Echoes of 2006: The Jazz Festival Returns to New Orleans in 2022

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Once the COVID-19 pandemic has been silenced, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival opened Friday for the first time in three years — a long-awaited revival in 2022 bears echoes of 2006 when the annual celebration of music and culture continued even after Hurricane Katrina.

“We’ve endured a storm like no other,” declared Jennifer Jones, a lifelong New Orleans resident, referring to the pandemic. She was carrying a feathered parachute and jumping to the ground in a shimmering pink, blues and yellow outfit.

The two-week production attracts tens of thousands to the city’s Fair Grounds racetrack, where up to 80 music shows perform daily on more than a dozen theaters, supplemented by art and craft galleries and an array of stalls featuring food from Louisiana and beyond.

“This beautiful community, here in New Orleans, needs this festival,” said visitor Gary Rosen, while he and a friend snapped a selfie as “Jesus on the Main Line” rolled off the festival gospel tent. It was his seventh jazz festival for Rosen, who said he’s from New Jersey.

“Everyone here depends on this festival. It’s the best festival in the world,” Rosen said.

Lionel Richie and the Death Cab for Cutie are among the raffles Friday at the festival that nominates many famous artists throughout his career. Saturday addresses. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sunday. But the festival is perhaps best known for showcasing an astonishing array of Louisiana musical talent, styles, and genres – jazz, blues, Cajun, zydeco, and more.

Organizers pulled out of the April 2006 show eight months after levees collapsed and the city was inundated during Hurricane Katrina, and as rubble and water-ravaged homes continue to mar the landscape. Longtime festival producer Quint Davis recounts strong emotional memories from that festival: Bruce Springsteen bringing tears to local audiences singing “My City of Ruins” to closing out their first weekend, and the glee of crowds lining up at the gates on opening day.

“It was just incredible energy, like a pilgrimage,” Davis recalled on Tuesday.

2020 marked the first time in its 50-year history that the festival was canceled due to COVID-19. “It was like a sword at heart,” Davis said, adding that the comeback was in some ways more difficult than the post-Katrina fest because the pandemic led to changes to vendors, higher costs and complications in assembling equipment after Hurricane Katrina. Three years of calm.

Davis said the 2020 cancellation, as well as the cancellations of planned comebacks in spring and fall 2021, have been emotionally devastating for festival organizers and fans. And they brought repeated economic shocks to bars, restaurants, and music venues that depended on the influx of Jazz Festival visitors.

“It’s our two biggest weekends of the year,” said James Gonzi, one of the owners of Liuzza’s by the Track, recalling the disappointment. The neighborhood bar and restaurant attracts large crowds after each day of the festival.

Robert Mercurio can assess the return from two perspectives. As the guitarist for the band Galactic Funk, the festival is credited with helping the band build international fame after their 1996 performance. As part of the historic Tibetina owner Music Club, it appreciates the business that Jazz Fest brings to live music venues as it regains its footing after the pandemic lockdown.

“I think people who haven’t been to New Orleans for a long time are looking forward to coming to Tepitina for the real New Orleans experience after the festival,” Mercurio said Thursday.

Jazz festival returns as COVID-19 cases They are at a point lower than they have been in months and two-thirds of the US population is vaccinated. Mask mandates, restrictions on public gatherings, and requirements for proof of a vaccine have been lifted in New Orleans. Hospitalizations remained low in Louisiana after reaching its dangerous peak in 2020 and 2021.

Masks were a rare sight at the festival, and most of them take place outdoors. Iberi Adegebe, who sells handmade jewelry from a kiosk with his partner Titi Bao, has his mask pulled under his chin — ready if needed. He said as the breeze stirred the warm morning air. “Here, I’m not worried about that much.”

Hotel occupancy rates at the Jazz Festival have not recovered to 2019 levels yet. Occupancy for downtown and French Quarter hotels so far is about 80%, said Kelly Schulze of the New Orleans Tourism Association and Company. It was about 90% three years ago.

But Schultz points to several signs of recovery, including the return of Mardi Gras this year Season parades and parties, an NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, a modern professional golf tournament, NBA playoffs, and two major conventions.

She said the jazz festival has an estimated $400 million impact on the local economy, similar to what happened when the city hosts the Super Bowl.

“What we are seeing is the best period of time as an industry since the start of the pandemic,” Schulz said.

“Comparing it to 2006 is instructive,” Schulz said of the jazz festival’s comeback. “Because I think that’s how people feel about it, in terms of going back and what it means and how much people have waited for this day – especially because people thought we were going to have it last year and it was canceled again.”

Mercurio also says the jazz festival’s comeback is reminiscent of 2006 after Katrina. “It feels like waking up after a really dark time,” he said. “Finally we’ve reached the light at the end of the tunnel we’ve all been looking for for so long.”