Across five decades, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has experienced its share of offstage drama and onstage magic. Ahead of Thursday's opening of the historic 50th anniversary Jazz Fest, here are some of the milestones and momentous events that shaped and defined the festival across its first half-century.
1970: The inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Louisiana Heritage Fair produced by veteran East Coast festival impresario George Wein, with help from Quint Davis and Allison Miner, both of whom Wein recruited from Tulane University's jazz archives.
Clarinetist Pete Fountain headlined an opening night concert on April 22, 1970, aboard the riverboat President, followed by four days and nights of performances in the Municipal Auditorium with Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Clifton Chenier and the Meters, among others. Outside the auditorium in Beauregard Square — now the Congo Square area of Armstrong Park — the Louisiana Heritage Fair featured four stages, for blues, Cajun, gospel and “street bands,” plus food and crafts.
Daytime general admission was $3. Tickets for the nighttime concerts were $6.50 or less.
1971: New Orleans piano great Professor Longhair launched his comeback at the second Jazz Fest in Beauregard Square.
1972: For its third installment, Jazz Fest moved to the infield of the Fair Grounds Race Course. The first day in its new home was rained out.
1973: Stevie Wonder headlined an evening concert at the Municipal Auditorium on Saturday, April 14, 1973. That afternoon, he also conjured an early “Jazz Fest moment” by sitting in with the Meters for “Superstition” at the Fair Grounds.
1974: Gladys Knight & the Pips, Herbie Hancock and jazz organist Jimmy Smith starred in the first Jazz Fest evening concert to sell out the Municipal Auditorium.
1975: New Orleans legend Fats Domino made his Jazz Fest debut during an evening concert aboard the S.S. Admiral riverboat, sharing a bill with B.B. King and Allen Toussaint. He didn’t perform at the Fair Grounds until two years later.
1976: The festival added a second three-day weekend at the Fair Grounds. On opening night, the President sailed with Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown and the Dave Bartholomew Band aboard. A blues revue at the Warehouse, the famously no-frills brick box of a concert hall along the riverfront, boasted Muddy Waters, Albert King and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Total festival attendance topped 100,000. Producer Quint Davis announced that the nonprofit foundation that owned the festival would collect a surplus for the first time.
1977: Nine-year-old pianist Harry Connick Jr. made his Jazz Fest debut in the Jazz Tent. Guitarist and singer Bonnie Raitt, in the first of her many Jazz Fest appearances, was joined by Allen Toussaint on his “What Do You Want the Boy to Do?”
1978: A coalition of local African-American community activists charged that the mostly white festival staff and the foundation’s governing board were exploiting the mostly black performers, and that not enough black artists were represented in the crafts area. Boycotts and disruptions were threatened. Eventually, the board was revamped and the festival added Koindu, an area devoted to the music, arts and crafts of the African diaspora. Koindu evolved into the festival’s present-day Congo Square stage and craft area.
1979: The festival celebrated its 10th anniversary by expanding to three weekends. The first Sunday was rained out entirely, and steady rain depressed attendance across the whole first weekend.
1980: The festival, now back to its two-weekend format, was dedicated to Professor Longhair, who died the previous January. A capacity crowd of 2,200 grooved aboard the riverboat President to a triple bill of Fats Domino, Dr. John and the Neville Brothers.
1982: Stressed out by clashes with the festival’s governing board over financial, artistic and managerial decisions, Quint Davis took the year off. The 1982 festival was the only one of the first 50 with which he was not involved.
1985: Run-DMC performed at Jazz Fest, signaling that rap was now part of the festival’s music mix.
1988: Allison Miner returned to New Orleans after several years away. She rejoined the festival staff and launched the Music Heritage Stage, an intimate space in the Fair Grounds grandstand where she interviewed musicians; she also established the foundation’s archives, where the recordings are housed. Following Miner’s death in 1995 from bone cancer, the Music Heritage Stage was renamed in her honor.
1991: The festival added Thursday to its second weekend. The opening Friday was rained out; the Fair Grounds were a muddy mess the rest of the weekend.
1994: For its 25th anniversary, the festival was forced to rethink its footprint after a fire in December 1993 destroyed the Fair Grounds’ grandstand. It would take four years to rebuild; meanwhile, the festival expanded into the Fair Grounds parking lots outside the racetrack’s oval.
1996: Reflecting the festival’s, and Davis’, changing tastes, Jazz Fest featured jam band Phish. Hordes of the band’s young, Deadhead-like followers descended on the city and the Fair Grounds.
2001: A staggering 160,000 attendees, the single-day Jazz Fest record, crammed the Fair Grounds on Saturday, May 5, 2001, with many headed to the Dave Matthews Band at the Acura Stage or local rapper Mystikal, then at the height of his popularity, at nearby Congo Square. Gridlock resulted. That year’s total attendance of 664,000 stands as the all-time Jazz Fest record.
