New Orleans Jazz Fest 2020!! Live Report
Leslie here reporting in, coffee in hand live from the Crescent City.
The last day of the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is shaping up to be a perfect day for music and food at the Fairgrounds Race Track.
Sunny and clear skies, a slight breeze, no rain in the forecast, other than the usual 10% chance of light scattered showers later in the day.
Today, Sunday, April 26th, 2020 is looking like another gorgeous one for local music lovers and the one hundred thousand plus that normally fly in from all over the globe each year to be a part of the greatest festival on Earth.
At 9:00 am, droves of Professional Daytime Festival attendees would already be cued up on Gentilly Avenue, excited to be within the first 5 blocks in that snaking line flanked by budding young entrepreneurs, selling everything from bottled water and sunblock to hand-crafted jewelry.
Police Officers would be standing near barricades helping to keep things orderly, a good portion of these patient public servants detailed to direct traffic.
Musicians, still half asleep from late night gigs and jam sessions and hundreds of vendors, parking passes and credentials in hand get sent on various routes and through multiple check points to eventually arrive in their designated parking locations.
Inside, masses of sound, light, tech, security, food vendor, craft, stage hand, electrical, and medical professionals, along with droves of volunteers, would be getting ready for that long line of festival enthusiasts that will come barreling in as soon as the gates are opened.
I wrote a book about the Jazz Festival.
It was published in 2005, three months before Hurricane Katrina. Well reviewed and well received, I was planing to write a couple more about this crazy, wonderful unique town I'm from.
Sadly, that non-fiction, Louisiana subject focused, brand-spanking new publishing company was washed away and literally went under in the wake of the Storm.
My father, Michael P. Smith, wrote the only other books ever published about our Festival. His books are: New Orleans Jazz Fest; A Pictorial History, and Jazz Fest Memories (with Alison Minor).
My book is entitled (wait for it) "The Incomplete, Year-by-year, Selectively Quirky, Prime Facts Edition of the History of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival"
-yeah, I know. The name SUCKS.
I didn't do that.
The Publisher and the head editor did that.
They thought it was funny.
I'm sure they lived to regret it.
It's a pretty good book though, and like the Jazz Fest, a wonderful venture because it was a group effort.
Writer, reporter fellow wordsmith Jan Clifford and I split up the years, the research and the interviews and dug in.
Buddy Brimberg wrote the chapter on the evolution of the Official Posters,
Keven McCaffrey wrote the chapter on food at the fairgrounds.
You can probably find it online for a dollar.
You should pick one up, it's worth it at $30. .
The original list price was $19.99
Many people, including a fellow named Jerry Brock, poured over old festival program books and keyed in the schedules for all of the stages from 1970 through 2004.
Fun Fact: Jerry Brock and his brother Walter started WWOZ Radio. It began broadcasting here at my house.
When my dad and the rest of the original crew bought the 501 Club, later renamed Tipitina's, Jerry and Walter eventually moved WWOZ radio upstairs at that location to be more accessible for interviewing artists.
One important lesson I learned while doing research for my Jazz Fest tome is, if no one writes it down it will not be remembered. Words have power. Particularly with artists. We can be written into, or out of existence.
I was stunned by that realization as I put together my essays for the 19+ years of the festival I covered.
It made me fight with my editor to keep great musicians from the dust of the cutting room floor.
I needed their names in print so history would know they were here and had valuable things to say. They mattered.
So, If you're a fan of WWOZ, it wouldn't have happened without those two guys you've probably never heard of. They had a passion for music and an idea.
"Let's broadcast the cool underground records that aren't getting played. Let's play great local artists, give them a voice."
They created the template for local, volunteer, guest musician DJ formatting that traveled from here at my house, to 501 Napoleon Avenue above Tipitina's, to Armstrong Park, and finally to its current location on Decatur Street.
That old Shotgun double where WWOZ began was built in 1860. Keeping it up is an endless labor of love on my part.
It would normally be packed with musicians right now.
They would still be sleeping.
During any non-global-pandemic Jazz Fest, my property turns into a mini festival of its own.
Multiple bands rehearse their shows in my studio, on my deck, in the double, at all hours.
It's glorious- From local funky favs like Zigaboo Modeliste or Kirk Joseph's Backyard Groove, to the late great Ruby Wilson, you just never know who might be passing through.
Mike Olmos, Trumpeter supreme from the Bay Area has become one of the regular ingredients in the sublime melodic gumbo that happens here at Race Street annually. From UK, Australia, Central America, Canada, France, really all over the world-
I annually host some combination of my international family, who've all come here to work, listen, write, and participate in this unique event we do once a year.
Today is different. The City is quiet. No one is here.
No music blasts from cars on the street. No brass bands march past my house with parties of dancing second liners in tow from the wedding venue one block down.
Loyal Jazz and Heritage Festival lovers who had planned to be in New Orleans for the 2020 Jazz Fest are tuned into WWOZ from all over the world, from multiple time zones while sheltering in place.
The Station will be broadcasting live shows from years past and festival highlights from their archives instead of broadcasting live from the festival grounds.
The other night, my phone blew up with the news that they were playing the Ella Fitzgerald show from 1977 when Stevie Wonder dropped in and blew the house down with a duet of
"You Are The Sunshine Of My Life"
I was there a few feet from them, back stage carrying my dads camera bag.
What a show- the standing ovation was so loud and intense it actually felt like the roof might cave in.
A photo my dad took at that show is hanging in the double.
My father and his partner in a company called Sweet Molasses, Misha Phillipoff made a beautiful silk screen poster of it that was never marketed.
What a shame.. but that's another story..
Another fun fact: Stevie Wonder had his private birthday party here at Rosy's uptown that year..
Because of my dad, I've had an intimate relationship with the festival from the very beginning. When CNN did a feature on my father in 2004, the year the Jazz Festival honored him, Quint Davis said: "Mike Smith defined the look of Jazz Fest, his photos brought the New Orleans Jazz Festival to the world". That's true.
I saw Mahalia Jackson sing with Duke Ellington and the Olimpia Brass Band in 1970.
Of course I didn't understand what a treasure it was to witness that, but I think I might have absorbed some of that magic just by being there.
At this writing, I am reclining in an insanely comfortable, chocolate brown, Italian leather easy chair nestled in the heart of downtown New Orleans, spitting distance from the mighty Mississippi.
Oddly, I don't want to listen to any music, but it feels good in my heart to know that some of these great shows are documented.
I'm glad live performances will be filling up the airways all day, broadcast from New Orleans via WWOZ.org
The locally supported, listener funded, non profit, volunteer driven radio station that keeps the beat alive and brings our local music to the world.
What a great idea.