The History of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

George Wein and his local advisors had a vision to create an event that would have great cultural significance and popular appeal. In 1962, Wein was contacted by New Yorkers to produce a jazz festival in the city, but segregation laws at the time made it impossible. However, eight years later, Wein and his team decided to hold the first JazzFestival in Congo Square, which was then known as Beauregard Square. Socialite and jazz-fan Elaine Lorillard had previously hired Wein to create a summer festival in Newport, Rhode Island.

This experience gave Wein the confidence to create a similar event in New Orleans. With great foresight, he predicted that “New Orleans, in the long run, should become bigger than Newport at jazz-festivals”. The first New Orleans Jazz& Heritage Festival was held in April 1970 and was headlined by Mahalia Jackson, often called the best gospel singer. The Festival was the culmination of years of discussions and efforts by city leaders who wanted to create an event worthy of the city's legacy as the birthplace of jazz.

The New Orleans Jazz& Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organization, was created to oversee the Festival. With 12 moving stages of jazz, gospel, cajun, zydeco, blues, R&B, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean, folk and much more, the New Orleans Jazz& Heritage Festival is firmly established as a singular celebration of historical and contemporary importance. Over the years, JazzFest has received many honors, including being named Festival of the Year four times by Pollstar magazine. The Festival also supports other projects such as the Tom Dent—Congo Square conference and symposium series dedicated to Louisiana culture and the Jazz& Heritage Archive which preserves recordings of festival performances and other artifacts dating back at the start of the festival.

Fifty years after its founding, with almost half a million annual attendees, the New Orleans Jazz& Heritage Festival presented by Shell is still fabulously fun. Wein's prediction that New Orleans would become the first jazz-festival city had clearly come true.