Echoes of 2006: Jazz Fest returns to New Orleans in 2022

NEW ORLEANS — Once silenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival opened Friday for the first time in three years — a long-awaited revival in 2022 that harkens back to 2006 when the annual celebration music and culture continued even after Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve been through a storm like no other,” longtime New Orleans resident Jennifer Jones said of the pandemic. She carried a feathered parasol and strutted around in an outfit of iridescent pinks, blues and yellows.

The two-weekend production draws tens of thousands to the city’s Fair Grounds Race Course, where up to 80 musical acts perform daily on more than a dozen stages, complemented by art exhibits and crafts and an array of stalls offering foods from Louisiana and beyond. .

“This lovely community here in New Orleans needs this festival,” visitor Garey Rosen said as he and a pal took a selfie as “Jesus on the Main Line” sounded from the festival’s Gospel tent. . It was his seventh Jazz Fest for Rosen, who said he was from New Jersey.

“Everyone here is counting on this festival. And it’s the best festival in the world,” Rosen said.

Lionel Richie and Death Cab for Cutie are among Friday’s draws at the festival which sprinkles many high-profile artists throughout its run. The Who headlines Saturday; the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Sunday. But the festival is perhaps best known for showcasing a dizzying array of Louisiana musical talent, styles and genres – jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco and more.

Organizers staged the April 2006 spectacle eight months after the levees failed and the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and when debris and water-damaged homes still blighted the landscape. Longtime festival producer Quint Davis recounts two moving memories of the festival: Bruce Springsteen bringing local crowds to tears as he sang “My City of Ruins” to close out the first weekend, and the joy of having crowds lined up at the doors on opening day.

“It was just incredible energy, like a pilgrimage,” Davis recalled Tuesday.

2020 marked the first time the festival has been canceled in its 50-year history, due to COVID-19. “It was like a sword to the heart,” Davis said, adding that the comeback was more difficult in some ways than the post-Katrina festival as the pandemic led to vendor changes, higher costs and complications. to reassemble equipment after a three-year lull.

The 2020 cancellation, along with the cancellations of planned spring and fall 2021 comebacks, has been emotionally devastating for festival organizers and fans, Davis said. And they have brought recurring economic shocks for the bars, restaurants and music venues that rely on an influx of Jazz Fest visitors.

“Those are our two biggest weekends of the year,” said James Gonzci, co-owner of Liuzza’s by the Track, recalling the disappointment. The neighborhood bar and restaurant attract overflowing crowds after each festival day.

Robert Mercurio can assess the return from two angles. As bassist of the funk band Galactic, he credits the festival with helping the band achieve international fame after a performance in 1996. As co-owner of historic Tipitina music club, he enjoys business that Jazz Fest is bringing to venues as they rebound from pandemic closures.

“I think people who haven’t been to New Orleans in a long time are looking forward to coming to Tipitina for that real New Orleans experience after the festival,” Mercurio said Thursday.

Jazz Fest returns as COVID-19 cases are at a lower level than they have been for months and two-thirds of the US population are vaccinated. Mask mandates, public gathering limits and vaccine proof requirements have been lifted in New Orleans. Hospitalizations remain low in Louisiana after reaching dangerous peaks in 2020 and 2021.

The masks were a rare sight at the festival, most of which take place outdoors. Ebere Adighibe, selling handcrafted jewelery at a stall with her partner Teaty Pawoo, had her mask pulled under her chin – ready if needed. “Inside I always put it,” he said as a breeze stirred the warm morning air. “Here, I don’t worry too much about that.”

Jazz Fest hotel occupancy rates have yet to reach 2019 levels. Kelly Schulz of the New Orleans & Co. tourism association, said downtown and French Quarter hotels are expecting up to now an occupancy rate of around 80%. It was about 90% three years ago.

But Schulz points to several signs of recovery, including the return this year of Mardi Gras season parades and parties, the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, a recent pro golf tournament, NBA playoff games and two major conventions.

Jazz Fest, she said, has an estimated $400 million impact on the local economy, like when the city hosts the Super Bowl.

“What we’re seeing is the best time as an industry since the pandemic started,” Schulz said.

“Comparing it to 2006 is significant,” Schulz said of Jazz Fest’s return. “Because I think that’s how people feel about it, in terms of coming back and what that means and how many people have been waiting for that day – mostly because people thought we were going to get it. last year and it was canceled again.

Mercurio, too, says Jazz Fest’s return is reminiscent of 2006’s after Katrina. “It feels like a wake up call after a very dark time,” he said. “Finally arriving at a light at the end of the tunnel that we have all been looking for for so long.”

Ada J. Kenney