The second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off Thursday. As the festival has grown over the course of the past four decades, so has the tension between local and national acts.
Many longtime festers worry that the big name performers overshadow the locals that gave Jazz Fest its start. Others argue that big names attract crowds from around that world that would otherwise never experience the unique music and culture of New Orleans.
Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs were two local cultural groups integral to getting Jazz Fest off the ground. Longtime Festival producer Quint Davis first discovered Big Chief Monk Boudreaux in the late 1960s at a neighborhood bar, where Boudreaux’s tribe, the Golden Eagles, were practicing.
“He came to one of our practices,” Boudreaux remembers, “and when he heard us singing he said, ‘Man, don’t nobody do this nowhere in the world, you know!’ He said, ‘How would you guys like to record?’”
Boudreaux took Davis up on his offer, and formed a singing group along with members of the Wild Magnolias tribe. They recorded their single, “Handa Wanda” in 1970 — the same year they performed at the first ever Jazz and Heritage Festival in Congo Square. Though lots of fans come to Jazz Fest and discover the Mardi Gras Indians today, according to Boudreaux, fans only discovered the festival because the Indians led them there.
“So the first Jazz Fest was down at the Auditorium on Rampart Street and they didn’t have too many people, so we got dressed, put our suits on, and went through the French Quarter singing,” he says. “And all the people follow us back to the festival.”
Now, Boudreaux coordinates all the Mardi Gras Indian tribes at the Jazz Fest. They sing and drum on stage, but also wind their way through the festival grounds, replicating their chants and dances from the streets.
Social aid and pleasure clubs do the same thing. Each day of Jazz Fest they recreate their second line parades, typically reserved for Sunday afternoons. Norman Dixon Jr. is the president of the Young Men Olympians, and he organizes all the second liners. He inherited the job from his father, Norman Dixon Senior. Dixon remembers his father telling him about when Quint Davis first approached him about the Young Men Olympians joining Jazz Fest.
“Quint had invited him to his house and he expected to go over to this big old mansion, and he told me he got in there, he didn’t have a lick of furniture,” Dixson says. “They sat down and they discussed the whole vision that Quint had, laughing and sitting on the floor, and joking though.”
That was in 1972, and the clubs have been second lining ever since. Dixon says that in the early years, the clubs and the Indians would line up across from the racetrack and parade around its exterior and into the Fairgrounds. He says it wasn’t until 2000 that the festival decided Indians and social aid and pleasure clubs deserved a showcase, like all the other performers. The The Jazz and Heritage Stage was born.
Chief Monk Boudreaux says that, from the beginning, Jazz Fest has always been a job.
“You Go to Jazz Fest, you get paid,” he says. “And it helps me to work on my suit, to buy the stuff that I need, and a lot of other Indians also — because you know these beads and stones is going up, everything goin’ up sky high, you know.”
Boudreaux says a lot of Indians tell him that if it weren’t for the income they earn during Jazz Fest, they couldn’t afford to assemble their suits for Mardi Gras Day and Super Sunday.
There are about 30 social aid and pleasure clubs and 30 Mardi Gras Indian tribes performing at Jazz Fest each year. Each group earns $2,500, and most have at least 25 people. So, instead of paying everyone a little bit, most clubs use the money for things like parade permits and band fees.
In addition to offering direct income, the festival can serve as a platform for artists, exposing them to national artists and leading to other projects. Monk Boudreaux recently returned from Kingston, Jamaica, where he recorded an album with the Wild Magnolias. He says it’s not uncommon for the producers and labels that offer him opportunities like these to discover him at Jazz Fest.
Of course seeing Mardi Gras Indians or a second line at Jazz Fest is a different experience from catching them in the streets. But Norman Dixon says the festival can give fans a taste to make them come back for the real thing.
“We have people that come from Europe to see the Young Men Olympians,” he says. “I know we have people that come out of town to see the Lady Buckjumpers, who parade usually the weekend of Thanksgiving.”
It turns out there are lots of fans who would rather see the local acts than the big names. Martin Maussbacker of New York City has been coming to Jazz Fest with his wife for 11 years. The Jazz and Hertiage Stage is their favorite.
“This is the first stage we come to every year when we come here,” says Maussbacker. “We set up some chairs here, we listen to the Mardi Gras Indians, we listen to the brass bands when they come up. We think this is the most ‘New Orleans’ it gets at the entire festival.”
Norman Dixon agrees. In the 23 years he’s been working at the fest, he’s never gone to see another act.
“Since being at the Jazz Fest, I have never, ever went to another stage to watch anybody perform,” he says. “Because the national acts, I’ll catch them in the Superdome. But out here? I feel I get a change to share with friends that I don’t get to see all the time. You know, that I done grew up with; been knowing all my life. So I just stay here.”
You can catch the second lines and the Indians today, and all weekend, at the Fairgrounds racetrack.