I grew up three blocks from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and, when the wind blew just right, I heard the music from the stage closest to my home. For more than 25 years, I’ve gotten excited simply walking through the gates, passing the grand stand and crossing the sand horse track into the festival. For once inside, it’s euphoric. The senses are in constant competition: aside from the big white music tents, all is a sea of color and the aroma of food is everywhere. Although the music is always booming, I don’t hear it right away—I have to eat first. With hay beneath my shoes, I feast on Indian tacos topped with chili, lettuce, and diced tomatoes on fry bread; Acarajé, an Afro-Brazilian black eyed pea fritter with a shrimp and spicy cashew sauce; and a local favorite of fried soft shell crab po’boy.
The Jazz Fest, as it’s known, is an embodiment of New Orleans—a place that’s internationally revered and always imitated—and the port city’s diverse cultural mix of Native American, African, Spanish and French and Caribbean heritage is ever-present in the food, music and architecture. When the festival first started 45 years ago, acts like Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington and The Meters performed to a crowd of 350 people. Today 400,000 people attend the festival annually. As the festival has expanded, reflecting America’s changing musical taste over time, the number of mainstream artists and those from other genres has grown. While there’s plenty of jazz on offer, there are also stages dedicated to gospel, zydeco, blues, R&B, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean and folk music.
New Orleans’ musical influence on the world didn’t end after jazz started traveling up the Mississippi River to Chicago, New York and beyond, though. From the city’s rhythm and blues sound that emerged in 1950s and became rock and roll or the bounce music that started in the hallways of housing projects and is now celebrated as twerking on YouTube, Jazz Fest embraces that entire lineage. Since I was a child, I’ve exposed my ears to all sorts of music yet jazz has remained my base. I hear Charles Mingus in Thundercat, Billie Holiday in Chrisette Michele and the sound of a big band on A Tribe Called Quest’s Scenario. With that in mind, I asked festival performers Chuck D of Public Enemy, New Orleans’ bounce pioneer Big Freedia and UK soul-pop star Laura Mvula about the influence of jazz and New Orleans on contemporary music.