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  • Writer's pictureCheré Dastugue Coen

Jazz Fest's Baby Steps

Grand Marshall Walter Lewis marches with the Onward Brass Band at Jazz Fest, 1976. Photo by Harriet Blum, Hogan Archive Photography Collection, Tulane University Special Collections.

I was in high school when I visited the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for the first time, an event known locally as Jazz Fest. The outline for the festival was the same as now: stages at the New Orleans Fairgrounds, food booths selling Louisiana favorites and a wide collection of artists and artisans pushing their wares. In the beginning, however, the crowds were much smaller and the artists all hailed from Louisiana.

Honestly, I miss those days. It’s nice to see Sting in action or The Who roll into town, but there was always enough Louisiana talent to create one of the finest music festivals in the country.

Not that Jazz Fest isn’t today, of course. It’s just so much bigger with a larger and more varied repertoire.

The annual music extravaganza celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019 and returns this spring after pandemic cancellations. The lineup, as you may have guessed is impressive: Willie Nelson, The Black Crowes, Jimmy Buffett, Foo Fighters, Stevie Nicks and The Who, among many other national acts. Norah Jones, Elvis Costello and The Imposters, Death Cab for Cutie, Randy Newman — the list goes on and on. The locals will be in attendance as well: Irma Thomas, Jon Cleary, Walter Wolfman Washington, George Porter Jr. and so many more! Then there’s the Gospel Tent, featuring the finest gospel acts from across the South.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 1977
Jazz Fest, 1977

But I’m not the only one looking back on those early days with reverence. Tulane University Special Collections (TUSC) will present “Music IS the Scene: Jazz Fest’s First Decade, 1970-1979,” on display from Friday, March 4, through Friday, May 27, 2022, in the TUSC gallery on Tulane University’s uptown campus. The exhibition will feature archival materials and audio recordings related to the first 10 years of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. According to curators, despite meager attendance during its first year in 1970, Jazz Fest is now one of the top 10 music festivals in the United States, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors and hundreds of millions of dollars annually to the New Orleans economy. Though world-renowned, the festival remains a local favorite due to its dedication to celebrating New Orleans and its surrounding regions. “Tulane University Special Collections holdings contain extraordinary Jazz Fest materials that I hope will entertain, educate, and enliven gallery visitors as we welcome the return of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival,” said Melissa A. Weber, curator of the Hogan Archive of New Orleans Music and New Orleans Jazz in a press release. “This exhibition not only celebrates Jazz Fest, but also speaks to the power of archives to document history.”

Cheré Dastugue Jazz Fest 1977
The author at Jazz Fest 1977

Have you been? Let us know in the comments and tell us your stories.

If you go… The Tulane University Special Collections gallery is located in Room 208A on the second floor of Jones Hall, 6801 Freret St., New Orleans. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Special evening hours for the exhibition for “Moonlight Mondays” will be 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. March 28, April 25 and May 23, 2022. Special weekend hours are noon to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 12; Sunday, April 3; Saturday, May 21; and Sunday, May 22, 2022. In addition to the gallery exhibition, visitors can view the materials online via the Tulane University Digital Library. The online exhibition will remain on view past May 27. For more information about the gallery and online exhibitions, visit For information about Tulane University Special Collections, visit

Weird, Wacky & Wild South is written by journalist Cheré Dastugue Coen.

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