Echoes of 2006: Jazz Fest returns to New Orleans for 2022

After being silenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is returning for the first time in three years

Once silenced by the pandemic, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival opens Friday for the first time in three years — a long awaited 2022 revival that holds echoes of 2006 when the annual celebration of music and culture went on even after Hurricane Katrina.

The two-weekend production draws tens of thousands to the city's Fair Grounds Race Course, where as many as 80 musical acts perform daily on more than a dozen stages, complemented by art and craft exhibits and an array of booths featuring foods from Louisiana and beyond.

Lionel Richie and Death Cab for Cutie are among Friday's draws. The Who headlines Saturday; the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sunday. But the festival may be best known for showcasing a dizzying array of Louisiana musical talent, styles and genres — jazz, blues, Cajun, Zydeco and more.

Organizers pulled off the April 2006 show eight months after levees failed and the city flooded during Katrina, and as debris and water-damaged houses still marred the landscape. Longtime festival producer Quint Davis recounts two strong emotional memories from that festival: Bruce Springsteen bringing the local crowd to tears singing “My City of Ruins” to close the first weekend, and the joy at having crowds line up at the gates on opening day.

“It was just incredible energy, like a pilgrimage,” Davis recalled Tuesday.

2020 marked the first time the festival had been canceled in its 50-year history, owing to COVID-19. “It was like a sword through the heart,” Davis said, adding that the comeback has been more difficult in some ways than the post-Katrina festival because the pandemic has led to changes in vendors, higher costs and complications in rounding up equipment after a three-year lull.

The 2020 cancellation, plus cancellations of planned returns in spring and fall of 2021, were emotionally devastating for festival organizers and fans, said Davis. And they brought recurring economic shocks for the bars, restaurants and music venues that count on an influx of Jazz Fest visitors.

“It's our biggest two weekends of the year,” said James Gonzci, a co-owner of Liuzza's by the Track, recalling the disappointment. The neighborhood bar and restaurant draws overflow crowds after each day of the festival.

Robert Mercurio can assess the comeback from two perspectives. As the bassist for the funk band Galactic, he credits the fest with helping the band build international renown after a 1996 performance. As part owner of the historic Tipitina's music club, he appreciates the business that Jazz Fest brings to live music venues as they regain their footing after pandemic shutdowns.

“I think that people who haven't been to New Orleans for a long time are looking forward to coming to Tipitina's to have that real New Orleans experience after the fest,” Mercurio said Thursday.

Jazz Fest returns as COVID-19 cases are at a lower point than they’ve been in months and two-thirds of the U.S. population is vaccinated. Mask mandates, public gathering limits and proof-of-vaccine requirements have been lifted in New Orleans. Hospitalizations remain low in Louisiana after reaching dangerous peaks in 2020 and 2021.

Jazz Fest hotel occupancy rates haven’t rebounded to the 2019 levels yet. Kelly Schulz of the tourism association New Orleans & Co., said downtown and French Quarter hotels so far project occupancy to be about 80%. It was around 90% three years ago.

But Schulz points to several signs of recovery, among them this year's return of the Mardi Gras season's parades and parties, the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, a recent pro golf tournament, NBA playoff games and two major conventions.

Jazz fest, she said, has an estimated $400 million impact on the local economy, akin to when the city hosts the Super Bowl.

“What we’re seeing is the best period of time as an industry since the beginning of the pandemic,” Schulz said.

“Comparing it to 2006 is meaningful," Schulz said of Jazz Fest's return. “Because I think that’s how people feel about it, in terms of the return and what it means and how much people have waited for this day -- especially because people thought we were going to have it last year and it was canceled again.”

Mercurio, too, says the return of Jazz Fest is reminiscent of 2006 after Katrina. “It feels like an awakening after a really dark time,” he said. “Finally coming to a light at the end of the tunnel that we've all been looking for so long.”

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in