NEW ORLEANS — Only about 350 people attended the first New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1970, and that number included gospel singer Mahalia Jackson and the other 100 or so local musicians who performed.
Four decades later, Jazz Fest draws hundreds of thousands of fans from around the world to hear bands perform jazz, blues, country, Cajun, rap and rock.
The festival’s 40th anniversary kicks off today with a tribute to Jackson by Grammy-winning soul singer Irma Thomas and a performance by New Orleans native trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. This year’s headliners include Bon Jovi, Sugarland, Kings of Leon and The O’Jays.
“Oh, it’s a lot different now,” said Lionel Ferbos, a 97-year-old jazz trumpeter who has performed at the festival every year. In 1970, he played with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra.
“It’s a lot bigger,” he added, recalling with a chuckle how that first year “nobody showed up.”
Although more nationally known acts have joined the lineup, the festival’s core remains local. Its producer said more than 80 per cent of the acts are from Louisiana.
“It’s still about New Orleans,” said Fountain, 78, who performs Saturday. “That’s why people like it so much. They like the city, and they like this city’s music. That’s why they come.”
Highlighting the city’s music was what motivated festival founder George Wein to venture south from New England. Launching Jazz Fest in New Orleans took years, Wein said, in large part because of segregation during the early 1960s.
When the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, the first festival was announced but later cancelled because violence and discrimination around the South continued against blacks who were trying to integrate, he said. But by 1970, things had settled.
The first Jazz Fest was held at Louis Armstrong Memorial Park and the park’s Congo Square, where in the 1800s slaves and free blacks would gather on Sundays to play music, dance, socialize and market goods. At the first festival, musicians shared four stages over two days.
Every performer that first year was from Louisiana, except for pianist and composer Duke Ellington, who was invited by Wein to attend and perform an original song to mark the occasion.
Ellington performed The New Orleans Suite, which earned him a Grammy in 1971 for best jazz performance by a big band.