The festival offically reaches middle age next year. What will it do to celebrate?

rolling stones photo
Rolling Stones in 2019?

On a star power level, this year’s Jazz Fest was soft. Its biggest names play casinos and theaters, not arenas. David Byrne’s tour will play Saenger-like venues when he’s not booked at festivals. Jack White fit in the Saenger as last time he was in town, and it’s hard to imagine that the poorly received Boarding House Reach changed his draw for the better. Aerosmith was this year’s only arena act, so the talent roster almost certainly cost less 2017’s, which included arena acts Maroon 5, Usher, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews, and Stevie Wonder. 

The absence of arena-level draws in 2018 made Jazz Fest seem like less of an event, but it was also a very pleasant festival. Moving, eating, and seeing shows was easy. The first weekend was the most relaxing three days of Jazz Fest that I’ve experienced, and it helped that the weather was mild. If Festival Productions could make the first weekend-sized crowds economically viable, it would be ideal from a fan’s perspective. 

Is that possible? Was the payroll low enough that the smaller crowds remained profitable? And what would be the long term effect of Jazz Fest with a smaller payroll? What happens to a festival that gets out of the big-name talent business? The Threadheads and those who travel to New Orleans to see local talent would be happier, but are they so numerous that Festival Productions can get by without the people who attend specifically because of the big-name acts? Jazz Fest was New Orleanians’ chance to see David Byrne, Beck, or Aerosmith on this tour. Visitors from out of town may get other chances to see those acts later in the tour, but for New Orleanians, Jazz Fest is their tour stop. What happens to the festival if it takes those people out of the equation? 

Jazz Fest took time at the end of the first weekend to have founder George Wein announce that next year will be the festival’s 50th year. That makes it unlikely that 2019 will be the year when Jazz Fest decides to become a more boutique festival. Really, that’s what it is with the niche booking that defines 11 of its 13 stages, but the national artists booked on the Acura and Gentilly stages distort that perception, as does the festival’s effort to draw attendees from out of town. Jazz Fest may celebrate New Orleans, but it aims to do so with people from around the world. 

The early announcement prompted Nola.com’s Doug MacCash to speculate as to who might play the 50th anniversary because that’s what announcements of anniversaries do. ABBA announced it would reform, and that prompted MacCash to wonder aloud if they might play the 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest—a suggestion that drew scorn from purists and a call for his job from Mr. Jazz Fest, Keith Olbermann. ABBA is extremely unlikely, but no one who pays attention to Jazz Fest lineups can think Festival Productions would consider the band a step too far. The 1970s remain Jazz Fest’s sweet spot—headliners Byrne, Aerosmith, Maze, Steve Miller Band, LL Cool J, Lionel Richie, Jimmy Buffett, Rod Stewart, Sting, and Steel Pulse all debuted or played in that decade—and “the heritage of jazz” umbrella has been opened big enough to cover Phoenix, The Strokes, Meaghan Traynor, and Nick Jonas. How would one of the world’s biggest pop bands be strictly off-limits?

What next year will look like is a good question. Raising the 50th anniversary speculation now makes it hard for Festival Productions to come back without one of the big fish that have eluded it for all these years—a Rolling Stones or a McCartney. After them though, who? One challenge Jazz Fest faces is that as a daytime festival, major artists accustomed to performing with elaborate productions have to decide if they’re comfortable doing something less showy. Beyoncé has only toured with big shows for the last decade; what could Jazz Fest offer her that would make her want to simply get up there and sing? The economics of touring have changed to the point that it is extremely lucrative for the biggest names, so there’s less incentive for major touring acts to play festivals that require them to do anything out of their ordinary.

It’s unlikely that Jazz Fest drew attention to its 50th anniversary without having any idea if it would be able to deliver something big, but festival bookers are at the mercy of who will be on tour and available to play Jazz Fest next year. They can’t book artists who don’t want to play, and the budget-conscious 2017 schedule was likely dictated by the talent available. The top tickets on Ticketmaster right now are Fleetwood Mac, Weezer, George Strait, Hall & Oates, Keith Urban, Godsmack, Journey, Deep Purple, Shania Twain, and Maroon 5—of them, only seven are on brand for Jazz Fest, and four have already played it. None of them would have made this year’s festival more exciting or added meaningfully more draw.  

The most interesting question is what a 50-year anniversary Jazz Fest even looks like. The festival can’t go back to some of its founding fathers because many of them have died, and there would be little special about a festival that booked them because Jazz Fest features legacy talents for as long as it can. Bringing back some of the national artists who seem most in sync with the festival wouldn’t seem terribly special because it keeps booking them too. An effort to focus on Jazz Fest’s legacy would probably look a lot like the NOLA 300 Cultural Exchange Pavilion this year, so that avenue would be redundant. 

The odds are that the 50th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will be a lot like the 49th and 48th, but trying to envision how to make it special is a worthwhile project because it involves coming to terms with what it is in order to imagine how it could be different. 

Here’s a complete round-up of the reviews and previews we ran during Jazz Fest. I’m proud of the work we did and hope you read it during the festival or take the opportunity to check it out now.

- Jack White Shows His Best Self on SNL
- The Complicated Afterlife of Fats Domino
- NOLA 300 Brings Musical History to Jazz Fest
- Leslie Odom Jr. Plays a New Role
- Friday’s Picks
- Catching Up with Aurora Nealand
- Saturday’s Picks
- The First Friday Belonged to Leslie Odom Jr.
- Catching Up with Helen Gillet
- Sunday’s Picks
- Big Freedia Reigns Over Congo Square
- David Byrne, Jon Batiste End the First Weekend on a High Note
- Monday’s Picks
- Tuesday’s Picks

- Wednesday's Picks
- The Elevator Pitch for Terrace Martin
- Catching Up with the Smoking Time Jazz Club
- Thursday’s Picks
- Catching Up with 79rs Gang
- The Death and Rebirth of the NOJO Pt. 1
- Second Friday’s Picks
- Terrace Martin was Just Getting Loose
- Second Saturday’s Picks
- Tank and The Bangas Contain Multitudes
- Catching Up with Joe Dyson
- Second Sunday’s Picks
- Aerosmith Acts its Age
- Shorty Honors the Nevilles