THE hometown of jazz is jumping and jiving in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, an annual tribute to the musical culture that was born here at the turn of the century.
Although it began as a low-key event aimed at a local audience, Jazzfest has become a national and international magnet. A record number of people attended the first weekend's festivities last week and an even larger crowd is expected as the 10-day festival concludes this weekend.
The annual celebration of jazz's heritage began in 1970 when 300 musicians gathered in the city's Congo Square to perform for about 150 curious onlookers. What began as a little-known celebration of regional talent has become a major production with global appeal. At this year's silver anniversary, the festival is presenting 4,000 musicians and expects to draw an overall audience of 400,000.
Many of the locals now leave the festivities to incoming tourists. ``People act like they just realized what's happening here in the last five years,'' says taxi driver Donald Jones. ``I don't fool with it now because I don't take to those crowds.''
Jazzfest '94 began last Thursday with a ``second-line'' parade through the streets of New Orleans. Second-line parades, which helped spawn the jazz culture, originated as a funeral ritual with mourners marching to an improvised beat. Throughout the decades, the second-line tradition has evolved into a more celebratory display of elaborate costumes and improvisational dance led by a brass band.
Following the kickoff parade, the Louisiana Heritage Fair opened on the Fair Grounds Race Track, the third-oldest horse-racing track in the United States and the Jazzfest fair site since 1972.
Throughout Jazzfest, evening concerts feature big names such as the Count Basie Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, and Aretha Franklin. During the festival's two long weekends, the Heritage Fair lays out a true musical smorgasbord from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Eleven stages host simultaneous performances from 17 different musical categories. There's traditional and modern jazz, rhythm & blues, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, ragtime, bluegrass, pop, and country, just to name a few. Festivalgoers move from the Jazz Tent to the Gospel Tent slowly losing the beat surrounding one stage as they approach the other.
Although some of the stages are open-air and others are under tents, the wide range of sounds rarely intrude on one another. Crowds can wander through the 30-acre fairgrounds, take a seat under a tent, or spread a blanket on the grass in front of a stage.
Cajun bands convert the grassy ground into a dance floor with a rollicking beat that inspires two-stepping. And dancers who work up an appetite won't be disappointed.
Heritage Fair transforms the fairgrounds into one gigantic New Orleans backyard barbecue. More than 50 food booths sell regional dishes such as steamy shrimp jambalaya, ``po-boys,'' red beans and rice with sausage, crawfish pie, shrimp etoufee, okra gumbo, and barbecued alligator.
The fair attracts from 30,000 to 75,000 people a day and close to 100 acts perform daily. From big-name draws to local high school gospel choirs, everybody gets their 30 minutes to an hour in the spotlight. Despite the easy-going atmosphere, organizers stick to a strict schedule to keep things running smoothly.
One of the quieter aspects of Jazzfest takes place offstage during the week. About a dozen musicians offer free musical workshops in the city's schools. Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis is scheduled to give a workshop to students at Nicholls High School today. Tomorrow, B.B. King, the ``King of the Blues,'' will provide a workshop for local college students.