Kevin McGill / AP
NEW ORLEANS – Once the pandemic has been silenced, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival opens Friday for the first time in three years – a long-awaited revival in 2022 that echoes 2006 as the annual celebration of music and culture continued even after Hurricane Katrina.
The two-weekend production draws tens of thousands to the city’s Fair Grounds Race Course, where as many as 80 musicals perform daily on more than a dozen stages, complemented by arts and crafts exhibitions and a variety of booths featuring food from Louisiana and beyond. .
Lionel Richie and Death Cab for Cutie are among Friday’s draws. The Who headlines Saturday; Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sunday. But the festival is perhaps best known for showcasing a staggering array of Louisiana’s musical talents, styles and genres – jazz, blues, Cajun, Zydeco and more.
The organizers held the show in April 2006 eight months after the dikes failed and the city flooded under Katrina, and as debris and water-damaged houses still marred the landscape. Perennial festival producer Quint Davis talks about two strong emotional memories from that festival: Bruce Springsteen, who brings the local audience to tears by singing “My City of Ruins” to close the first weekend, and the joy of having the audience in line at the gates on the opening day.
“It was just an incredible energy, like a pilgrimage,” Davis recalled Tuesday.
2020 was the first time the festival had been canceled in its 50-year history due to COVID-19. “It was like a sword through the heart,” Davis said, adding that the comeback has in some ways been more difficult than the post-Katrina festival because the pandemic has led to changes in suppliers, higher costs and complications of assembling equipment after three years. break.
The 2020 cancellation plus cancellations of scheduled returns in the spring and fall of 2021 were emotionally devastating for festival organizers and fans, Davis said. And they brought recurring economic shocks to bars, restaurants and venues that are expecting an influx of Jazz Fest guests.
Kevin McGill / AP
“It’s our biggest two weekends of the year,” said James Gonzci, co-owner of Liuzza’s by the Track, recalling the disappointment. The neighborhood bar and restaurant attracts overflow crowds after each day of the festival.
Robert Mercurio can assess the comeback from two perspectives. As bassist for the funk band Galactic, he honors the party for helping the band build international fame after a performance in 1996. As co-owner of the historic Tipitina’s music club, he appreciates the business that Jazz Fest brings to venues with live music when they regain their footing after pandemic shutdowns.
“I think people who have not been to New Orleans in a long time are looking forward to coming to Tipitina’s to have the real New Orleans experience after the party,” Mercurio said Thursday.
Jazz Fest returns as COVID-19 cases are at a lower point than they have been for several months and two-thirds of the U.S. population is vaccinated. Mask mandates, limits on public fundraising and vaccination requirements have been lifted in New Orleans. Hospital admissions remain low in Louisiana after reaching dangerous highs in 2020 and 2021.
Jazz Fest hotel occupancy rates have not yet returned to 2019 levels. Kelly Schulz from the New Orleans & Co. Tourist Association said that hotels in the center and French Quarter so far have been about 80% occupancy. That was about 90% three years ago.
But Schulz points to several signs of improvement, among them this year’s return of Mardi Gras season parades and parties, the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, a recent progol tournament, NBA playoff games and two major conventions.
Jazzfest, she said, has an estimated $ 400 million impact on the local economy, equivalent to when the city hosts the Super Bowl.
“What we are seeing is the best period as an industry since the beginning of the pandemic,” Schulz said.
“Comparing it to 2006 makes sense,” Schulz said of the Jazz Festival’s return. “Because I think that’s how people feel about it, in terms of returns, what it means and how much people have been waiting for this day – especially because people thought we should have it last year, and that was canceled again. “
Mercurio also says the Jazz Festival’s return is reminiscent of 2006 after Katrina. “It feels like an awakening after a really dark time,” he said. “Finally getting to a light at the end of the tunnel that we’re all been looking for for so long.”