The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell has stages named for sponsors, such as Acura; stages named for musical genres like blues, jazz and gospel; and stages named for places, like Congo Square and Economy Hall. But there's only one stage named for a person: the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage.
Allison Miner was a Jazz Fest founder, music promoter and manager who was instrumental in the early years of the festival. In 1988, she established the stage that now bears her name.
The Music Heritage Stage "is my way of bringing Jazz Fest back to the way it was in the old days, like sitting around the living room floor and getting to know these people," Miner said. "(It's) our way of having a more intimate involvement with the musicians. We talk and they perform and answer questions from the audience.”
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Now located in the Fair Grounds' grandstand, the Music Heritage Stage hosts four or five intimate encounters with Jazz Fest performers each day of the festival. Each session is guided by an expert interviewer in front of a small audience, and often includes brief performances and questions from the audience.
Since its founding, local legends like Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Ernie K-Doe have appeared on the stage, as have international stars like Carlos Santana, Pete Seeger and Emmylou Harris.
The stage is also a great place to get acquainted with newer acts such as Tank and the Bangas, whose leader Tarriona "Tank" Ball was interviewed by WWOZ's DJ Soul Sister in 2017 just as they were breaking nationally.
Interviewers bring cultural, technical and personal knowledge of the artists they’re sitting down with. The sessions are uniquely informative and a kind of live-action curation. For instance, you not only hear Jon Cleary talk about piano technique; you see him demonstrate it live. You not only hear stories about Buckwheat Zydeco; you hear them from C.J. Chenier.
Miner passed away in 1995 at the age of 46 from multiple myeloma, a form of bone cancer. It's tempting to wonder how Jazz Fest might be different today had she not died so soon.
The connection between music and listener is what makes the Music Heritage Stage such a fitting legacy for Miner. Music was more than just entertainment to her: She felt that to know and appreciate the music requires you to know and appreciate its source, the musicians themselves.
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While Miner's most visible legacy is the Music Heritage Stage, she was also the founder of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Archive. The archive is an invaluable resource that contains recordings from musicians interviewed at the Music Heritage Stage, as well as other documents, photographs and collections related to the festival and the foundation.
This year, there will be two sessions of particular note on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. On the first day of the festival, Thursday, April 25, Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis will interview 93-year-old George Wein, who along with Miner founded the festival.
On Sunday, May 5, the last day of the 50th Jazz Fest, the stage will host an Allison Miner Tribute session with Professor Longhair’s daughter, Pat Byrd, along with Steve Armbruster, Keith Frazier and “Dodie” Smith-Simmons.
The Jazz Fest at 50 series, celebrating the half-century anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell, is a partnership between The New Orleans Advocate and WWOZ 90.7 FM.