NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jazz clarinetist Orange Kellin remembers playing the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1970, when small crowds turned out to see a handful of performances.
Kellin was with the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra for the initial festival at Congo Square, a grassy park in the city's Treme neighborhood.
"I miss the early days," Kellin said. "I miss all the local talent, emphasizing local people, regional people."
The first Jazz Fest had four stages for gospel, jazz, and Cajun and zydeco performers. There was an open tent with an upright piano on the grass where gospel groups took turns singing, said festival producer Quint Davis.
Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Pete Fountain, Al Hirt, Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino and The Meters were among the inaugural performers.
Now, 45 years later, Jazz Fest opens Friday with 12 stages where more than 500 acts and 5,000 individual performers will entertain over the course of two weekends: Friday through Sunday and May 1-4.
Besides local acts like Kellin, who now performs with his own band, the festival card has big names including Carlos Santana, Christina Aguilera, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Chaka Khan, Al Jarreau and Public Enemy.
"There's a lot of local music still on display, a lot of jazz, a lot of gospel. It's still something that couldn't happen in any other city," Kellin said.
It's also a benchmark of New Orleans' tourism-based economy.
Mark Romig, spokesman for the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corp., said hotel occupancy will be near capacity.
This weekend, with Jazz Fest overlapping the Zurich Classic golf tournament and an orthodontics convention, hotel occupancy is projected at nearly 99 percent. The second weekend, occupancy is expected to be around 95 percent. Industry officials said there are more than 36,000 hotel rooms in the area.