Without Jazzfest, there might have been no Jazz Fest.
The 50th anniversary New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival opens Thursday at the Fair Grounds. It is the 50th festival to bear that name since legendary East Coast jazz promoter George Wein created the first one in April 1970, forever altering the city’s cultural economy.
The racial realities of the 1960s had snuffed out at least three earlier attempts by Wein to produce a festival in New Orleans. After those false starts, he finally launched his festival by working from a blueprint that already existed.
That blueprint was the International Jazz Festival. Often billed as “Jazzfest,” it was staged at the Municipal Auditorium in 1968 and 1969.
In the spring of 1970, a modest gathering took place in what is now Armstrong Park and the adjacent Municipal Auditorium. It boasted four outd…
In its two-year run, the International Jazz Festival featured Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and other jazz luminaries alongside hometown favorites.
Wein would eventually combine elements of the International Jazz Festival with his own innovations, drive and business acumen to create, in 1970, a celebration of local culture that has endured for a half-century and counting.
But his “Jazz Fest” — two words — is inextricably linked to the earlier, single-word “Jazzfest.”
On Thursday, Wein, now 93, will reminisce about the festival’s early history at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage inside the Fair Grounds grandstand from 2:30 to 3:15 p.m.
His interviewer will be longtime Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis, who was an ethnomusicology student at Tulane University when Wein first hired him to help round up musicians for what is considered the first, official Jazz Fest in 1970.
They’ll have plenty of stories to tell, as the pre-history of Jazz Fest is every bit as colorful as the festival itself.
A way to attract tourists
In the early 20th century, the fledgling music form known as jazz was often frowned upon by city officials and newspaper editorials. Such dismissive attitudes would change.
At least as early as the late 1940s, the concept of a “jazz festival” had taken root in New Orleans. During an April 11 lecture at the New Orleans Jazz Museum inside the Old U.S. Mint, researcher, tour guide and musician Dave Thomas detailed events in 1949 and 1950 orchestrated by the New Orleans Jazz Club and documented in the club’s “Second Line” magazine.
In August 1950, a Tuesday and Friday night concert series took place at what was then called Beauregard Square — in honor of Confederate general and St. Bernard Parish native P.G.T. Beauregard — and is now the Congo Square area of Armstrong Park.
The series featured local clarinetist George Lewis, the Dukes of Dixieland, Pete Fountain’s Basin Street Six and Paul Barbarin. A description in Second Line noted that “there will be a special section for Negroes, who will have equal privileges of table and beverage service.”
According to Thomas, some of these shows were later broadcast by WDSU, but overall attendance was modest. Apparently, not even most members of the Jazz Club attended.
By the mid-1960s, city officials, hotel managers and other local business leaders had decided tourism could remedy New Orleans’ stagnant economy. Marketing New Orleans as the “birthplace of jazz” via a high-profile jazz festival seemed like a way to attract more tourists.
George Wein was initially approached for the job.
A jazz pianist and promoter from Boston, Wein had opened a jazz club in Boston in 1950 called Storyville, named for New Orleans’ turn-of-the-20th-century red light district. Socialite and jazz fan Elaine Lorillard subsequently hired him to create a summertime festival in the resort town of Newport, Rhode Island.
Wein produced the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954; it became the model for the modern music festival. Five years later, he co-founded a sister festival, the Newport Folk Festival.
In 1962, Wein received a call from Olaf Lambert, manager of the Royal Orleans Hotel in the French Quarter: Would Wein be interested in producing a jazz festival in New Orleans?
As Wein recounts in his 2003 autobiography, “Myself Among Others,” he traveled to New Orleans for the first time and, over an extravagant meal at the Royal Orleans, met with Mayor Victor Schiro and members of the Chamber of Commerce.
They came to an unfortunate but irrefutable conclusion: the Jim Crow South wasn’t ready for a big-time jazz festival. Many hotels would not accept black guests. Integrated concert audiences were not permitted. And city ordinances prohibited black and white musicians from sharing a bandstand.
Two years later, Lambert called Wein again. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had seemingly removed roadblocks to a fully integrated jazz festival. Wein returned to New Orleans and started planning a festival for the spring of 1965.
But that January, black players from the American Football League experienced blatant discrimination while in New Orleans for the league’s All-Star Game. When the players threatened to boycott the game, the league orchestrated a last-minute move to Houston.
Concerned that visiting black musicians might encounter similar problems, further tarnishing the city’s reputation, officials once again tabled plans for a festival.
