Perhaps because it’s the anniversary year for Fest, or the fact that we lost two New Orleans musical icons—Snooks Eaglin and Eddie Bo—in the months leading up to Fest, or simply the presence of the word “Heritage” in Fest’s title, but I’m thinking about how to incorporate the JazzFest experience into my world view of heritage management.
Somewhere in the haze, I seem to recall the 20th, 25th, 30th, and 35th anniversaries of Fest. Each and every milestone year was dutifully acknowledged—and celebrated—but with a nonchalance characteristic of New Orleans in general. It’s a city that environmentally shouldn’t exist in the first place. Throw a couple hundred years of monumental challenges that would have sunk (literally) any other city in the world on top of that, and you understand why New Orleansians acknowledge milestones in five-year increments. They never know if they’ll be there in another five.
I believe it’s also the reason New Orleansians don’t take their anniversaries too seriously. Their tenuous history gives them a keen sense of perspective—and proportion—about all things. It would be futile to take anything too seriously, given the amazing practical joke the Gods have played on them. When it comes to anniversaries, they simply acknowledge them, appreciate them, and then get on with it. For the rest of us in corporate America, on the anniversary-every-25-years schedule, I think the lesson to be learned here is: celebrate your survival more often, give thanks, and then get on with it.
Anyone who has ever attended Jazz Fest quickly realizes that it’s all about those musicians who came before us, and the many performances are living tributes to the shoulders upon which the current musicians stand. This meaning was distinctly striking at this year’s performance of the Wild Magnolias.
The aging Mardi Gras Indian, Big Chief Theodore Emile “Bo” Dollis, was briefly brought on stage for what may very well have been his last Jazz performance. As he repeatedly chanted “Good bye, everybody” to the rhythms of his loving band members and the cheers of the admiring audience, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. I’m of the belief that, whenever you have an opportunity to see a musical legend (or sports legend, business legend, political legend, etc.) you go, because you never know if you’ll have another opportunity. So the lesson here to my friends in the corporate arena: celebrate your legends while they’re alive. It will inspire your people.
Finally, there’s the operative word “heritage” in the event’s name, “New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.” The name may sound like the title of some stuffy Southern historical society gathering, but the event is anything but staid. It’s 100,000 people ranging from infants to centenarians in joyful celebration of authentic music, food, and friendship.
You can talk to a 17-year-old from New Orleans who can tell you the lineage of horn players from Buddy Bolden to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews . . . and the history of neighborhoods they grew up in. When an artist takes the stage, you’ll overhear audience members engaged in serious discussion about the year and make of the guitar being played . . . and any idiosyncrasies of the tuning. I’ve even heard serious debates about the origins of Crawfish Monica—a cheesy crawfish pasta staple at Fest. So what’s the lesson here? Heritage isn’t old. At JazzFest, heritage is all about continuity. It tells us who and what came before so we can know who we are today. By learning it, debating it, and celebrating it, heritage comes alive. Maybe we could do a little more of that in the corporate world.
I’ll have the sounds of second line drumming in my head for the next few days. And I’ll rhythmically shuffle down the hall. But when the FestLag wears off, I’ll have fresh memories and lessons-learned to apply to my day job. And that’s what heritage management is all about.
Happy 40th Anniversary, Fest!