Bell Bottoms and Umbrellas

Jazz Fest Makes 50
Illustration by Tony Healey
Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. She also writes the Wednesday Tourism Blog on


This month, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) makes 50. Generations of attendees have been touched by the performances, second-lines, food and simply the vibe of this cultural event that is quintessentially New Orleans.

Generations of performers have cycled through, too. Celebrated musicians have passed away, and younger talent has matured to take their “cube” at the festival. Think of the iconic image of Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews on stage with Bo Diddley in 1990 when Andrews was only 4 years old. This year, 33-year-old Grammy-nominated Trombone Shorty will close out the last Jazz Fest Sunday, as he has for several years now.

Billed as “50 years of joy,” the festival’s 12 stages will once again feature some of the greatest local and international talent. The big news for 2019 is the addition of another full day, adding a Thursday to the first weekend with a lineup that acts as the annual “Locals Thursday” schedule, while the second Thursday will be headlined by a little-known band of retirees called The Rolling Stones.

In an unprecedented move, festival organizers more than doubled the daily general admission rate for Stones Thursday and won’t honor Brass Passes for that day. I guess they knew what they were doing because general admission, and even the various VIP ticket levels, sold out in days. With total attendance trending up every year and reaching 450,000 in 2018, this year’s numbers looks like they will continue to rise.

I was curious if New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns the festival, had plans for what looks to be an increase in revenue this year. Scott Aiges, director of programs, marketing and communications at the foundation didn’t confirm if there are plans for an increase, but he did outline the approach the organization takes to their community and cultural programming when there is one.

“As revenues increase, so do the year-round community development programs of the foundation,” Aiges explained. “For example, our community partnership grants have grown steadily – from $125,000 distributed every other year in the early 2000s to more than $800,000 distributed annually. We’d like to increase that number significantly. But we also have other programs that we’d like to expand, such as our Heritage School of Music and the vocal workshops for teenagers that we host at NORD (New Orleans Recreation Development)  centers around the city.”

Small business owners are optimistic about the additional day this year.

“Our crew is super excited about the addition of an extra day,” said Patrick Young, co-owner of one of Jazz Fest’s food vendors, Smoke Street Catering. “An extra day equals extra sandwiches sold. However, as with any day of the festival, our sales hinge on the weather. As long as Mother Nature cooperates, we are anticipating a great Fest.”

Young has been operating at Jazz Fest for five years and has seen exactly what the weather can do to a vendor’s profit margin, the impact of which has a larger radius than the Fairgrounds race track. Smoke Street’s brisket and barbecue chicken sandwiches are served on Dong Phuong Bakery bread, and the company works with other local vendors as well.

“Smoke Street Catering is a small, family-owned business,” explained Young. “Jazz Fest is an all-hands-on-deck evolution for us. Our parents, spouses and now our children all pitch in to make the booth a success. We are ecstatic to be a part of the 50th anniversary of a local institution.”
The impact of Jazz Fest’s 50 years can be measured in many ways, like number of mango freezes sold, number of rolls of gaffer tape that have crossed the stages and number of children inspired to learn to play the trombone. While it is always measured by attendance and revenue, what keeps Jazz Fest relevant is not the dollars, but the memories it makes that continue to carry on for generations.