2002: In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, attendance dropped off significantly.
2003: The festival added Thursday to its first weekend; Popeyes sponsored the bonus day. The "opening Thursday" experiment lasted only that one year (but was revived for this year's 50th anniversary).
2004: Rain washed out an entire day at the Fair Grounds. The festival lost nearly $1 million; with limited cash reserves, the foundation struggled to meet its obligations. The crisis exacerbated tensions between the foundation board and Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans, the company Wein and Davis had formed in the mid-1990s.
With Festival Productions’ contract up for renewal, the board solicited proposals from other producers. Ultimately, the board voted to retain Festival Productions. But the financial guarantees that the foundation demanded forced Davis and Wein to seek a partner. They found one in AEG, one of the world’s largest producers of live entertainment.
2005: The first Jazz Fest co-produced by Festival Productions and AEG put the fest on the road to financial stability by cutting the money-losing nighttime concerts, spending more to present more popular acts at the Fair Grounds (over the next 15 years, that list included Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, Aerosmith, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Foo Fighters, Neil Young, Keith Urban, Maroon 5, Snoop Dogg, Jack White, etc.) and, eventually, instituting VIP ticketing options.
2006: Barely four months after the first, successful Jazz Fest with AEG, Hurricane Katrina inundated much of New Orleans. The 2006 Jazz Fest, the first after Katrina, was scaled back. Thursday was dropped from the schedule, the Blues Tent was eliminated and the Allison Miner Music Heritage and Lagniappe stages were combined; in all, around 100 performance slots were trimmed. Shell Exploration & Production Company signed on as Jazz Fest’s first “presenting sponsor;” the festival’s new name became the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell.
Bruce Springsteen made his Jazz Fest debut with his new Seeger Sessions Band; his emotional performance left many onlookers in tears. Fats Domino, who was featured on that year’s Jazz Fest poster, was to have closed the Acura Stage on the final Sunday in place of the Neville Brothers. That morning, Domino, who suffered from performance anxiety, pronounced himself unable to perform, and Lionel Richie was moved from the Gentilly Stage to fill in for Domino.
2007: Harry Connick Jr. closed the Acura Stage on the final Sunday.
2008: Billy Joel powered through a monsoon that soaked the stage; at one point, a stage hand squeegeed water off the top of Joel's grand piano. On the final Sunday, the Neville Brothers returned to Jazz Fest for the first time since Katrina and presided over a triumphant set that spanned the history of New Orleans music.
2009: Just in time for the festival's 40th anniversary, Bon Jovi made its Jazz Fest debut. The band returned two years later without guitarist Richie Sambora.
2010: Aretha Franklin, reportedly displeased by the unpleasant fumes wafting over the city from BP’s massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, bailed on her Acura Stage headlining set with barely 24 hours’ notice; Earth Wind & Fire stepped in as the last-minute replacement. Meanwhile, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder suggested from the stage that the children of BP executives should spend the summer cleaning up the spill. Art Garfunkel struggled throughout Simon & Garfunkel’s hugely anticipated set; his ailing tenor doomed the duo’s reunion.
2013: With the Neville Brothers now defunct, Treme native Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his funk-rock band, Orleans Avenue, were anointed the new Acura Stage closer on the final Sunday.
2015: Elton John, Ed Sheeran and rapper T.I. closed the Acura, Gentilly and Congo Square stages, respectively, on Saturday, May 2, making for one of the largest post-Katrina crowds at Jazz Fest.
2016: Enormous green bleachers, with seating for several thousand people, sprang up at the Acura Stage and Congo Square. On the second Saturday, a severe line of thunderstorms forced the cancellation of the day's headliners, including Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Beck and Buddy Guy (Wonder, Snoop and Guy cashed their rain checks the following year; Beck returned in 2018)
2018: Metal detectors materialized at Jazz Fest entrances for the first time.
2019: Jazz Fest announced the Rolling Stones as the marquee act of the 50th Jazz Fest and added Thursday to the first weekend, expanding the festival to eight days at the Fair Grounds. But the Stones canceled so singer Mick Jagger could undergo heart valve replacement surgery. Fleetwood Mac was announced as the replacement, only to cancel days later in the wake of Stevie Nicks’ illness.
Barring any other complications, Widespread Panic will close Thursday, May 2. With that, the Georgia jam band joined a 50th anniversary roster that includes Katy Perry, the Dave Matthews Band, Chris Stapleton, Leon Bridges and Pitbull, such veteran Jazz Fest favorites as Bonnie Raitt, Santana, Van Morrison and Jimmy Buffett, and the hundreds of New Orleans and south Louisiana artists who have been the foundation of the festival for 50 years and counting.