On JazzFest

When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival announced their line-up for 2011 there was a lot of noise about the perceived lack of jazz and heritage acts. With headliners like stadium rockers Bon Jovi, hipster critical darlings Arcade Fire and hip-hop has-been Mystikal getting the attention, it would be easy to assume that New Orleans had forgotten the “Jazz & Heritage” in an attempt to compete with the other big summer festivals like Coachella and Bonnaroo. But for anyone who looked past the AP story and read the full line-up, these complaints are completely ridiculous.

The full list of performers includes more traditional jazz and Louisiana “heritage” (zydeco, brass bands, etc) music than can be found in any other setting. The line-up, as always, is a complete who’s who of New Orleans music, both past and present. In fact, it would be difficult to think of an important New Orleans musician who is not participating. So if the complaints can’t seriously be about the festivals lack of jazz or heritage, then they must be about the presence of so much music that doesn’t “fit the bill”.

While it may be difficult to swallow Bon Jovi and Kid Rock playing a “jazz” festival, the fact is they draw massive audiences. 375,000 people attended JazzFest last year. These throngs of people may not care at all about Sonny Rollins’ achievements and almost definitely have never heard of Anat Cohen, but they unwittingly make it possible for those of us who have heard to enjoy a great festival at a bargain price.

The economics of jazz aren’t particularly rosy these days. Newport didn’t decide to go non-profit because they didn’t like making money, but because they weren’t making very much, anyway, so the tax breaks looked mighty attractive. Musicians are touring less because the crowds simply aren’t there. If New Orleans can put together a strong line-up of jazz musicians, as well as an unmatched line-up of traditional New Orleans musicians, and do so consistently at a more-than-fair price, who cares who’s headlining the main stages?


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