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Diana Ross performed May 4 during the 50th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

A funny thing happened on the way to the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Well, not so funny if you’re festival organizer Quint Davis, who saw months (years?) of planning evaporate when the Rolling Stones abruptly canceled their U.S. tour, which was to include a Jazz Fest performance as the biggest diamond in the festival’s golden anniversary crown.

The giant footprint required for the Stones to play the Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots necessitated a number of changes, including the addition of an eighth day, special ticket pricing for that day only and a shutdown of music on other stages while the band played.

It all fell apart when lead singer Mick Jagger needed heart surgery — and then fell apart again when replacement Fleetwood Mac had to cancel because its lead singer, Stevie Nicks, contracted the flu. With less than a month before the Fair Grounds’ gates were to open, Jazz Fest organizers booked popular jam band Widespread Panic as a replacement and set about issuing refunds and lowering the entry price for what would have been Stones Thursday.

The truly funny thing? None of it mattered. Turns out you don’t need the Rolling Stones to make Jazz Fest happen. All you need is, well, Jazz Fest.

The verities remained — great local, Louisiana and world music, augmented by a few headliners from the world of pop and rock (Pitbull, Katy Perry, et al.). The legendary food booths brought back all the old favorites, and even the most minor of changes (Lil’ Dizzy’s three-decade tradition of serving trout Baquet became redfish Baquet instead) were scrutinized, sampled and judged. The crafts tents were there, along with the cooking demonstrations and second lines led by Mardi Gras Indians.

The celebration outside the gates remained as well, with one noticeable blip when New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers attempted to shut down a group of local brass band musicians in response to what the city said were complaints about noise. Turns out the noise complaints were directed toward neighbors playing amplified music; public outrage (and news coverage) of the brass band shutdown drew an official response from NOPD. Ultimately, the live music outside the gates of Jazz Fest played on.

One interesting note: The cancellation of Jagger and Nicks led to a lot of discussion about a music festival depending on the health of septuagenarians. Ironically, two of the most well-received performances by out-of-town musicians were by Diana Ross, 75, and Tom Jones, 78. Jones has impressed before at Jazz Fest (and this year, he did a surprise pop-in set at the small club Chickie Wah Wah to perform with Jon Cleary), while Ross subdued not a sequin of her over-the-top style in a crowd-pleasing set that featured several costume changes.

Fifty years is a long time to sustain any festival, but the talent, spirit and culture of New Orleans and Louisiana comprise a deep spring from which to draw (see our wrap-up starting on p. 13). At the end of it all, that proved to be the only thing the 50th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival really needed.

This is a commentary from Gambit, produced independently from reporters at the paper.