A fresh opportunity
The 1968 celebration of New Orleans' 250th anniversary offered a fresh opportunity.
Durel Black, a local businessman and president of the New Orleans Jazz Club, spearheaded an effort to launch a “major” jazz festival as part of the city's anniversary celebration.
Once again, Wein was invited to produce it. And once again, the offer was rescinded.
The problem this time? City leaders were uncomfortable that Wein, who is Jewish, had married an African-American woman. An interracial couple’s involvement with the festival was deemed too controversial.
So the 250th anniversary’s jazz committee proceeded without Wein. Instead, Tommy Walker was hired as the producer.
Walker had spent 11 years as the director of entertainment at Disneyland. He oversaw “Dixieland at Disneyland,” an annual jazz/New Orleans/riverboat-themed concert series that, during its second season in 1961, featured Louis Armstrong.
After leaving Disneyland, Walker organized halftime shows and pre-game entertainment during the New Orleans Saints’ inaugural 1967 season.
That resumé landed him the festival job.
“I have seen Walker’s work both here and at Disneyland and thus I am certain that the jazz committee of the 250th anniversary executive committee acted wisely in signing him,” Schiro told The Times-Picayune.
Walker, Black and clothier Joe Gemelli, chairman of the new festival’s talent committee, assembled a remarkable roster for the first International Jazz Festival.
“We have put together a program featuring the tops in traditional, Dixieland and modern jazz specialists,” Gemelli said at the time. “It will be a fitting climax to New Orleans’ 250th anniversary celebration.”
Willis Conover, conductor of the Voice of America’s “Music U.S.A.” worldwide radio broadcast, would emcee four nights of concerts at the Municipal Auditorium, and also consult on the festival’s production.
Wein had previously hired Conover to emcee numerous Newport concerts, and resented that Conover took the New Orleans job.
“That obviously obliterated any future I might have had as a festival producer in Louisiana,” Wein wrote in “Myself Among Others,” an assumption that proved to be very wrong.
The first 'Jazzfest'
But in 1968, Wein could only watch from afar as the New Orleans festival took shape without him.
To promote it, the Jazzfest committee minted two commemorative coins bearing the festival’s logo — a sunglasses-wearing Napoleon character holding a trumpet, with “Jazzfest” and “New Orleans” spelled out above and below. One version of the coin, which was sold at local banks, featured Pete Fountain on the front; the other depicted Louis Armstrong. The nickel-silver version sold for 50 cents; the numbered, sterling silver version went for $10.
Pre-festival activities included a memorial Mass at St. Louis Cathedral to honor deceased musicians. Three days later, on Wednesday, May 15, 1968, a procession of brass bands and Carnival marching groups set out from Beauregard Square through the French Quarter to the Mississippi River. The riverboat President set sail for a “battle of the bands” featuring jazz groups from New York, Chicago and New Orleans.
Four nights of Municipal Auditorium concerts, with tickets costing $5 or less, kicked off with Duke Ellington and Pete Fountain on Thursday. Boozy comedian Phil Harris made a surprise appearance. The stage backdrop was emblazoned with “New Orleans JazzFest ’68.”
The Onward Brass Band opened the show fronted by grand marshal Danny Barker, who, one newspaper account noted, “sported a foot-long stogie and a colorful sash.”
On Friday, May 17, the Young Tuxedo Brass Band led a second-line parade from Jackson Square to the Municipal Auditorium. Inside, the bill included saxophonists Cannonball Adderley and Gerry Mulligan, pianist Dave Brubeck and local favorites George Lewis and Ronnie Kole.
A Times-Picayune review by David Cuthbert noted that Kole’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” “all but stopped the show cold.” Mulligan was “unflawed perfection.”
Louis Armstrong headlined a sold-out Saturday night show at the auditorium, making a rare appearance in his hometown only three years before his death. The undercard featured modern jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis and vibraphonist Gary Burton. Harold Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band led the night’s pre-show parade.
Armstrong reeled off “What a Wonderful World,” “Hello, Dolly,” “Cabaret” and a final “When the Saints Go Marching In.” “There was no doubt there was a genius at work,” wrote reviewer Emile Lafourcade. The show was “resounding, stirring and sentimental. …The packed house repeatedly broke up Armstrong’s act with cheers and applause.”
The festival concluded May 19 with singer Carmen McRae and clarinetist and big-band leader Woody Herman, plus local saxophonist Al Belletto and the Dukes of Dixieland.
