George Wein had the Superdome on hold, but he needed a festival to fill it. Ed Lewis needed a suitably splashy event to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Essence, the magazine he had co-founded.
From their respective desires, the Essence Music Festival was born.
A quarter-century later, the 25th annual Essence Fest opens Friday for three nights of concerts at the Superdome and three days of free seminars at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center.
Wein and Lewis are no longer directly involved. But their creation remains a cornerstone of New Orleans’ summertime tourism economy. And it is arguably the pre-eminent predominantly African-American social and entertainment event in the country.
On Friday at 11:15 a.m. at the Convention Center, Lewis will join former Essence editor-in-chief Susan L. Taylor, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, Essence CEO Michelle Ebanks and the Rev. Al Sharpton for a panel discussion about the Essence Festival’s history, evolution and impact.
But none of it would have happened had George Wein not found himself in a jam.
How long has the Essence Festival been around? Music released in the decade of the festival’s founding — the 1990s — is now considered old-school.
In the 1950s, Wein, a jazz pianist and promoter, had created the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. In 1970, he established the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Via his pioneering Festival Productions Inc., he launched the KOOL Jazz Festival in the 1970s, staging stadium-sized rhythm & blues concerts in various cities for mostly black audiences.
In the early 1990s, Wein went looking for another such venture. He and singer Harry Belafonte conceived of an ambitious multi-disciplinary arts festival in Barbados. But the numbers didn’t add up, and the idea was abandoned.
Wein next developed a variation on the KOOL Jazz Festival at the Superdome to be sponsored by American Express. He worked closely with his friend Kenneth Chenault, a prominent black executive at American Express who would become the company’s chairman and CEO.
By late 1994, Wein was so confident that the American Express fest would come to fruition that he had Quint Davis, his protégé and partner in New Orleans, reserve the Superdome for the next few July 4th weekends.
But then the AmEx deal fell apart. Davis was in his kitchen when Wein called with the news. “He said, ‘It’s over,’ ” Davis recalled recently. “It was a huge disappointment to him.”
Wein told Davis to release the reserved July 4th dates at the Dome. But Davis wasn’t ready to give up just yet.
A few days later, he informed Wein, “It can’t be over. I didn’t release the Dome.”
So they needed to find another festival.
That fall, Wein met his friend Ed Lewis for drinks. They’d been introduced by comedian Bill Cosby, who had emceed some of Wein’s festivals.
Their lives had already intersected indirectly. When Lewis was a teenager, his father worked as a janitor at Lewisohn Stadium, an amphitheater at the City College of New York. The senior Lewis slipped his son into concerts produced by Wein.
The 2019 Essence Festival roster spans Frankie Beverly, Big Freedia and former first lady Michelle Obama.
Years later, in 1994, Lewis mentioned to Wein his desire to stage a big event for the upcoming 25th anniversary of Essence, his hugely popular lifestyle magazine for African-American women.
Well, Wein said, how about a multiple-night music festival in the Superdome?
“I couldn’t say that particular idea had ever occurred to me,” Lewis wrote in “The Man From Essence,” his 2014 autobiography.
But he liked it. Susan Taylor and Clarence Smith, one of the magazine’s co-founding partners, were initially skeptical, Lewis wrote, but eventually warmed to the idea.
They considered all sorts of creative names. It was Taylor, Davis said, who finally proposed they “just call it what it is: the Essence Music Festival.”
Later, the name would be shortened to Essence Festival, to reflect the broader nature of the event.
As plans coalesced, Wein and Lewis sought the support of Marc Morial, New Orleans’ newly elected mayor. Morial expressed concern about the predominantly white staff of Festival Productions producing an event celebrating black culture.
In his autobiography “Myself Among Others,” Wein reflected on the irony. In the 1960s, he had confronted laws that prohibited interracial bandstands in New Orleans; some city leaders were also uncomfortable that Wein, who is Jewish, had married a black woman. Those issues had delayed the launch of Jazz Fest.
“Now, in 1994, in New Orleans,” Wein wrote, “could it be possible that I cannot do business with an African-American firm because I am white?”
Morial, now president of the National Urban League, said this week he only wanted to make sure minority businesses and local musicians benefited.
“I told George that there’s got to be some minority participation in the festival,” Morial said this week. “That’s a tension point with all these festivals. I was very direct with George and Ed on that. I challenged them. It was not about saying, ‘I don’t want you.’ It was about saying, ‘Let’s make this work so that, when it’s over, people can say, “We had participation,” and people benefited.’”
The two sides eventually worked out a mutually satisfactory solution.
At the inaugural Essence in 1995, Cosby, Sinbad and Queen Latifah emceed performances by Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, Gladys Knight, Luther Vandross, B.B. King, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, the O’Jays, the Isley Brothers, Anita Baker and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly.
It succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations, netting a profit of more than $500,000, Lewis wrote, and confirming “the validity of the Essence market and the power of the Essence message.”
Originally intended as a one-time-only event, Lewis realized it could be “an annual gathering of black entertainers and thinkers, Essence readers and advertisers, that would turn into the company’s most profitable and celebrated corporate sponsor event.”
But the festival’s second year did not go as smoothly.
After being elected Louisiana’s governor in 1995, Mike Foster announced his intention to curtail affirmative action initiatives and set-aside programs. In response, Lewis threatened to cancel the 1996 Essence Fest. After meeting with Foster, Lewis agreed to proceed with the festival in New Orleans.
But the months of uncertainly negatively impacted the festival’s marketing and ticket and corporate sponsorship sales. The second Essence Fest, Lewis wrote, lost $1 million.
There were other problems. A 47-year-old man was accidentally shot in the thigh when a .38-caliber pistol discharged after being dropped on an escalator inside the Dome.
And when contemporary R&B singer R. Kelly pulled up to the Superdome’s backstage area in a van that was not properly credentialed, security guards stopped him. An argument ensued; Kelly returned to his hotel and refused to perform, despite a personal appeal from Lewis.
“It was very unfortunate,” Lewis said later that night. “That’s putting it mildly.”
But Essence Fest persevered, building an audience and a brand. Some of the biggest names in entertainment, including Beyoncé, Prince, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart, have graced its stage.
That it would always remain in New Orleans was not a given. “Other cities tried to snatch it away,” Morial said. “There was a thought process in the early days that they needed to move it around.”
The 2006 Essence Fest moved out of necessity, as the Superdome was still undergoing repairs after Hurricane Katrina. But many of those who attended the Essence-in-exile at Houston’s Reliant Park were not impressed, including Morial.
“It was an awful experience,” Morial said. “That helped us” keep the festival in New Orleans.
It returned to the Superdome in 2007 and has remained there, despite behind-the-scenes changes. After Lewis sold Essence magazine to Time Inc., a new regime led by Ebanks replaced Wein and Davis’ Festival Productions with a new producer, Rehage Entertainment. Since 2012, the New Orleans-based Solomon Group has produced the festival.
In early 2018, Richelieu Dennis, the founder of the personal care products company Sundial Brands, announced that he had bought Essence from Time. Once again, the magazine and festival were black-owned.
The 2019 festival is the last under a five-year contract extension Essence and the city signed in 2014. But at this point, no one expects it to move anywhere else.
“The idea that it could somehow move to another city is not true,” Davis said. “There’s a reason it’s been here for 25 years.”
He still marvels at the serendipity that enabled the pivot from the proposed AmEx fest to the enduring Essence Fest.
‘What if it hadn’t been their 25th anniversary?” he said. “That was the right thing at the right time.”