Recently, we got this keepsake from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1978. So we decided to take a closer look at the history and significance of the world-famous festival that honors the city as the birthplace of jazz.
In 1970, New Orleans held the inaugural Jazz and Heritage Festival at Congo Square. It featured performances by Duke Ellington, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, the Meters, and an impromptu performance by Mahalia Jackson. Previous Jazz festivals were held in the city, but on a much smaller scale. The music featured at the festival encompassed a diverse range of jazz, R&B, Cajun, gospel, zydeco, rock-n-roll, African, and Latin.
The significance of Congo Square, then known as Beauregard Square, dates back to the 1700s. "Code Noir" was implemented in French Louisiana territory, giving enslaved people Sundays off as a day of rest. As a result, they began congregating in public and private spaces, performing religious ceremonies, dancing, and making music.
When Spanish forces took control of Louisiana, Code Noir became more relaxed, allowing enslaved people to sell and exchange food and goods, utilized by many to purchase their freedom and their families freedom.
In 1817, the New Orleans mayor issued an ordinance that restricted enslaved people to congregate what was then considered "the back of town," but came to be known as Congo Square. Limited to the confines of the square, up to 600 people congregated on Sunday afternoons, continuing their celebration of music and dance as spirited as ever.
As New Orleans grew, the French Quarter grew around Congo Square, no longer considered the "back of town" by any standards. Rather, the music made at the Square spread up the Mississippi River, and Congo Square became a famous hub for African music, dance, and culture.
Congo Square became the core of New Orleans music, influencing generations of musicians to carry on tradition passionately. As the setting for the first ever Jazz and Heritage Festival, its legacy endures.
Still, the first festival in 1970 was not well-funded, and a result advertising for the event was minimal. Despite the small crows, the festival garnered local attention and the next year, more funding was secured and saw much larger crowds at Congo Square.
Since then, Jazz Fest has become one of the leading cultural celebrations in the country, held annually at the Fair Grounds Race Course once it outgrew Congo Square. The tourism brought to New Orleans from the event is rivaled only by Mardi Gras.
In its early years the lineup featuring almost solely local acts. As the festival's popularity grew, major jazz and R&B musicians made their Jazz Fest debut, including Taj Mahal, B.B. King, Dave Brubeck, Al Green, and James Brown, to name a few.
Food vendors, like the music, celebrated New Orleans heritage, offering boiled crawfish, alligator po-boys, Cajun jambalaya, muffulettas, and fried green tomatoes. The festival provides a mass marketplace for craftsmen.
George Wein, the founder of the festival, had also produced the Newport Jazz Festival and Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. Wein believed that the festival in New Orleans should outdo the Newport festival, saying that, "Newport was manufactured, but New Orleans is the real thing."
Organizers recruited performers not from the commercialized Bourbon Street but from black clubs. Snooks Eaglin, a street singer, was the first performer recruited. Many of the local NOLA musicians perform annually at the festival, like the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Ellis Marsalis, and the Radiators.
Funds from the festival go towards the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and WWOZ 90.7 FM, the "Guardians of the Groove," radio station.
Limited edition silkscreen poster series began in '75, which became a hit among collectors and festival-goers. Commissioned artists designed lively posters featuring the iconic jazz musicians who graced the festival stage. The 1978 poster was done by Charest and Brousseau, showing two black musicians jamming on the porch, as a young boy peers from behind the railing.
In 2019, the 50th Annual Jazz Fest was held. It celebrated not only the history of jazz in New Orleans, but the success and virtue of the festival over the years.