In 1970, the SS President was the last sidewheel steamboat in America, and it had called New Orleans home for three decades. It held a huge dance floor where 3,000 passengers could dance and enjoy concert cruises on the Mississippi River. But, on the low-key evening of April 22, 1970, perhaps its most important cruise took place.
The concert was by Pete Fountain and his orchestra, and Clyde Kerr Sr. and his orchestra. Neither act was unusual to see in concert, but the show was the very first event of a new multi-day festival of local and national musicians. It was a financial gamble called the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
The following day was the unveiling of the first Louisiana Heritage Fair in Congo Square, as well as the first of a series of nighttime concerts at the Municipal Auditorium.
In the end, the festival made a little over $50. But the event was counted a cultural and financial success, becoming part of the fabric of New Orleans. The Jazz Fest cruises with headlining acts on the SS President continued alongside the Heritage Fair, which grew, moving into the Fair Grounds Race Course.
Fats Domino and Professor Longhair played Jazz Fest nighttime shows on the President, and so did Sonny Rollins, Tina Turner, B.B. King, Sun Ra, James Brown, Muddy Waters and dozens more.
In 1971, Jazz Fest founders George Wein, Quint Davis, and Allison Miner sat down at a bar in Uptown New Orleans, waiting to see a Mardi Gras I…
The final Jazz Fest cruise on the President was April 30, 1988, and featured Robert Cray, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Neville Brothers. Soon afterward, the boat was sold and left town for St. Louis, where it was eventually decommissioned and dismantled.
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell has become strictly a daytime event, and in one location, at the Fair Grounds. But for almost 20 years, many legendary evenings of Jazz Fest were spent on board the SS President, which had been the site of that first official Jazz Fest concert with Pete Fountain and Clyde Kerr Sr.
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.