Past and Present Jazzfest Through the Lens of Ben Sandmel

Ben Sandmel New Orleans Jazzfest

Ben Sandmel is booking coordinator for the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. He is also one of the 2018 winners of the Lifetime Contribution to the Humanities award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

By Bronwyn Olstein

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2018 will be Ben Sandmel’s 36th year working for the festival. Currently, he conducts interviews with artists and is a booking coordinator for the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. Sandmel has loved his time working for and being present at Jazzfest. He has interviewed many musicians such as Emmylou Harris, Dr. John and Ernie K-Doe, and raved about the incredible performances he’s seen over the years such as Al Green and Earth, Wind & Fire. Sandmel is also a drummer, and has been able to play with some bands who have attended the festival. For eighteen years, he played at Jazzfest with the Hackberry Ramblers, a Cajun band out of Lake Charles.

“I’ve had great experiences on three different levels: as a performer, as an interviewer, and just to walk around the festival and see great performances,” Sandmel said.

Another fantastic opportunity Jazzfest brought to Sandmel was providing him with introduction and influence for his biography Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans, published in 2012. Through working for the festival, Sandmel was able to meet new people and make contacts for interviews which helped him write the book. Seeing peoples’ performances at Jazzfest also provided Sandmel with ideas as to what other musicians he could interview that would bring important or interesting insight to the book.

Since he started working at the festival in 1983, the biggest change to the festival is how much it has grown in size. But, with its growing popularity each year, Sandmel greatly appreciates that the type of musical acts booked hasn’t changed much.

“For a major festival you still have a lot more local, indigenous ethnic music than you would have at other events of the same size,” Sandmel explained. “The fact that it’s gotten bigger hasn’t really affected me or what I do. I’m on the traditional music side and kind of the more obscure, lesser known local and regional performers, and that’s still an important factor. You can still, in theory, go out to the festival and spend most of your day seeing people like that as opposed to the headliners.”

“I’ve had great experiences on three different levels: as a performer, as an interviewer, and just to walk around the festival and see great performances.”

Once the acts are booked, Sandmel goes through the roster and picks out acts who he thinks would be interesting to interview. He said that organizing interviews can be a long process since some people don’t always agree to it when he contacts them. They don’t understand that it’s a public event that has to be booked two months in advance, and often think it’s a one-on-one interview, mistaking Sandmel as a typical journalist. This is one aspect of some of the obstacles that Jazzfest workers have to deal with when putting the festival together.

“It’s a complex process like a big jigsaw puzzle or a house of cards,” Sandmel said. “You have to figure out when people are coming in from out of town- are they coming in the day before the show or landing at the airport 2 hours before set time. You have to figure out how to get them from point A to point B. There are a lot of different factors to make sure we’re on the same page regarding the equipment and everything.”

Sandmel went on to discuss interviews in the past which have been particularly stand-out to him. He recalled an interview back in the ’90s with an old African American string fiddler named Howard Armstrong.

“I was sitting next to him and he played this gorgeous version of “Summertime” and it just about gave me goosebumps. It was such a thrill to sit with someone from another era and talk to them like that,” recalled Sandmel.

At Jazzfest this year, Sandmel is moderating a panel tribute to Professor Longhair, and holding two country music interviews on the Music Heritage Stage.

“I try to make it kind of a microcosm of all the music that’s out on the field so it’s kind of like something for everyone. I’m trying to get a whole scope of what’s happening on the big stages and get those represented,” he explained.

Sandmel is looking forward to seeing Bobby Rush and the tribute to Fats Domino with several members of his band. The collaborative performance between Lucinda Williams and jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd is also something Sandmel is interested in, and believes it is “very experimental and daring on their part.”

“There’s going to be so much great music,” Sandmel enthusiastically stated. “The general festival lineup is really good this year and I’m happy with the way the Music Heritage lineup turned out.”

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