When Hurricane Katrina scattered New Orleans residents and its musicians across the country, many wondered if the best days of New Orleans music had drowned with the city. But if its music festivals are any indication, New Orleans is proving its music scene is waterproof.
New Orleans festivals are as strong as they’ve ever been, and at least one is bigger than before Katrina hit in 2005. French Quarter Festival, which took place in mid-April, started almost 30 years ago as a small festival for locals. But in recent years, has blossomed into a roughly $300 million moneymaker for the city. It brings in some 500,000 music fans each year, as does the upcoming New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fest.
The French Quarter Festival is also the unofficial start of spring festival season in south Louisiana, when the revelry of Mardi Gras and chill of winter end, giving way to flip-flops, floppy hats and folding chairs toted by music lovers from across the globe.
Jazz Fest spans two weekends, April 27-29 and May 3-6, at the Fair Grounds racing track, followed by New Orleans Cajun-Zydeco Festival in June, Essence Music Festival in July, Satchmo Summerfest in August and the Voodoo Music Experience in October. There are countless other festivals throughout south Louisiana packed between the months of April and October, among them Bayou Country Superfest in Baton Rouge, La., and Festival International de Louisiane in Lafayette, La.
“We’re just experiencing good times,” said Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, who was hand-picked to perform for President Obama and his family at the White House in February. He also worked on the album, “Rebirth of New Orleans,” that this year landed Rebirth Brass Band a Grammy, making Rebirth the first New Orleans-style brass band to win the honor. Andrews and Rebirth were among the acts featured at this month’s French Quarter Festival, and both are set to perform at Jazz Fest.
“For New Orleans, the music is the heartbeat of everything,” Andrews said. “Now that we’re on the path to becoming stronger again, everything is just looking beautiful for us. It’s wonderful. I’m happy to be in New Orleans. I’m happy to be from here and be a New Orleans musician.”
Trumpeter Irvin Mayfield says overcoming tragedy and coming out stronger on the other end is nothing new for New Orleans. The nearly 300-year-old city has had to rebound from centuries of disasters including fires, plagues, hurricanes and most recently, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Through it all, New Orleans music has flourished and hard times have just been folded into the city’s history.
“I think if you ask the question, ‘Is that because of Katrina?’ I really think the answer is ‘It’s despite Katrina,'” Mayfield said. “This is what we do. We would do this regardless.”
Mayfield has said music continues to help him deal with the loss of his father, Irvin Mayfield Sr., who drowned when levees failed during Katrina. Since that storm, he’s been one of the city’s biggest champions – touting New Orleans wherever he performs and has opened two clubs under the Mayfield name.
“We all recognize we are part of a continuum,” Mayfield said. “When you hear a note by Trombone Shorty, you’re hearing a note by Louis Armstrong. When you hear Dr. John, you’re listening to James Booker. When you listen to Ellis Marsalis, you’re listening to James Black. You’re listening to all the folks who have come before who may not even still be here.”
A festival, says Mayfield, is one of the best ways to celebrate and present to the world the city’s unique music, food, art and culture.
“A lot of our music, primarily jazz music, comes from that outside way of being, the Mardi Gras Indians, the outside culture of what we do during Carnival time,” Mayfield said. “We definitely have a unique position of knowing how to do outside stuff and knowing how to do it really well.”
French Quarter Festival included more than 100 Louisiana Cajun, zydeco, jazz and blues acts on 22 stages strung throughout the historic French Quarter in such places as Jackson Square, the open-air French Market and the grassy park space along the Mississippi River. Visitors came from all over.
“The diverse bands, the jazz and blues, there’s no better place to find that than here in New Orleans,” said Ken Louis of Afton, Wis., while sipping a cold beer as a jazz band played in Jackson Square.
“It kind of greases the skids for Jazz Fest and all the other music festivals,” said Ron Ondechek Jr. of Denver, who called himself an avid fan of the city’s festivals. “There’s lots of art, lots of people, lots of music. It’s just a great place to relax.”
But the events are also big business. “Festival season is a lot of fun and a big draw, but in terms of dollars, it is a major economic impact to the city,” said Kelly Schulz of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Visitors are here,” she said. “They’re staying in our hotels. They’re eating in our restaurants. They’re shopping in our stores. They’re supporting other businesses too that people might not think of, the bikes, the shuttles, people that rent scooters around the city. There are so many aspects to the tourism industry, and when you’ve got major festivals like that, it really benefits the entire city.”
More than 8 million people visit New Orleans annually, and music is the biggest draw after Mardi Gras, particularly for international visitors, Schulz said. But there are many other attractions, including a vibrant restaurant scene, the Audubon Butterfly Garden and recently expanded World War II Museum. An increase in marketing dollars from BP to the city and state following the oil spill in 2010 have also helped boost tourism in the past two years, Schulz said.
“The city,” she added, “is just really hot right now.”