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Jazz Fest returns to New Orleans for 2022

Quint Davis, producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, stands on a stage of the festival’s Blues Tent (Kevin McGill/AP)
Quint Davis, producer of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, stands on a stage of the festival’s Blues Tent (Kevin McGill/AP)

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is back for the first time in three years after being silenced by the pandemic.

Friday’s long-awaited revival 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 headline on Saturday, while the Red Hot Chili Peppers headline on Sunday.

A freshly painted street mural outside Liuzza’s By The Track in New Orleans (Kevin McGill/AP)

The festival may be best known for showcasing a dizzying array of Louisiana musical talent, styles and genres — jazz, blues, Cajun, Zydeco and more.

Organisers 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,” Mr Davis recalled on Tuesday.

The festival was cancelled for the first time in its 50-year history in 2020 because of Covid-19.

“It was like a sword through the heart,” Mr Davis said, with the comeback 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 the spring and autumn of 2021, were emotionally devastating for festival organisers and fans, Mr Davis said.

And they brought recurring economic shocks for the bars, restaurants and music venues that count on an influx of Jazz Fest visitors.

The festival opens on Friday for the first time in three years (Kevin McGill/AP)

“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 neighbourhood 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 on Thursday.

Jazz Fest returns as Covid-19 cases are at a lower point than they’ve been in months and two-thirds of the US population is vaccinated.

Mask mandates, public gathering limits and proof-of-vaccine requirements have been lifted in New Orleans.

Hospitalisations remain low in Louisiana after reaching dangerous peaks in 2020 and 2021.

Jazz Fest hotel occupancy rates have not rebounded to the 2019 levels yet.

Kelly Schulz of the tourism association New Orleans & Co said city centre and French Quarter hotels so far project occupancy to be about 80%. It was around 90% three years ago.

But Ms Schulz pointed to several signs of recovery, including this year’s return of the Mardi Gras season’s parades and parties, the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament, a recent professional golf tournament, NBA play-off games and two major conventions.

Jazz fest, she said, has an estimated 400 million US dollars (£318.5 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,” Ms Schulz said.

“Comparing it to 2006 is meaningful,” she 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 cancelled again.”

Mercurio, too, said 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.”

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