By Kathy Finn
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Nicole Toms practically gushed as she emerged into the sunlight from a massive tent where a gospel choir had brought the crowd to its feet.
"Oh my God, I love everything about this," she said. "The incredible variety of music, the layout of the stages and the food - it's the best."
Toms, of Mountain View, California, was describing her fifth visit to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a blockbuster event that draws hundreds of thousands of people during two weekends each spring and will continue through May 6.
Festival co-founder Quint Davis would say Toms wasn't merely describing an event, but homing in on New Orleans' heritage. "This festival is a an indigenous part of our culture," he told Reuters.
Now in its 43rd year, the quintessential New Orleans event better known as Jazz Fest broke new ground when it was launched in 1970 by Davis, an ethnomusicologist then just finishing college, and jazz impresario and Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein.
At the time, events that presented a variety of music groups on multiple stages at an outdoor location were rare. Their goal was to create such an event that reflected New Orleans, whose music, food and laid-back lifestyle were distinct because they derived from an unusual mix of French, Spanish, African, Native American and other influences.
Wein, the founder of Festival Productions Inc, and Davis, now chief executive of the company, concocted a festival that showcased local jazz, blues, R&B, African, Cajun and zydeco bands. And they surrounded the music with food booths that served up shrimp étouffée, boiled crawfish, oyster po-boys and Creole gumbo.
"Initially, it was like the world's largest indigenous back-yard barbecue," Davis said.
"Over time, the festival has become an authentic home to some very rare and deep traditions that only exist in south Louisiana," he said. "It's now like Mardi Gras - it's part of the cultural fabric of New Orleans."
While the festival presented almost exclusively local talent in the early years, Davis eventually began sprinkling in big-name national acts, this year ranging from Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, the Eagles, Cee Lo Green and the Foo Fighters to Feist, Janelle Monáe and Yolanda Adams.
But the more than 500 acts that rotate across 12 stages are predominantly from Louisiana, Davis said.
The seven-day event draws some 400,000 to the festival site at the Fair Grounds horse-racing track, which turns into a sea of colorful Hawaiian shirts and straw hats as fest-goers amble from stage to stage. Among them, some of the most enthusiastic visitors are the musicians.
"Everybody wants to play this festival," San Francisco booking agent Mike Kappus said.
The owner of The Rosebud Agency, whose talent portfolio includes such New Orleans artists and Jazz Fest regulars as Dr. John, Trombone Shorty, Allen Toussaint, Jon Cleary and Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Kappus also frequently books non-Louisiana clients into the festival.
He said musicians see it as a prestigious event that offers a big audience, but they also just like the festival's New Orleans vibe.
"It has the feel of New Orleans and its food and culture," he said. "It's just unlike anything else, and for a lot of people, it's their favorite festival in the world."
Jazz Fest has helped carry the New Orleans brand far and wide, Kappus said. Major music events around the world routinely include Louisiana bands in their lineups, and younger musicians are finding the kind of fame that once accrued only to long-established groups such as the Neville Brothers.
"Five years ago, Trombone Shorty had barely played outside of New Orleans, and recently, he's played on five continents in two months," Kappus said.
Along with showcasing the city's musical and culinary assets, Jazz Fest also shines a light on its visual artists and artisans, many of whom reflect New Orleans' diverse cultural roots.
In a large heritage exhibit area, mixed-media artist and New Orleans native Epaul Julien on Friday showed off elegant, framed montages of his photographs and drawings. He said his work "is all about New Orleans," but it also flows from his Haitian and Senegalese heritage.
"My great-great grandfather came here after fleeing the Haitian Revolution in 1802," he said.
Like local musicians and food vendors, Julien's art also is finding a wider audience. Next month he will show his work at an exhibit in Milan, Italy.
Displays by such local artists deepen the cultural experience of a visit to Jazz Fest, but many would probably still say the biggest draw is fun.
"I have a friend who's been coming to this festival for 20 years, and he used to tell me I was an idiot for not coming," New Yorker Steven Rolnik said Friday as he finished off a plate of Cajun boudin. "Well, this is my second time at the festival, and you know what? My friend was right."
(Editing By Dan Burns and Eric Walsh)