You either get this or you don’t.
I know many New Orleanians who have no use for Jazzfest. It’s expensive, crowed, hot, and punctuated by the occasional monsoon. A home run national act at the Acura Stage can induce pedestrian gridlock, transforming the Fairgrounds to the 101 freeway in LA.
Every bit of this is true and all of it is justification for calling this thing one big bucket of tie-died overrated and staying as far away as possible.
If that’s all there is.
But there’s so much more, of course, most of it centered around tradition and ritual. If you already get it, you probably don’t need to read this. Or maybe you should just to point out the pieces I miss. If you don’t get it, I’m here this morning to tell you how you can, and that there is hope for you yet. So let’s get ready for the next two weekends and chat about why Jazz Fest is the greatest event in NOLA, shall we?
First things first: This is a festival for people who are passionate about music. If you’re just not, you’re probably right not to bother with it. But if you can, these are the High Holy Weeks. And can we agree to table the clueless comments about how this act or that act ‘isn’t jazz?’ Jazz Fest is an enormous celebration of a broad swath of music. If you choose, you can attend the Fest and not see anything other than pure jazz (we won’t go off on a tangent here about where the boundaries of jazz lie. That’s an interesting discussion for another day.) But here’s the thing: every single act at the Fest, from Juvenile to The Black Keys to Earth Wind and Fire owes a debt to jazz. Jazz and Blues together are the Ur-texts of 20th (and 21st) century popular music, the beginnings of everything. So do not pass Go and do not collect $200 if you can’t dive headfirst into the music. But if you can, it just gets better from there. Here we go:
Repeat after me: Jazz Fest is NOT a two-weekend festival at the Fairgrounds. This is the most common misconception about the event. Yes the Fairgrounds scene is the central framing mechanism of the Fest, but Jazz Fest is more accurately described as a two-weekend co-opting of the entire city. Everything in town revolves around, relates to, and enhances the event. I’ll give you some thoughts on the Fairgrounds, and then we’ll cover the goings-on around town.
At the Fairgrounds: If you’re a Fest regular, you probably know all of this already and you likely have some brilliant logistical tips of your own (please share). If not, here’s a list of bullet points that can help improve your experience:
- Consider setting up a camp and leaving it: Set your collection of chairs/tarps/ etc up at your stage of choice, typically the place where you plan on finishing the day or spending the most time. Feel free to leave. Your stuff will be fine, and you’ve secured a landing site for later in the day, freeing you to wander early. Speaking of that…
- Wander Early: Sample the food and the art early in the day, before things get intense. After a final supply run, settle down later to stay in one place for the last act or two, leaving only for the bathroom, which won’t be so bad if you employ the proper Jazz Fest Feng Shui when setting up your camp…
- Work the Outside Edges: If you’re plan involves finishing at Acura or Gentilly, set up your camp near the outside edge of the stage. Dropping a blanket near the inner loop for a Dave Matthews set is the Jazzfest equivalent of building your house on the dragon’s eyeball. Very bad Feng Shui. Setting up near the outer loop allows MUCH easier egress and ingress (I love that word) allowing for bathroom runs and even the Holy Grail of the Fest: the late-stage beer run. And speaking of bathrooms…
- Advanced bathroom technique: Don’t forget about the real restrooms in the Grandstand, and the opportunity to get inside for an A/C break if the day’s a real scorcher.
- Eating: The food at the Fairgrounds is justifiably legendary. Here are my favorites:
- Softshell Crab Po-Boy
- Cochon de Lait Po-Boy
- Pheasant Quail and Andouille Gumbo
- Crawfish Bread
- Tagine of Lamb
So there’s your little primer for the Fairgrounds, but let’s talk about the Fest outside the Fest, the nonstop party that Jazz Fest brings to NOLA:
Music: This is the best fortnight of music on the New Orleans calendar. Every venue books their biggest shows of the year, and these are the sets at which you’re most likely to get a terrific surprise, like Herbie Hancock getting up to jam at Snug Harbor or Lindsey Buckingham siting in with someone unannounced. Here are just a few of the gems:
- Piano Night: WWOZ’s signature fundraiser at the House of Blues each year the Monday after the first weekend. Show starts at 7ish and goes on pretty much forever. Count on being worthless Tuesday morning.
- ChazFest: 10 hours of local music in the 9th Ward on the Wednesday between the weekends. A Fest within the Fest. How cool is that?
- Galactic at Tipitina’s: Both Saturdays of the Fest. Actually, that’s not true. This legendary annual set starts at 2am, so you can call it your Sunday morning set. And yes, it will be daylight when you leave.
- Herlin Riley/Terence Blanchard at Snug Harbor: drummer Riley on the first Saturday and trumpet player Blanchard on the second Sunday are the traditional Snug sets, and they are as good as it gets for straight-up jazz.
- Triple Play at Mid City Lanes: The Rock ‘n’ Bowl delivers a triple bill on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night of each weekend, featuring acts like Kermit Ruffins, Sunny Landreth, Tab Benoit, and others. Among the best deals in town.
- And all of that is just a sampler, with every club stacked. It is hard to go wrong.
Dining: Some say these are the weekends to avoid NOLA restaurants. You’ll fight the biggest crowds of the year for sure, but no other time can match the convivial atmosphere at every table around you. We do a large group dinner once every Fest, and never the same place twice. There are two approaches, and we vary between them. Either go immediately after the Fest to a non-reservation place, or make the reservations early for a big table at 9:30 or so, giving you time to get home and clean up before stepping out. This year we could think of nothing better that Pesche, Donald Link’s new place on Magazine, and we’ll be there Saturday night. In 2012 we had a terrific finish at Suis Generis in Bywater, and over the years there have been so many others: Casamento’s, Boucherie, La Petite Grocery, Iris, and Jackson (remember that place?) just to name a few. If you plan to go the no reservations route, consider Maurepas and the new Mariza, both terrific landing spots in Bywater. One way or the other, group dining is a good Jazzfest tradition to have.
And that circles us around to the people, the real reason these weekends are so great. We all agree Jazzfest isn’t cheap, but the corollary to that is a city full of people nutty enough about music to put their money where their mouth is and get their asses down here for this. Very simply, there is no better time to make a bunch of new friends from all over the world. Be sure to talk to the folks in the chairs next to you at the Fairgrounds, at the next table a Domenica, waiting in line with you for Tipitina’s. You’ve got instant commonality and the opportunity to hear some great stories and learn some new things. And you might get along well enough to see each other next year, and the year after that. And that is what the Fest is really all about. Like most everything else in life, you get out of it what you put in.