When the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival returns to the Fair Grounds racetrack this week, it will mark 50 years since the event was first held at the historic racetrack.
For its first two years, in 1970 and 1971, the festival was held at Congo Square. Although the crowd started out small, the event quickly gained momentum and began to outgrow the place.
City Park was suggested as an alternative, but ultimately the 145-acre Fairgrounds was chosen. The racetrack’s catering manager, George Rhode, helped sweeten the deal, offering an exchange for the rental fee. The fairground would keep proceeds from concessions such as beer, soft drinks, peanuts and popcorn in return for hosting the festival on its site.
Performers at the 1972 festival (held April 26-30) included local legends Professor Longhair, Deacon John and the Zion Harmonizers as well as nationally acclaimed artists BB King, Roberta Flack, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
In addition to performances at the fairgrounds, nighttime performances were also held at various venues, including the City Auditorium, the Roosevelt Hotel, and the SS President Riverboat.
That first year at the Fair Grounds, Jazz Fest attendance was 50,000 over four days. In 1975, the Festival reported an attendance of 80,000 people. In 2019, the festival’s last year before the pandemic, around 475,000 people attended the 50th anniversary event.
Nightly concerts were held on the Riverboat President, at the Saenger Theater, Tulane University, and at local clubs.