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Why New Orleans Jazz Fest is a Model for the Festival World

Photo by: Douglas Mason
by Laura Mason | @masonlazarus Fri April 22, 2016 | 11:30 AM

For many festival-goers, the who, what, how and why of putting an entire festival together isn't at the forefront of our brains. But as festivals become more and more of a global phenomenon, it's time we honor and get to know the people who make them happen for the rest of us.

One of the most admirable organizations not only putting on music and cultural festivals, but also making sure its community is strengthened through its work is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation , which happens to own one of our very favorite festivals, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell (April 28-May 7). In addition to its crown jewel Jazz Fest (which has a huge lineup this year, featuring the likes of Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder, Dave Matthews Band, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Maroon 5, Lorde, Pitbull, Widepsread Panic, Kings of Leon, and more), the Foundation owns the Crescent City Blues & BBQ Fest, Congo Square Rhythms Festival, Louisiana Cajun-Zydeco Festival and the Tremé Creole Gumbo Festival.

Everything the non-profit Foundation does goes towards celebrating NOLA's incredibly diverse, melting pot culture, whether it's showcasing traditional Louisiana musicianship at concerts; giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in community partnership grants towards preserving Louisiana culture and music/arts education; producing gallery events, cultural workshops and lecture series; or teaching generations of passionate new musicians at the Don “Moose” Jamison Heritage School of Music (to name just a few). Now that's a festival mission we can get behind.

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Photo by Art Gimbel

We decided to get to know the folks of this tireless non-profit who put on Jazz Fest, so we dove into conversation with Scott Aiges, the Foundation's Director of Programs and an instrumental person who helps the Foundation hum like a well-oiled machine year in and year out. He told us more about the Foundation's inextricable role in the NOLA community and why NOLA music is so important to the entire world.

What's your personal history with jazz and NOLA music culture? When did you get involved in the Jazz & Heritage Foundation?

I first learned about New Orleans music while I was living in Washington, DC, in the late 1980s. A friend played me a song by The Meters – I think it was “Look Ka Py Py” – and I was just blown away. It was the sound I had always wanted to hear. I ended up getting a job as a newspaper reporter for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans in 1988. The following year, I became the pop music and jazz critic at the paper, and that started my education in New Orleans music and culture. I went on to manage bands, and then worked for the city and state governments doing music industry development. I joined the Jazz & Heritage Foundation in November 2006.

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Food at Jazz Fest. Photo by Art Gimbel

How do you think the NOLA community views the Foundation?

That’s a good question. For the longest time, most people didn’t even know the Foundation existed – we were completely overshadowed by Jazz Fest, which is understandable. But in the past 10 years we’ve been so active with new events (like the four free festivals we produce) and programs (like our Any Given Child initiative to get music and art instruction back into the public school system), and growing some of our legacy programs (like our Community Partnership Grants), that it’s really helped us get the word out. We get a pretty decent amount of media coverage, and lots of social media action and word of mouth. So, now, I think a lot more people know that there is something that’s “the nonprofit that owns Jazz Fest.” And to the extent that they know about us, they think nice things. Because we’re doing some pretty cool stuff.

Why is music so important to NOLA's identity?

Four words: birth place of jazz. And two more: Congo Square , which is where African slaves were allowed to gather on Sundays and practice their drumming and dance traditions, which is pretty much where African music and culture were implanted into the New World. Also, when you have 1) a place that’s prone to things like hurricanes and flooding, and 2) was founded by pirates, you can imagine why a somewhat fatalistic culture developed. Tomorrow may never come, so let’s dance today. Another way of looking at it is that there’s been a lot of poverty and other social problems here over the ages; music is often an expression of people trying to cope with adverse circumstances and finding a spiritual sense of joy and life. So I’m sure that plays into it.

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Photo by Art Gimbel

How and why do you think Jazz Fest's reputation – in regards to its lineups – has gained so much respect in the mainstream music world? For example, this year's headliners include Stevie Wonder, J. Cole, Nick Jonas, etc. What do you think attracts them to Jazz Fest?

Looking at it that way – that the headliners are attracted to Jazz Fest – would make people here smile. Most often folks here look at it the other way: “What do Elton John or Lady Gaga have to do with ‘jazz and heritage’”? But it’s a yin/yang thing. The meat of the festival has always been the indigenous culture of Louisiana – the food, the folk art and, of course, the music. More than 90 percent of the performers at Jazz Fest are locals. That attracts many, many people. But there are many, many more who are first drawn to the festival because of the Eagles or Tom Petty or whoever may be headlining. What always happens, though, is that those folks come for Bon Jovi, but they end up getting turned on to gospel or traditional New Orleans jazz or brass band music or Mardi Gras Indians.

And they realize that there’s something uniquely authentic here, and they’re blown away. And nine times out of 10, they end up coming back year after year. It’s that combination of attractions that has helped Jazz Fest grow into such a huge event. So, now, a lot of the big names have heard about this really cool, down-home festival in New Orleans. And for many of them, playing Jazz Fest is like a crowning achievement in their careers.

What roles, separate or together, do the foundation's festivals play in NOLA at large?

They kind of spread the Jazz Fest love throughout the year. All four of the free festivals that the foundation produces are like mini Jazz Fests, with music, food, art, kids activities and so on. We first started doing them right after Hurricane Katrina, as a way to provide more employment opportunities for our local musicians. As the events have grown, they attract visitors from around the country and around the world. That helps the hotels, restaurants, night clubs and the whole cultural economy. Plus, they’re just a lot of fun, and we’re proud that the local community has embraced them as a big part of the cultural calendar.

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A Mardi Gras Indian at Jazz Fest. Photo by Art Gimbel

What do you think the worldwide festival community could learn from the festivals the foundation puts on in NOLA?

Well, we have a very unique model. What we’ve managed to accomplish is much more than just creating a big, successful festival. We’ve also figured out how to develop a sustainable nonprofit organization, one with a large budget that is able to do a lot of good work in the community on many different fronts. There are many festivals in the world that have some sort of “give-back” or “do-gooder” component. There are some that support music-in-the-schools initiatives, or that support local food banks, or provide music instruction for at-risk youth. There are some festivals that are free and generate just enough revenue to keep doing the event. And there are some that are run by for-profit entities and exist solely to make money for their owners. But I haven’t heard of another one that actually supports a thriving nonprofit foundation that uses the festival proceeds for year-round programs in a wide variety of areas.

Jazz Fest is special because the festival itself is a mirror image of the mission of the foundation. It’s educational, it’s economic development and it’s cultural enrichment. We’re extremely fortunate that it is also very successful, because that allows us to do all the year-round work that we do. I’d love to see people in other places learn to leverage their own indigenous cultures the way that we have, so that they can provide a self-sustaining mechanism to keep the whole thing rolling into the future.

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Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello perform at Jazz Fest 2014. Photo by Art Gimbel


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New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Start Date: April 22, 2016
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States