59 in 2010, appeared there.
At the Heritage Stage, interviewees and interviewers talk in an intimate setting, in front of an audience of hundreds or less, rather than the thousands that crowd the festival’s exterior stages.
This year’s Heritage Stage lineup will feature veteran Rolling Stone writer David Fricke interviewing Charles Neville, of the Neville Brothers (Sunday); Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive curator Bruce Raeburn speaking with Dr. John (May 1); and “American Routes” host Nick Spitzer speaking with Delbert McClinton (Sunday).
Ben Sandmel, journalist, folklorist, musician and author of “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans,” has been the Heritage Stage’s booking coordinator since 1996. The job entails much more than its title suggests.
Sandmel followed the late Allison Miner, for whom the stage is named, into the position. Miner, who died at 46 in 1995, helped launched the Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970. She worked at the event through its formative first five years and in artist management, representing Professor Longhair, Eddie Bo, The Wild Magnolias, the Rebirth Brass Band and Kermit Ruffins.
Miner also became the festival’s archivist, later advocating the creation of the Heritage Stage. Its intimacy, she said, recalled the festival’s early years, before it became a major attraction.
“Without Allison’s advocacy for the Heritage Stage, it wouldn’t have happened,” Sandmel said.
Miner managed the Heritage Stage until 1995. Sandmel wrote press releases and publicity material for the festival and worked as a programming consultant in Cajun, zydeco blues and country music before he became the stage’s booking coordinator.
Each year, once the Jazz Fest talent lineup has been announced, Sandmel begins seeking interviewees.
“My goal for the Heritage Stage is to present a comprehensive cross-section of everything that happens out on the field,” he said. “Something for everybody. I try to get modern jazz, traditional jazz, brass bands, rap, hip-hop, Cajun, zydeco, blues, country, gospel, Mardi Gras Indians, rock.”
Making a good match between interviewers and interviewees is another goal.
“The interviewers that Ben selects always know their turf,” said jazz scholar Bruce Raeburn, curator of Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive. “In the Heritage Stage’s 25 years of existence, it’s become essential to the identity of the Jazz Fest.”
Raeburn is one of the interviewers Sandmel turns to year after year. This year he’ll interview Dr. John about his Louis Armstrong-inspired album, “Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch.”
Raeburn’s Dr. John interview, taking place at 4:30 p.m. Friday, May 1, will be the 12th interview he’s conducted at the Heritage Stage.
“Bruce is one of these very erudite people who’s also totally down to earth,” Sandmel said. “He’s great at putting people at ease.”
“Everybody I’ve interviewed has been easy, because they’re totally up for it,” Raeburn said. “They want to talk about what they do and they like the interaction with the crowd.”
Gwen Thompkins, the NPR veteran who hosts WWNO’s “Music Inside Out,” will conduct her third interview at the Heritage Stage when she speaks to singer-pianist Marcia Ball and Dennis McNally, author of “On Highway 61,” on Friday, May 1.
“There’s such an emphasis now in media on celebrity and the celebrities’ personal life,” Thompkins said. “The artists oftentimes don’t get to talk about the thing that they know the most about, which is the music that they make. That’s something I keep in mind.”
Raeburn and Thompkins, both of whom have been in the Heritage Stage audience as well on stage conducting interviews, agree that there are many good reasons to visit the Heritage Stage.
“I like how calm that stage is within the maelstrom of the festival,” Thompkins said.
“The grandstand is air-conditioned,” Raeburn said. “So if you’re sweltering or you’re neck-deep in mud in the rest of the Fair Grounds, you can escape to the grandstand and have a very pleasant experience.”