George Wein had the Superdome on maintain, however he wanted a pageant to fill it. Ed Lewis wanted a suitably splashy occasion to have a good time the 25th anniversary of Essence, the journal he had co-founded.
From their respective wishes, the Essence Music Competition was born.
1 / 4-century later, the 25th annual Essence Fest opens Friday for 3 nights of concert events on the Superdome and three days of free seminars on the Ernest N. Morial Conference Middle.
Wein and Lewis are now not straight concerned. However their creation stays a cornerstone of New Orleans’ summertime tourism economic system. And it’s arguably the pre-eminent predominantly African-American social and leisure occasion within the nation.
On Friday at 11:15 a.m. on the Conference Middle, Lewis will be a part of 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 dialogue concerning the Essence Competition’s historical past, evolution and affect.
However none of it will have occurred had George Wein not discovered himself in a jam.
How lengthy has the Essence Competition been round? Music launched within the decade of the pageant’s founding — the 1990s — is now thought of old-school.
Within the 1950s, Wein, a jazz pianist and promoter, had created the Newport Jazz Competition in Rhode Island. In 1970, he established the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Competition.
By way of his pioneering Competition Productions Inc., he launched the KOOL Jazz Competition within the 1970s, staging stadium-sized rhythm & blues concert events in numerous cities for largely black audiences.
Within the early 1990s, Wein went in search of one other such enterprise. He and singer Harry Belafonte conceived of an bold multi-disciplinary arts pageant in Barbados. However the numbers didn’t add up, and the concept was deserted.
Wein subsequent developed a variation on the KOOL Jazz Competition on the Superdome to be sponsored by American Categorical. He labored carefully along with his pal Kenneth Chenault, a distinguished black government at American Categorical who would turn into the corporate’s chairman and CEO.
By late 1994, Wein was so assured that the American Categorical fest would come to fruition that he had Quint Davis, his protégé and associate in New Orleans, reserve the Superdome for the subsequent few July 4th weekends.
However then the AmEx deal fell aside. Davis was in his kitchen when Wein known as with the information. “He mentioned, ‘It’s over,’ ” Davis recalled lately. “It was an enormous disappointment to him.”
Wein advised Davis to launch the reserved July 4th dates on the Dome. However Davis wasn’t prepared to surrender simply but.
A number of days later, he knowledgeable Wein, “It could actually’t be over. I didn’t launch the Dome.”
In order that they wanted to search out one other pageant.
That fall, Wein met his pal Ed Lewis for drinks. They’d been launched by comic Invoice Cosby, who had emceed a few of Wein’s festivals.
Their lives had already intersected not directly. When Lewis was a young person, his father labored as a janitor at Lewisohn Stadium, an amphitheater on the Metropolis Faculty of New York. The senior Lewis slipped his son into concert events produced by Wein.
The 2019 Essence Competition roster spans Frankie Beverly, Massive Freedia and former first woman Michelle Obama.
Years later, in 1994, Lewis talked about to Wein his want to stage a giant occasion for the upcoming 25th anniversary of Essence, his vastly in style life-style journal for African-American ladies.
Properly, Wein mentioned, how a few multiple-night music pageant within the Superdome?
“I couldn’t say that exact concept had ever occurred to me,” Lewis wrote in “The Man From Essence,” his 2014 autobiography.
However he appreciated it. Susan Taylor and Clarence Smith, one of many journal’s co-founding companions, had been initially skeptical, Lewis wrote, however ultimately warmed to the concept.
They thought of all kinds of artistic names. It was Taylor, Davis mentioned, who lastly proposed they “simply name it what it’s: the Essence Music Competition.”
Later, the identify can be shortened to Essence Competition, to mirror the broader nature of the occasion.
As plans coalesced, Wein and Lewis sought the help of Marc Morial, New Orleans’ newly elected mayor. Morial expressed concern concerning the predominantly white employees of Competition Productions producing an occasion celebrating black tradition.
In his autobiography “Myself Amongst Others,” Wein mirrored on the irony. Within the 1960s, he had confronted legal guidelines that prohibited interracial bandstands in New Orleans; some metropolis leaders had been additionally uncomfortable that Wein, who’s Jewish, had married a black girl. These points had delayed the launch of Jazz Fest.
