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Fest Forward 

It's a safe bet no one expected the 35th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival to turn out the way it did. The Jazz & Heritage Foundation says that last year's rain-out on Friday, April 30, strongly contributed to the festival losing approximately $800,000. That was not the start of Jazz Fest's economic problems, however. The Louisiana Music Commission estimated that in 2001, Jazz Fest's economic impact on New Orleans was $300 million; but, in the aftermath of 9/11, the festival's attendance and revenues have both steadily declined. The foundation has identified travel safety concerns and the economy as contributing factors, but music fans also point to tepid booking decisions aimed largely at aging baby boomers. After all, other major festivals -- most notably Bonnaroo and the Austin City Limits Festival -- have grown during the time of Jazz Fest's relative decline.

Whatever the causes, the shortfall turned out to be only the start of the festival's problems. To deal with the loss of revenue, the foundation cut back on charitable activities, including donations to WWOZ-FM and the Musicians' Clinic, and it laid off staff. Both moves played poorly in the local music community. The foundation also debated whether to pay the musicians whose scheduled gigs were cancelled because of the rain-out. Although it ultimately decided in July to pay artists half the contracted amounts, its deliberations caused additional ill will.

In the aftermath of the 2004 festival, complaints seemed to come from every quarter. Most dramatically, the foundation pondered whether other companies besides Festival Productions Inc. (FPI) should produce the festival. George Wein and Quint Davis of FPI founded Jazz Fest, but foundation members expressed a number of concerns about FPI's performance in recent years. They considered bids from other companies before deciding in September to stay with Wein and Davis. Even that decision, though, came with complications. Negotiations between FPI and the foundation grew difficult. A primary sticking point: How much risk was FPI willing to assume and how much control would it relinquish? In the end, one of Festival Productions' competitors, AEG, agreed to partner with FPI. This, plus the addition of new foundation executive director Don Marshall, left people to wonder what sort of Jazz Fest would emerge in the new atmosphere.

Now, with the unveiling of this year's lineup and announced changes, we have at least part of the answer -- and there is cause for optimism. In past years, the festival's bookings led to the impression that it was stagnating. Too many artists seemed dated, and only the "jam band" movement seemed to represent the musical future. This year, some 1970s-era stalwarts are returning, including Jazz Fest veterans James Taylor and Randy Newman. Jam band acts such as Widespread Panic and Trey Anastasio of Phish are also back. Those bookings, however, are now part of a more diverse musical lineup. Next to Nelly, the Roots, neo-soul singer Anthony Hamilton, Wilco, Los Lonely Boys, Ozomatli and Nickel Creek, Taylor and Newman take on the role of elder statesmen. Similarly, when jam bands are placed next to hip-hop, bluegrass, soul and Latin rock, they no longer just represent hippie musical values. Instead, Jazz Fest is acknowledging the breadth of interesting popular music being made today -- much of it by people under 40.

The festival's devotion to jazz and heritage can now be seen in a new -- and long overdue -- stage dedicated to brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians and the second-line tradition. In fact, this year's balance of local to out-of-town talent remains roughly the same as in recent Jazz Fests. Staging a Meters reunion in New Orleans is something that fans have been anticipating anxiously since the Meters' 2000 reunion in San Francisco. The addition of younger talent doesn't diminish Jazz Fest's focus on roots music and the pioneers, either. Appearances by Isaac Hayes, Ike Turner, B.B. King, Little Walter and Roy Haynes, as well as tributes to John Coltrane, Howlin' Wolf and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, suggest the festival's affection for jazz, soul and the blues is unwavering. Jazz Fest is also making a greater effort to market itself around the country -- a move that's equally overdue. Other changes will be less popular, though likely necessary. Financial struggles are often followed by increases in ticket prices, and this year's Jazz Fest is no exception. Tickets will still be available for last year's price of $20 through Feb. 22, after which they'll go up to $25, and they'll be $35 at the gate. A new "Big Chief" VIP package will certainly rankle some Jazz Fest purists -- but if the special pass and accommodations go against the music's traditionally egalitarian sensibilities, it's an irritant that should pass. Throughout the 1990s, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival experienced steady growth. For many, it became too easy to take that success for granted. The last few years remind us that Jazz Fest is not invulnerable. We welcome this year's moves to bring it back to the forefront of music festivals.


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