Jazz Fest Celebrates New Orleans Tricentennial

May 4, 2018

Jazz Fest is more than just music - this year, the festival is celebrating New Orleans’s 300th birthday with exhibits by local artists, performers and historians.

Reporter Natalie Yahr visited the Grandstand and the Cultural Exchange Pavilion and sent this tricentennial postcard from the festival.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson, Host of WWNO’s Tripod: New Orleans at 300:

“What you’re looking at here is a big wall that has five different posters that each represent a different Tripod episode. Beneath all of those posters, you have these three tablets, so you can listen to the episode on the basketball game between Saint Aug and Jesuit, you can listen to the episode about the vagabonds from France that were sent here, you can listen to the episode about the German gyms that were a huge, huge part of the scene in the mid 19th century to late 19th century, into the era of World War I, actually.

Laine Kaplan-Levenson at the Tripod exhibit in the Granstand.
Credit Natalie Yahr / WWNO

I love all of these episodes. I really love the episode about the basketball game -- a secret basketball game that was the first game to integrate high school sports. The NBA had been integrated for over five years at that point, and high school sports were still segregated in Louisiana. So that’s what that episode is all about.

I took this project on because I really thought this was a way to go way deeper and really find out a lot of the things about this city that either don’t get enough attention or, possibly, people didn’t want anybody to know about. And I’m interested in seeking those out and not only learning about them myself but having the rest of the city learn and know their own hometown or adopted city as best they can.”

Dominique Francis, Co-owner of Backstreet Cultural Museum:

“This is one of my favorite personal Mardi Gras Indian suits from the Chief Victor Harris who has been masking for 53 years straight. This one is blue, white, and silver. Everything is rhinestone-crusted, all hand-sewn, all hand-beaded by Victor Harris himself. And then you’re also gonna see some memorabilias of people who have died and passed away and Indians we want to honor throughout the year who has passed on. There’s an old photograph that displays my great-great-grandmother from the 1949s from the Eighth Ward Hunters, Big Queen Anita.

Dominique Francis with one of Chief Victor Harris's costumes in the Grandstand.
Credit Natalie Yahr / WWNO

This year, for the first time, we’re displaying our Mardi Gras Indian altar that tributes to past Indians that have died and gone on. So the altar symbolize and just represent that we’re keeping Mardi Gras Indians alive, jazz funerals alive… We just wanna pay tribute and respect to those who have gone on and those who have came before us.

I was born into the tradition, and actually it’s a legacy that I’m carrying out from my dad. He started the collection in like ‘79, and he’s been building it since. We been at Jazz Fest for about 35 plus years. It’s a tradition and an honor, so I have no choice. It’s a part of me.”

Rachel Breunlin, Director of The Neighborhood Story Project:

“I’m the director of The Neighborhood Story Project, which is a collaborative ethnography organization where we help people write books about the city. Today I have the great fortune of selling our latest book... Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi. It’s a wonderful partnership between the Backstreet, which is one of the first community-based museums -- or maybe the first community-based museum -- dedicated to African-American performance traditions in the city and the first Mardi Gras Indian tribe that transformed the tradition into a more African aesthetic.

The latest book from the Neighborhood Story Project, Fire in the Hole: The Spirit Work of Fi Yi Yi.
Credit Natalie Yahr / WWNO

This part, to me, helped me really connect with my own ancestors. It’s really about ancestral worship. That’s what they do, and that’s what was kinda the crossroad moment for Victor with the creation of Fi Yi Yi, was a return to thinking about his own roots. And so, when he goes out on the street, people follow him and gravitate to him not just because it’s beautiful but because it evokes an imagination about their own lineages. And ever since I’ve started working on it, I’ve tended to my own ancestors in a much deeper way. I suggest everybody try it, because good things come when you do that.”

Nick Scramuzza, Builder of a Saint Joseph Altar:

“I’m representing the Italian-Americans and Sicilians in the 300th year anniversary of New Orleans at the Jazz Fest 2018. Saint Joseph altars have been done since the 12th or 13th century, and they represent our giving blessings and thanks to Saint Joseph for saving us. In the medieval times, there was a great drought. Everyone was starving to death. There was no rain. We prayed to Saint Joseph and he came and he saved us. He grew the fava bean. That’s where the “lucky bean” comes from, and it is one of the mainstays of the altar. 

Nick Scramuzza stands with his Saint Joseph altar in the Cultural Pavilion.
Credit Natalie Yahr / WWNO

On the altar, you have many different things, different flours, breads, cookies, and things of that nature. One of my favorite things, if you notice: the little scraps of paper. People ask Saint Joseph for favors, and what you do is you write it, you throw it on the altar. I collect them and so they stay year after year.

There was a lot of loss after Katrina. You know, Katrina didn’t kill New Orleans with waves or rain or flooding, but the impact on culture was brutal, and I see that, having grown up where I grew up at. One of the main things I wanted to bring back was the Saint Joseph altar, so I would have them at my bar, the Lost Love Lounge…. Whenever I have an opportunity to bring this to the public, I go ahead and do it. And thank you to Jazz Fest for asking us to bring it out here, and it was a great honor and a pleasure to be able to do that for ‘em.”

Cynthia Ramirez, Builder of a Day of the Dead altar for Fats Domino:

“I have pictures of throughout his life, from his very beginning ‘til he was old and as we remember him, and in front of his house on Caffin Avenue. I just thought it was appropriate for Fats Domino to be honored in the 300th anniversary. He was one of the most locally and internationally known, and artists that influenced a lot of artists internationally.

Cynthia Ramirez stands with her altar to Fats Domino in the Cultural Pavilion.
Credit Natalie Yahr / WWNO

I knew of him. I passed his house constantly, and I know people who made clothes for him. So I knew that personal side, and he was part of the neighborhood, part of New Orleans. He never left, you know? You feel like he was just…your neighbor.

It’s exactly what we see in the Bone Gangs. It’s exactly what we see in all of these cultures: honoring the ancestors. You put these altars up to them, they’re not dead. They’re alive. They come back, and they’re always with you. As long as you are thinking of them and have pictures of them, they will never die.”