That first International Jazz Festival was deemed a success. One estimate said at least 25 percent of the attendees were from out of town. Tickets were sold to jazz fans from England, Sweden, Guatemala and elsewhere. Hotels were full.
Gemelli predicted the event, born of the city’s 250th anniversary and desire to bring in tourists, would become an annual affair.
George Wein signs on
The International Jazz Festival did return in 1969. Opening on June 1, it followed the established model. There was a Mass at St. Louis Cathedral. There were commemorative coins depicting Count Basie and a New Orleans brass band. A parade from Congo Square once again led to the riverboat President and a “jazz cruise” with Pete Fountain.
Willis Conover returned as the music director/emcee. The Municipal Auditorium concerts boasted another marquee roster: Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, Eubie Blake.
There was a also commemorative “Jazzfest” poster and an affiliated “Food Festival” in Jackson Square and at various restaurants.
But after that second year, Black, the festival’s chairman, went in search of a new producer. He knew who he wanted it to be.
Months later, Wein’s jazz combo, the Newport All-Stars, logged a multi-week engagement at the Royal Sonesta. During a break, Black approached Wein and again asked him to oversee the city’s jazz festival. Wein’s marriage to a black woman, Black assured him, was no longer an issue.
Wein signed on. And this time, it worked.
During a Feb. 20, 1970, press conference at the Royal Sonesta, Wein announced plans for the inaugural New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Louisiana Heritage Fair, scheduled for April 22–26.
He persuaded the board of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, the newly formed nonprofit that owned the festival, to include both indoor evening concerts and an outdoor “Louisiana Heritage Fair.” He also wanted to book more than just jazz.
In need of young, enthusiastic volunteers to round up local musicians for the Louisiana Heritage Fair, Wein called Tulane University’s Hogan Jazz Archive. That led to Allison Miner and Quint Davis, the son of prominent architect Arthur Q. Davis. (Miner would help shape the festival’s personality, and later establish its Music Heritage Stage; she died in 1995.)
'The real thing'
The rechristened and reborn festival kicked off on Wednesday, April 22, 1970, with clarinetist Pete Fountain’s combo and trumpeter Clyde Kerr’s orchestra on the riverboat President.
The following night, Fountain headlined the Municipal Auditorium alongside the Dukes of Dixieland, Papa Albert French’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band and pianist Sweet Emma Barrett.
New Orleans-born gospel great Mahalia Jackson topped a bill at the auditorium on Friday, April 24; the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the New Orleans Modern Jazz Allstars featuring Ellis Marsalis also performed. The previous day, Jackson visited the Louisiana Heritage Fair and sang a spontaneous “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” with the Eureka Brass Band.
As much music as will fill the Fair Grounds during the 2019 New Orleans Jazz Festival, that’s only the start. The action continues across the …
Duke Ellington premiered his “New Orleans Suite” — which Wein had commissioned for the festival — at the auditorium on Saturday, April 25. Trumpeter Al Hirt, the Onward Brass Band, saxophonists Al Belletto and James Rivers, and vocalist Germaine Bazzle were also on the bill.
Ellington returned to the auditorium Sunday afternoon for a program of sacred music.
Throughout the week, south Louisiana acts, including zydeco bandleader Clifton Chenier, the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra and the funk band the Meters, performed each afternoon inside the auditorium.
Simultaneously, the Louisiana Heritage Fair in adjacent Beauregard Square featured stages for blues, Cajun, gospel and “street bands.” Food, art and crafts were sold.
Despite the modest $3 admission, only a few hundred people paid.
That first New Orleans Jazz Fest lost tens of thousands of dollars. A Times-Picayune account of Fountain’s April 23 auditorium concert referred to the “small but enthusiastic” crowd.
Mayor Schiro expressed his disappointment from the stage: “It’s a shame our local people aren’t supporting an event of this kind more. This isn’t just a show. It’s heritage.”
Wein would later write that Durel Black wanted to drop the outdoor Heritage Fair and focus on the evening concerts. Wein balked and threatened to walk away. The foundation board sided with Wein, ultimately determining what Jazz Fest is today — a daytime-only event.
Black resigned from the festival. Still, Wein credits him with laying the groundwork for Jazz Fest’s eventual success. Without Black, Wein wrote in “Myself Among Others,” “there would not have been a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.”
At the press conference announcing that initial 1970 Jazz Fest, Wein made a bold prediction: “New Orleans, in the long run, should become bigger than Newport in jazz festivals. Newport was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing.”
History proved him right. And history helped him succeed.