It’s been said that you really have to be at The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to ever know what it’s like. How can one put into words the communal nature of the long-running music and culture fest? Is it possible to fully explain how much music you hear and dance to throughout the course of one single day, or how it feels to take that first bite of Crawfish Bread, washing it down with an ice cold beer? The only thing that could possibly paint the picture of Jazz Fest to those who have never been there is Smithsonian Folkway’s brand new five-disc box set entitled Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a triumphant feat of recording ingenuity and artistic performances that were over 40 years in the making.
The CDs are comprised of select recordings starting from 1974 and extending to 2016. You’ll hear artists including Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint (whose song includes Bonnie Raitt), Buckwheat Zydeco, Big Freedia, and Trombone Shorty, just to name a few. The Golden Eagles start off Album 1 with “Indian Red,” a uniquely New Orleans piece born of the Mardi Gras Indians tradition, then, in a humorous fashion, you’ll be subjected to “Welcome to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival” which is the same recording that plays over the loudspeakers as people walk into the festival.
While each piece of music on these albums is special in its own way, some songs do stand out. Danny Barker’s “Basin Street Blues” features Lady Linda on the mic along with nine other musicians. “Bring Me Flowers While I’m Living/Rub a Little Boogie,” however, was performed by just Champion Jack Dupree and the late, great Allen Toussaint. The Dixie Cups made a mash-up of “Iko Iko,” “Brother John,” and “Saints Go Marching In.” You’ll probably play that one over and over again. “When the Levee Breaks” by John Campbell is especially powerful due to his brusque style of getting the lyrics out.
The recordings, even the earliest ones, are mastered so well that you’ll feel like you’re on stage right alongside the musicians, the crowd cheering you along jubilantly and enthusiastically. No genre is left behind; Cajun, Gospel, pop, and all styles of music are well represented.
The box set includes a 136-page book of photographs pulled from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, The Historic New Orleans Collection, and fest photographers. The beautiful, engaging photography is accompanied by retrospective essays written by the local press. Smithsonian Folkway’s Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival will be available at this year’s festival. Dance, boogie, or groove your way over to the booth and pick up your copy when you get to Jazz Fest.