The weather is starting to get liquid hot at noon. We already see the sun’s rays as electrifying, not just warming. It’s that time of year again. No, not Mardi Gras: Jazz Fest.
It may seem like a time-old tradition now, but local festival-goers have seen it evolve for over four decades. Many people say it’s dead, dying, or has completely sold its soul. However, for the lovers of Jazz Fest, that simply isn’t so...
Brice Miller, Ph.D, Scholar, Lecturer, International Jazz Musician
“Jazz Fest has been an annual event my entire life. My dad, Dwight Miller (see photo below), a saxophonist, has been performing at the festival since 1971. He was featured on the festival's 1978 poster. I have been attending since around 1978, according to my mother.
I began performing at the festival with my dad's band, Pinstripe Brass Band, when I was in the 8th or 9th grade. I began performing as a bandleader in 1991 while attending St. Augustine High School, leading my own band, Junior Pinstripe Brass Band (now Mahogany Brass Band). We have performed every year since. I also perform with other bands, including Pinstripe Brass Band, Treme Brass Band, and Delfeayo Marsalis and the Uptown Jazz Orchestra.”
What’s the best concert you’ve seen there?
“That’s tough because I've seen so many concerts. However, one that stands out was Al Jarreau. He was on the Congo Square Stage. In the middle of his performance, he stopped the band and went on this extreme rant about race and racism, and how mean-spirited white people are. The entire audience was in shock, gasping. I was like, ‘Oh crap.’ That performance changed my life as a performer. It showed me I have to use my voice on stage and use that platform to not only entertain but to educate. That has become a hallmark of my performance.”
How do you incorporate that into your performance now?
“[When I play at Jazz Fest] it's my day to be both a spokesperson for the city and my culture, and also my day to be a celebrity. Media from around the world often interview me, some visit my house for more personal insight, and I've had some follow me around during the days leading up to the festival. Being able to utilize my talent to compete with the larger big-name festival performers is empowering. Secondly, it's a family day. My entire family comes out, my parents, and all the band members’ families. We bring the kids on stage during the performance. It's funny because festival-goers have commented that they've watched my youngest two kids grow up on the stage. My son's first appearance at Jazz Fest was when he was just a year old, and he's been on stage every year since then! Now he's actually performing with the band, along with his younger sister.”
What are your essentials to bring to Jazz Fest?
“First, dress comfortably. It's hot in New Orleans, and there is absolutely no covering, no trees, no shade at the festival. Wear a big hat, loose-fitting clothes, comfortable shoes, and bring lots of water. I had some friends from Birmingham come, and I told one of the girlfriends to dress comfortably, but she passed out in the middle of my performance from heat exhaustion.”
“My favorite area is the Norman Dixon, Sr. (my uncle) Jazz & Heritage Stage, which is the stage I perform on. There, you'll find New Orleans brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians performing all day, which is that truly authentic cultural performance. After that stage, I'd say the Lagniappe Stage, which often has more experimental music, plus it's the coolest (temperature-wise) place at the festival and the only outdoor space with shade. Economy Hall is pretty cool too, lots of traditional jazz, lots of older people dancing, which is so cute.”
What is your post-Jazz Fest routine?
“After Jazz Fest, we have a tradition of heading to our house with friends, family, and even strangers, and we eat crawfish, barbeque, and just relax while having a good time. Our house, which is in the historic Carrollton community, has always been a party/gathering space. My wife and I have been hosting our pre/post-Jazz Fest gathering since 2000. Actually, my band and their families come to the house the morning of our Jazz Fest performance. We eat and drink then head to the festival together.”
Where do you see Jazz Fest headed as a music festival?
“I personally feel it's becoming too commercial. People come to New Orleans for New Orleans music. I understand the big-name acts draw people, but engaging the local artists with the big names would help build the profile for local musicians. Also, I don't feel any act should be allowed to perform with only a DJ. Last year, Mystical performed and used a live band; that performance was absolutely amazing!”
Steve Hartnett, Social Go-Getter, Old Art Seller/Teacher, Modified Hippie
Sitting down with Steve was like talking to the Buddha of Jazz Fest fans. Starting at the very first Jazz Fest at the Fair Grounds (1972), he was asked by the editor of The Figaro (an alternative newspaper in the 70s and 80s) to sell art from his gallery at the event in “huge red and white tents that looked like the circus.”
“I would invite all my friends and buy them kids’ tickets for $3. No one at the gate looked at the tickets back then; they just tore them and you walked through. As soon as they visited me, I would say, ‘Hey, come here! Would you mind sitting here for a second so I can go see a band?’”
When I asked him how often he goes to Jazz Fest or what his plan of attack is, Steve scoffs at the question. “I go every day, baby!” He starts his day with beignets, coffee, and a prayer in the Gospel Tent. Then, he looks at the lineup sheet, which he has marked up to look almost like a football notebook. His best advice? If you don’t know who is playing, go to Spotify, Google, YouTube, etc., and listen to some of the bands you don’t know. “I want to go see someone called Johnnyswim. Well, it’s more than one guy.”
When pressed about what it was like in the early days of the festival, the stories never stopped. Steve and his wife, Pam, would park their van in the infield and basically tailgate. Since they are vegetarians and didn’t drink (living in New Orleans, geez), they packed sandwiches and brought a new backpack called a Camelbak for water.
It seems that Steve doesn’t fuss over much, but he cringed when I asked if he stayed at just one stage. “Do not be a camper. It defeats the camaraderie.” On a side note... Jazz Fest supposedly has a very, very low arrest record. Most likely due to the jovial spirit shared by all? When Professor Longhair said, “Gonna make it my standin’ place,” in his song “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” he spoke Steve’s language: “God gave us the ability to stand in two square feet.”
Where to go afterwards?
“Jazz Fest used to continue on The President,” a 1924, vintage cruise boat that saw all the great names. Seriously, they had the best. Now Steve and his wife go home to rest up for the next day.
Well, where should I go if I want to stay out? Everyone wants to know where to see a big name or secret show.
“Know that the bands in Jazz Fest can’t play together outside the Fair Grounds that weekend, so the beautiful culmination is a mishmash of talented artists going to see their record labels, local musicians of interests, and friends. The best plan is to pick a local band you want to see and watch the magic of Jazz Fest unfurl. If you’re a little too rigid for that, order a ticket to Preservation Hall’s Midnight Preserves. It lasts all seven nights and features a headliner with the band every night. You never know who it will be, but again, you are guaranteed magic.”