NEW ORLEANS — Once silenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival opened Friday for the first time in three years — a long awaited 2022 revival that holds echoes of 2006 when the annual celebration of music and culture went on even after Hurricane Katrina.
“We've weathered a storm like no other,” declared lifelong New Orleans resident Jennifer Jones, referring to the pandemic. She was carrying a feather-adorned parasol and strutting the grounds in an outfit of iridescent pinks, blues and yellows.
The two-weekend production draws tens of thousands to the city's Fair Grounds Race Course, where as many as 80 musical acts perform daily on more than a dozen stages, complemented by art and craft exhibits and an array of booths featuring foods from Louisiana and beyond.
“This lovely community, here in New Orleans, needs this festival,” visitor Garey Rosen said as he and a buddy snapped a selfie while “Jesus on the Main Line” blared from the festival's Gospel tent. It was his seventh Jazz Fest for Rosen, who said he's from New Jersey.
“Everybody here relies on this festival. And it is the best festival in the world,” Rosen said.
Lionel Richie and Death Cab for Cutie are among Friday's draws at the festival that sprinkles numerous big-name entertainers throughout its run. The Who headlines Saturday; the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sunday. But the festival may be best known for showcasing a dizzying array of Louisiana musical talent, styles and genres — jazz, blues, Cajun, Zydeco and more.
Organizers pulled off the April 2006 show eight months after levees failed and the city flooded during Hurricane Katrina, and as debris and water-damaged houses still marred the landscape. Longtime festival producer Quint Davis recounts two strong emotional memories from that festival: Bruce Springsteen bringing the local crowd to tears singing “My City of Ruins” to close the first weekend, and the joy at having crowds line up at the gates on opening day.
“It was just incredible energy, like a pilgrimage,” Davis recalled Tuesday.
2020 marked the first time the festival had been canceled in its 50-year history, owing to COVID-19. “It was like a sword through the heart,” Davis said, adding that the comeback has been more difficult in some ways than the post-Katrina festival because the pandemic has led to changes in vendors, higher costs and complications in rounding up equipment after a three-year lull.
The 2020 cancellation, plus cancellations of planned returns in spring and fall of 2021, were emotionally devastating for festival organizers and fans, said Davis. And they brought recurring economic shocks for the bars, restaurants and music venues that count on an influx of Jazz Fest visitors.
“It's our biggest two weekends of the year,” said James Gonzci, a co-owner of Liuzza's by the Track, recalling the disappointment. The neighborhood bar and restaurant draws overflow crowds after each day of the festival.
Robert Mercurio can assess the comeback from two perspectives. As the bassist for the funk band Galactic, he credits the fest with helping the band build international renown after a 1996 performance. As part owner of the historic Tipitina's music club, he appreciates the business that Jazz Fest brings to live music venues as they regain their footing after pandemic shutdowns.
“I think that people who haven't been to New Orleans for a long time are looking forward to coming to Tipitina's to have that real New Orleans experience after the fest,” Mercurio said Thursday.
Jazz Fest returns as COVID-19 cases are at a lower point than they’ve been in months and two-thirds of the U.S. population is vaccinated. Mask mandates, public gathering limits and proof-of-vaccine requirements have been lifted in New Orleans. Hospitalizations remain low in Louisiana after reaching dangerous peaks in 2020 and 2021.
Masks were a rare sight at the fest, most of which takes place outdoors. Ebere Adighibe, selling handcrafted jewelry from a booth with partner Teaty Pawoo, had his mask pulled under his chin — ready if needed. “Indoors, I always put it on," he said as a breeze stirred the warm morning air. "Out here, I’m not worried about it too much.”
Jazz Fest hotel occupancy rates have not rebounded to the 2019 levels yet. Kelly Schulz of the tourism association New Orleans & Co., said downtown and French Quarter hotels so far project occupancy to be about 80%. It was around 90% three years ago.
But Schulz points to several signs of recovery, among them this year's return of the Mardi Gras season's parades and parties, the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, a recent pro golf tournament, NBA playoff games and two major conventions.
Jazz Fest, she said, has an estimated $400 million impact on the local economy, akin to when the city hosts the Super Bowl.
“What we’re seeing is the best period of time as an industry since the beginning of the pandemic,” Schulz said.
“Comparing it to 2006 is meaningful," Schulz said of Jazz Fest's return. “Because I think that’s how people feel about it, in terms of the return 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, too, says the return of Jazz Fest is reminiscent of 2006 after Katrina. “It feels like an awakening after a really dark time,” he said. “Finally coming to a light at the end of the tunnel that we've all been looking for so long.”