Keith Spera: How the new New Orleans Jazz Fest will be on full display in 2016

Back in the day, the combination of Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Buddy Guy and Boz Scaggs would have constituted a solid headlining roster for the New Orleans Jazz Fest. All four are on the 2016 schedule — but so are Stevie Wonder, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, Paul Simon, My Morning Jacket, J. Cole, Snoop Dogg, Steely Dan, Beck and at least a dozen more marquee names.

That the likes of Raitt, Morrison, Guy and Scaggs are now essentially second-tier acts speaks volumes about how Jazz Fest has evolved. To those who say it is no longer the funky little Crescent City-centric festival it was in the 1970s, ’80s and even into the ’90s — you’re right. It isn’t. It couldn’t be.

What is now the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell was launched in 1970 — its 50th anniversary is not far off. It is a granddaddy of American music festivals, one of the few to survive, and thrive, for so long. The much-ballyhooed Bonnaroo, by comparison, is a relative newborn at 15.

Survival has involved change. In 2004, Jazz Fest lost around $1 million. The non-profit that owns the festival didn’t have enough cash to pay all the bands on time.

The foundation’s board essentially forced longtime festival producer Quint Davis and his Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans into a partnership with AEG Live, one of the nation’s largest concert promoters. AEG believed Jazz Fest could not cut its way back to profitability. Instead, it needed to spend more money on bigger, more popular headliners.

Since 2005, Elton John, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Bruce Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel, Tom Petty, The Who, Bon Jovi, Rod Stewart, the Foo Fighters and Ed Sheeran have all found their way to the Fair Grounds. This year, Pearl Jam, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young and Paul Simon return for encores.

Jazz Fest now ranks among the nation’s major music festivals. Its lineup of “guest artists” — acts that are not from Louisiana — compares favorably to the Austin City Limits Festival, Lollapalooza, Coachella and Bonnaroo. Bonnaroo and Jazz Fest will even share two headliners in 2016, Pearl Jam and rapper J.Cole. (One big difference: So far, Jazz Fest has shied away from electronic dance music and hard rock. But there was a time Jazz Fest didn’t book rap, either.)

Jazz Fest’s higher profile — and bigger checkbook — have made it easier to book top acts.

“We’re getting an incredibly high percentage of people that we try to get,” Davis said this week, “You start out with a wish list. Generally, what you end up with has very little resemblance to the first wishlist.

“But now we have established ourselves to the point where, if Snoop is on that list, and Julio Iglesias, and Nick Jonas, and the Chili Peppers, and J. Cole, and Beck — all people that we’ve never had, in such completely different genres and sociologies — they all now say yes. They think that Jazz Fest is a place that they should go, and a place that they belong. I don’t know how long that’s been the case, that a Nick Jonas would know about Jazz Fest, and want to go.”

That Jazz Fest would know about and want Nick Jonas — formerly of sibling boy band the Jonas Brothers, now in the early stages of a Justin Timberlake-style transformation into an adult pop heartthrob — probably says more about the festival’s mindset than Jonas’.

Has the festival experienced growing pains along the way? Absolutely. Overall attendance still has not rebounded to pre-Katrina levels, but 2015 posted the largest tally since the storm. Many of those attendees showed up for Elton John on the sunny second Saturday afternoon, creating gridlock at the Acura Stage. In Davis’ view, the problem wasn’t the number of people, but the manner in which they assembled themselves. The crowd distribution at Acura, he said, was “more dysfunctional than it should have been. It seemed to have way too many people for spaces that should have been able to hold that number of people easily.”

Adjustments will be made, he promised.

Beyond such logistical concerns are the philosophical questions. Chiefly, is Jazz Fest still Jazz Fest? Can it maintain its distinctive personality and still be competitive in an increasingly crowded field of festivals?

By and large, I’d argue that Jazz Fest today is still recognizably Jazz Fest, from the food vendors to the flags to the fact that the majority of the 500-plus acts are still homegrown. The festival still showcases a wide spectrum of local culture, built on a base of brass bands, social aid and pleasure clubs, and Mardi Gras Indian tribes.

Most major, well-established New Orleans acts are on the list of 2016 Jazz Fest performers released this week. Did some equally worthy local act not get a gig because, say, Elle King, the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter who scored a Grammy-nominated hit in 2015 with “Ex’s and Oh’s,” did? Probably.

The same was probably true of Irish singer-songwriter Hozier last year. But then again, I thought Hozier’s set was strong; he was a good addition to the Jazz Fest mix. Maybe Elle King will be as well.

It’s a trade-off.

Davis assembles the jigsaw puzzle that are the “cubes,” the schedule of stage assignments and performance times. Having all these new bands — both from New Orleans and elsewhere — at his disposal gives him more possibilities.

This spring, you’ll see soul-rock newcomer Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats on the Gentilly Stage ahead of soul-rock veteran Van Morrison. Davis put the Tedeschi Trucks Band, led by guitarists Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks, on the same day as fellow guitar heroes Gary Clark Jr., from Austin, and Sonny Landreth, from Lafayette.

And he’s scheduling the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, whose creative director, Ben Jaffe, has encouraged collaborations with marquee artists of every description, on the Gentilly Stage ahead of Beck.

“Ten years ago, tell that to somebody — that Preservation Hall is going to be on the Gentilly Stage with Beck,” Davis said.

Ten years ago, it wouldn’t have happened.

But the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which has been around a long time, has evolved. Much like New Orleans. Much like Jazz Fest.

Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.

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