“Now, in 1994, in New Orleans,” Wein wrote, “might or not it’s potential that I can’t do enterprise with an African-American agency as a result of I’m white?”
Morial, now president of the Nationwide City League, mentioned this week he solely needed to ensure minority companies and native musicians benefited.
“I advised George that there’s received to be some minority participation within the pageant,” Morial mentioned this week. “That’s a pressure level with all these festivals. I used to be very direct with George and Ed on that. I challenged them. It was not about saying, ‘I don’t need you.’ It was about saying, ‘Let’s make this work in order that, when it’s over, folks can say, “We had participation,” and other people benefited.’”
The 2 sides ultimately labored out a mutually passable resolution.
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial and his spouse, Michelle Miller, within the crowd at Essence Fest in New Orleans on the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Friday, July four, 2014.
On 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 Males, Mary J. Blige, the O’Jays, the Isley Brothers, Anita Baker and Maze that includes Frankie Beverly.
It succeeded past anybody’s expectations, netting a revenue of greater than $500,000, Lewis wrote, and confirming “the validity of the Essence market and the facility of the Essence message.”
Initially meant as a one-time-only occasion, Lewis realized it could possibly be “an annual gathering of black entertainers and thinkers, Essence readers and advertisers, that might flip into the corporate’s most worthwhile and celebrated company sponsor occasion.”
However the pageant’s second 12 months didn’t go as easily.
After being elected Louisiana’s governor in 1995, Mike Foster introduced his intention to curtail affirmative motion initiatives and set-aside applications. In response, Lewis threatened to cancel the 1996 Essence Fest. After assembly with Foster, Lewis agreed to proceed with the pageant in New Orleans.
However the months of uncertainly negatively impacted the pageant’s advertising and marketing and ticket and company sponsorship gross sales. The second Essence Fest, Lewis wrote, misplaced $1 million.
There have been different issues. A 47-year-old man was by accident shot within the thigh when a .38-caliber pistol discharged after being dropped on an escalator contained in the Dome.
And when up to date R&B singer R. Kelly pulled as much as the Superdome’s backstage space in a van that was not correctly credentialed, safety guards stopped him. An argument ensued; Kelly returned to his resort and refused to carry out, regardless of a private attraction from Lewis.
“It was very unlucky,” Lewis mentioned later that evening. “That is placing it mildly.”
However Essence Fest persevered, constructing an viewers and a model. Among the largest names in leisure, together with Beyoncé, Prince, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Kanye West, Chris Rock and Kevin Hart, have graced its stage.
That it will all the time stay in New Orleans was not a given. “Different cities tried to grab it away,” Morial mentioned. “There was a thought course of within the early days that they wanted to maneuver it round.”
The 2006 Essence Fest moved out of necessity, because the Superdome was nonetheless present process repairs after Hurricane Katrina. However a lot of those that attended the Essence-in-exile at Houston’s Reliant Park weren’t impressed, together with Morial.
“It was an terrible expertise,” Morial mentioned. “That helped us” hold the pageant in New Orleans.
It returned to the Superdome in 2007 and has remained there, regardless of behind-the-scenes modifications. After Lewis offered Essence journal to Time Inc., a brand new regime led by Ebanks changed Wein and Davis’ Competition Productions with a brand new producer, Rehage Leisure. Since 2012, the New Orleans-based Solomon Group has produced the pageant.
In early 2018, Richelieu Dennis, the founding father of the non-public care merchandise firm Sundial Manufacturers, introduced that he had purchased Essence from Time. As soon as once more, the journal and pageant had been black-owned.
The 2019 pageant is the final beneath a five-year contract extension Essence and town signed in 2014. However at this level, nobody expects it to maneuver wherever else.
“The concept that it might one way or the other transfer to a different metropolis will not be true,” Davis mentioned. “There’s a motive it’s been right here for 25 years.”
He nonetheless marvels on 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 mentioned. “That was the precise factor on the proper time.”