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Playing the Changes

In a time of change, we all must consider key questions about what in Jazz Fest is essential.

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The history of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a study in improvisation. The festival, founded in 1970, started in Congo Square in Armstrong Park. Two years later, it moved to the Fair Grounds, where it remains today. In the 1980s, the names of corporate sponsors replaced traditional stage names, and the Professor Longhair Stage became the WWL/Ray-Ban Stage, though the sign acknowledged the New Orleans piano legend by sporting his likeness. Only the Lagniappe Stage and the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage remain sponsorless at this point.

In 2000, Acura became the sponsor of the then-WWL/Ray-Ban Stage, a controversial deal that also included broadcast and Webcast rights. Where the Gospel Tent had previously stood, a tent displayed the car company's latest models.

The configuration of Jazz Fest stages also has evolved. As the festival grew, tents became more solid and stages were reconfigured -- both to make space for festgoers and to fight sound bleed from stage to stage. Throughout the 1990s, the gospel, jazz and blues tents were all on the track's infield. Now, all three stand in the Fair Grounds' parking lot adjacent to the Grandstand.

After this year's Jazz Fest, more evolution seems inevitable. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation says this year's festival lost between $800,000 and $900,000 because attendance was down for the second straight year. It recently announced that it doesn't have money to cover start-up costs for next year's festival. The weather, the economy and 9/11 were blamed for the decline, but as Don Marshall, the new executive director of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, pointed out to The Times-Picayune, the weather wasn't a problem in the Morris F.X. Jeff Municipal Auditorium, where some of the night shows played to half-empty houses.

Marshall replaces Wali Abdel-Ra'oof, who resigned last year. Though Marshall has only been in the position since July 1, he already has ruffled some feathers by suggesting, among other things, that the festival consider selling naming rights. That is sacrilegious to some, but this is not the first time the idea has surfaced. In 1998, software giant Computer Associates offered to meet the foundation's $4 million asking price to put its name in front of the festival title. The deal fell through when Computer Associates wanted input in festival programming, a condition the foundation wouldn't accept. We note that other festivals, such as the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City, have sold naming rights without losing their soul.

Marshall also suggested that Jazz Fest's musical lineup be reworked, arguing that it has leaned too heavily on artists from the 1970s and 1980s. We agree that Jazz Fest should focus on attracting the next generation of music fans. The schedule has been a yearly cause for debate, and even in the early days New Orleanians questioned the balance between national headliners and local talent, as well as the balance between genres. Jazz fans, for instance, have complained for years that there isn't enough jazz at Jazz Fest.

Booking talent is an art in itself, and it's something Festival Productions, the George Wein- and Quint Davis-led company that produces the festival, has largely done well. Still, while interest in American roots rock, folk and country has grown significantly in the past five years, it has passed almost unnoticed by Jazz Fest. Festivals such as Bonnaroo and Austin City Limits show how a little tweaking might broaden Jazz Fest's appeal. Bonnaroo booked Jazz Fest acts Los Lobos, Galactic, the Radiators, Bob Dylan and Fema Kuti, but it also booked Los Lonely Boys, Yonder Mountain String Band and the Black Keys. Its attendees, willing to travel to Tennessee and camp out, could be the future audience of Jazz Fest.

Marshall has rightly said that everything -- and he means everything -- is on the table. Festival Productions' contract has expired. He's re-examining Jazz Fest's charitable donations. In this time of change, Marshall, the foundation and the city should ponder some key questions: How does Jazz Fest fit into the cultural life of New Orleans? What in Jazz Fest is essential?

For now, we offer a short list -- jazz and heritage. Even when national acts draw thousands of first-time festgoers, local music remains the heart and soul of the event. To be sure, Jazz Fest doesn't owe every local musician a yearly gig. Artists and clubs need business plans that don't depend on Jazz Fest to get them through the year. Still, a good relationship with local musicians must endure. To that end, partially paying those artists whose gigs were rained out the second Friday of this year was the right thing to do, even during a time of economic stress. Understandably, Marshall has made a lot of people nervous. However, a foundation that has had to lay off staff can't afford business as usual. As we contemplate the future of our city's best known festival, it's important to note how much -- and how well -- Jazz Fest has improvised to become what it is today.

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