- Associated Press - Thursday, April 27, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kicks off its first weekend Friday with performances by native sons Harry Connick Jr., Aaron Neville and Kermit Ruffins whether or not the weather cooperates.

The weekend forecast calls for cloudy skies on both the opening day and Saturday, with rain probable on Sunday. Still, producer Quint Davis said the show is going on and he’s excited about the more than 500 performances on tap and the food on the menus.

“Come rain or shine, you will still have the chance to get that gumbo, or Crawfish Monica or taste that soft-shell crab po-boy,” Davis said. “The forecast is getting better every few hours. We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

Davis said he’s hoping this year’s event will not include the rain that deluged 2016’s second weekend, causing acts on main stages to end their sets early and cancelled outright Stevie Wonder’s scheduled set.

But Davis said he’s ecstatic that Wonder agreed to return this year.

“It took years to get Stevie and to get him to come back … two years in a row. That’s just phenomenal,” Davis said. “There are so many people to see from top to bottom. Y’all come! Come on out. We’ve got everything ready for you.”

On Saturday, Maroon 5, Alabama Shakes, Usher and The Roots and gospel star Deitrick Haddon are among the headliners while Sunday’s lineup includes Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Pitbull, George Benson and Lorde.

The festival also features a huge number of artists from Louisiana and New Orleans, such as the Rebirth Brass Band, Ellis Marsalis and Dr. John as well as tributes to recently deceased musical icons Pete Fountain, Buckwheat Zydeco and gospel artist Jo “Cool” Davis.

The seven-day festival, in its 48th year, is presented by Shell. It’s held annually at the Fair Grounds Race Course and wraps around two weekends, ending Sunday, May 7.

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CUBA AT JAZZ FEST: The festival’s international spotlight this year shines on Cuba.

Davis said getting Cuba to the festival has taken two years of hard work.

Among the 14 Cuban musical artists scheduled for the festival are reggaeton group Gente de Zona, jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, timba kings Los Van Van, rapper Pitbull, “street poet” Telmary and Afro-Cuban band Adonis y Osain del Monte. The artists’ performance times are included, for the first time, on the festival’s cubes - the coveted day-by-day, hour-by-hour schedule.

In addition to the music, the Cuban cultural exchange will include opportunities to taste the country’s food. Congreso Cuban catering company will serve frijoles negros (black beans) with rice; tostones (fried green plantains), ropa vieja (braised steak) and paleta de cafe con leche (coffee ice pop).

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2017 JAZZ FEST POSTER: This year’s official New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival poster features New Orleans’ funk band The Meters.

The limited edition silk-screen poster, by artist Francis X. Pavy, is available in editions of 8,500 numbered prints for $69; 1,600 artist-signed and numbered prints for $239 and prints signed by the artist and each of the band’s members - are $595 each.

The prints are available at the festival’s poster tent, by the flagpole in the center of the festival grounds.

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