If your tastes are eclectic, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival poses a problem: Which of a dozen acts do you want to hear? Earth, Wind & Fire, Alanis Morissette, or Taj Mahal & the Phantom Blues Band? Van Morrison, Al Green, Johnny Rivers, or all five Marsalis jazzmen playing together?
The festival’s first producer recently contemplated the 50th anniversary lineup for the eight-day festival, which begins Thursday. “I think what I want to see is the Marsalis family together, because I haven’t seen them together for a long time,” George Wein, 93, said in a telephone interview.
Pianist Ellis Marsalis and his sons — trumpeter Wynton, saxophone player Branford, trombonist Delfeayo and percussionist Jason Marsalis — close out the festival’s first weekend at the Jazz Tent. It’s among 10 music stages and tents, along with the Kids’ Tent, an interview stage and a cultural exchange pavilion.
Other first-weekend acts include Katy Perry, Bonnie Raitt, Boz Scaggs and Santana.
There’s also a juried arts and crafts show, an African marketplace, a Louisiana heritage marketplace and enough food to leave you in a two-week-long stupor.
About 450,000 fans came last year, across seven days. Wein said he always knew the festival would grow, but not to the current extent.
The first Heritage Fair had more performers than audience members, as lesser-known locals performed at the daytime fair. Duke Ellington, Mahalia Jackson, Al Hirt, Pete Fountain and other top acts played at nighttime indoor Jazz Festival concerts.
The next year brought four night concerts and three afternoons in Congo Square, with four stages: blues, Cajun, gospel and street music. That first day was “a ragged little carnival of sound” with 25 acts sometimes clashing, The Associated Press wrote. The enclosure also held “two beer counters, a souvenir store, a cotton candy machine and a food tent where tourists tried red beans and rice but seldom braved the crimson boiled crawfish.”
One fan who had paid $2 demanded, “We drove all the way over here from Galveston to hear some jazz. Where is it?” Patty Mouton told Wein his Newport Jazz Festival was great, but “You call this jazz? That old woman singing hymns over there?”
“Sure that’s jazz,” he replied. “Those hymns are jazz and so is the guy beating on those oil drums. This is the grassroots jazz.”
The Heritage Fair moved in 1972 to the New Orleans Fair Grounds racetrack infield, where the New Orleans Jazz Festival and Heritage Fair is still held, adding a second weekend in 1976 .
New Orleans “Queen of Soul” Irma Thomas, who began playing Jazz Fest in 1974, said it gave local artists like herself a chance to be seen by national and international audiences.
“A lot of us worked for years without having agents, and Jazz Fest has been sort of the agent for the locals who have been around since mud and have not been recognized,” she said.
Gospel and Zydeco performers also began getting invitations to perform at other festivals and events worldwide after being heard at Jazz Fest, producer Quint Davis said.
By 1976, when about 175,000 people attended over six days, some people said the outdoor fair had grown too big, calling it Son of Mardi Gras.
The record crowd was an estimated 650,000 over seven days in 2001. That festival’s lineup included B.B. King, Dr. John, Widespread Panic, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Allen Toussaint and the Neville Brothers.
Widespread Panic is back this year because health problems knocked the Rolling Stones and replacement Fleetwood Mac out of the lineup. Jerry Lee Lewis, 83, also had to send regrets after a stroke in March.
Wein’s favorite memory over the festival’s first 49 years is hearing Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder together.
It was in 1977. Wonder, at the height of his career, joined Fitzgerald on stage at the city’s Municipal Auditorium. They sang his 1973 hit, “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
“Stevie’s still a star,” Wein said.
Associated Press video reporter Stacey Plaisance contributed.