Behind the scenes at the New Orleans Jazz Fest

At the edge of the gulf, Nathaniel “Natty” Adams details the people, places, culture and moments that make New Orleans one of America’s most colorful and vibrant cities.

On a sunny May afternoon, the Loyola University Jazz Ensemble of New Orleans gathers in a large rehearsal room in the Music Building on St. Charles Avenue across from Audobon Park. About 60 students dressed in various casual college fashions – T-shirts, shorts, sneakers – walk around unhurriedly, picking up and unpacking their instruments from the cases lining the walls, chatting and finding their seats. Members of the Jazz Vocal Ensemble gather on one side of the room and chat. Instruments are tuned, piano and bass fall together into a groove, flute and clarinet join before the saxophone section begins a playful, honking battle. The group is excited as Dr. Gordon Towell, director of the program, gradually draws them to their attention.

The following Friday, the Jazz Ensemble, the centerpiece of New Orleans’ largest jazz education program, was scheduled to perform at the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. They had an opening slot at 11:15 on Sunday morning. For the seniors, this concert would mark the culmination of four years of difficult musical education in the age of the pandemic – it was to be a celebration of all their hard work.

Spencer Moore, a New Orleans-born and raised saxophonist, says Jazz Fest “isn’t just a festival, it’s a community; a family reunion.” He joined as a freshman in 2020 and says that because of the pandemic, the band “couldn’t do what we were born to do: play jazz in front of people and get their reactions “.

“I was in high school the last time they had a jazz festival,” he says.


Christopher Casillas, a senior graduate says he’s nervous because the second piece of the set centers around his soprano saxophone solo. He played locally in live music bars up and down Frenchman Street with musicians outside the school, but the ensemble’s big band is a different experience. Fellow senior Peter James has even more reason to be excited about Jazz Fest – it will be the debut of his first original composition with the band, a funky piece called “False Report” featuring Motown horn sounds and disco hats. shimmering, all held together by a percussive piano melody. Leading his comrades in practice, James goes through each section of the song several times until they have mastered it.

Saskia Walker, a vocal ensemble junior, moved to New Orleans from Rome, Italy. Her parents are both musicians, but she grew up going to music schools almost by accident – “they were just the closest to me,” she says. New Orleans’ musical heritage has always fascinated her, and when she discovered the Loyola program, she knew she had to go.

“So many college towns are just that,” she says. “In New Orleans, I can go to Frenchman Street and sit with other musicians.”

The famous annual Jazz and Heritage Festival was one of the things she was most looking forward to seeing and participating in when she arrived in the fall of 2019. The following spring, university, city, country and most of the world have locked down for the Covid-19 pandemic. The campus was closed and students were sent home, discouraged, to await news of what was to come.

Loyola University Jazz Program staff diligently found ways to continue teaching students when in-person classes resumed — with precautionary measures — in the fall semester. The band was split into small groups for rehearsal, they were taught to record in separate sections to give them a feel for studio work, the horn players had special medical-grade materials stretched over the bells of their instruments, and the singers were given wire masks that allowed them to open wide, sing, and breathe in and out without having their mouths full of fabric. Some days they rehearsed outside, competing with the traffic on Rue Saint-Charles and the fighter planes that occasionally flew over the town from the local military base. School janitors were often their only audience on a relatively empty campus.

At the rehearsal, Towell helps them organize their carpools for the festival. He tells them to wear something “nice and casual,” like khakis and a colorful shirt.

“If you’re wearing flip flops at Jazz Fest, you’re not from here,” he warns them. “It’s like wearing flip flops in the French Quarter.”

A moan of disgust rises from the group.

He also warns them that bands have been cut due to weather in the past and that the Festival is very strict on schedules.

“I saw them cut off Arturo Sandoval’s microphone,” he swears, horrified.

The band has a warm-up gig Wednesday at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the French Quarter as part of a showcase of local jazz education programs spanning all ages. In front of a crowd lying on the grass, Chris Casillas’ nerves melt as he rises for his sinuous soprano saxophone solo. He sways to the beat, his eyes closed, his many-ringed fingers moving deftly, earning him cheers and applause when he’s finished. “False Report” by Peter James is an unfailing success with the public. The band is ready for the Jazz Fest.

On Friday morning, Stephen Moore woke up at 5:30 a.m., too excited to sleep any longer. Rain was falling outside, with occasional peals of thunder. But the rain comes and goes quickly and – as futile as the predictions in New Orleans may be – all signs pointed to it being over with their set. The band carpools to the fairgrounds all over town, talking not only about the decor but also about the acts they’ll be going to see after performing.

A quarter of an hour after they arrived at the marquee with their instruments, around 9:30 a.m., a festival representative comes to tell them that they will not play, partly for fear that rain and lightning will compromise their safety and their equipment. A handful of sound technicians, taking pity on the crushed students, let them play a few songs to control the sound of the stage. By the time the doors opened to the public, the Loyola Jazz Ensemble name had disappeared from the website’s lineup. By the time 11:15 a.m. arrives, the sky is clear and students are scattered around the festival, trying to make the most of a bad day.

“It was my first year in the big band,” Casillas explains. “And that was supposed to be my last gig. It’s like that. At least we got Wednesday.

The seniors, though they missed that musical, have big things to look forward to: Casillas will be participating in NYU’s Screen Scoring Masters program in the fall. James will attend the University of Miami for a master’s degree in music composition. “False Report” will be distributed to his fellow composition students when they sight read each other’s pieces.

For now, the ensemble has finished playing and the students are taking their final exams. They may not have played Jazz Fest 2022, but that wasn’t entirely lost.

“Going to the Fest was always a bonding experience for us,” says Walker. “We were able to listen to the music we all love together.”



Ada J. Kenney