Smithsonian Folkways Celebrates 50 Years of Jazz Fest With 5-Disc Box

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Rating: 9.5/10

Long before there was a Bonnaroo, Coachella, or Lollapalooza, there was The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Founded less than a year after Woodstock made “music festival” a phrase on everyone's tongue, Jazz Fest (as it is typically shortened by local) turns 50 in 2019 and the folks at Smithsonian Folkways, the nation's premiere curators of America's music history, are celebrating with a massive 5-disc box set of live performances from the festival's history. Titled simply Jazz Fest: The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will be released on May 10.

While Jazz Fest has played host to some of music's biggest names over its 50 year run, Smithsonian Folkways wisely skipped performances by past headliners like Bruce Springsteen, The Who, or Jimmy Buffett to focus almost exclusively on the thing that makes Jazz Fest a unique experience from other festivals; the music of New Orleans. Jazz Fest still reserves approximately half its stage space for local artists and Folkways' sprawling disc shows just how diverse that city's musical culture it. Touching everything from rock to jazz to funk to soul to bounce, there's something for practically every musical taste.

The disc contains almost every big-name New Orleans legend you'd expect to see (though, oddly, no Galactic). Arguably the city's most famous resident, Dr. John, performs a medley of “Litanie de Saints/Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya/I Walk on Gilded Splinters.” It's his only contribution to the set but, at over 12 minutes in length, it still feel like he gets his due. Legendary performer and producer Allen Toussaint gets his share, including “Yes We Can Can”, a collaboration with Champion Jack Dupree on “Bring Me Flowers While I'm Living”, and an album highlight duet with Bonnie Raitt on “What Is Success.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the unofficial musical ambassadors of New Orleans, contributes “My Bucket's Got a Hole In It.”

Of course, no Jazz Fest set would be complete without heaping helpings of the city's first family, The Neville's. And boy, is there plenty of Neville to go around on this box set. You get a pair of cuts from The Neville Brothers, “Yellow Moon” and “Amazing Grace/One Love.” You also get a track from The Funky Meters, a spin-off band from New Orleans' best backing group (and criminally perennial Rock and Roll Hall of Fame snubs) The Meters. And of course, there are Nevilles performing throughout other artists' work.

But those acts are the ones you can see and hear on any national stage. The beauty of Jazz Fest is its focus on local legends who might not be household names. Quirky piano man Professor Longhair gets a standout track with “Big Chief” backed by Dr. John and The Meters. New Orleans' best soul vocalist Irma Thomas gets a pair of tracks, “Ruler of My Heart”, which includes a short speech on connecting with your fans, and a delightfully soulful take on “Old Rugged Cross.” Henry Butler, who died in 2018, contributes one of the set's older tracks “Hey Now Baby” recorded at the 1976 festival. Clarence “Frogman” Henry turns in arguably the album's best song, a playful 1998 sing-along rendition of his novelty hit “I Ain't Got No Home.” The Dixie Cups perform Jazz Fest favorite “Iko Iko.” And, being New Orleans, there is also representation from the city's Mardi Gras Indians, in this case The White Feathers (“Big Chief Got the Golden Crown”) and The Golden Eagles (“Indian Red”).

But don't think this Jazz Fest retrospective is all about history. Some of New Orleans' best modern-day talent turn in some of the standout tracks. Brass innovator Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews performs an energetic “One Night Only (The March).” Kermit Ruffins contributes “Royal Garden Blues.” Anders Osborne performs “Back on Dumaine.” And likely the most modern and unique New Orleans musical innovation, bounce, is well represented by the “Queen Diva” herself, Big Freedia, who gets booties shaking with an electric “N.O. Bounce.”

For fans who spring for the actual physical box set (and at $90, it's not cheap), there is included a gorgeous 135 page book filled with photos and essays from journalists, historians, and festival founder George Wein, as well as extensive liner notes about every song.

By its size alone, Jazz Fest isn't going to be for everyone. But for devoted fans of The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it's a treasure. It will also serve as an excellent streaming sampler for music lovers curious to get a feel for the soul of one of America's oldest festivals.