People really have a thing for Jazz Fest—so much so, in fact, that 425,000 attended the festival in 2017. But why is everyone so jazzed about Jazz Fest? What exactly is it that has tourists scheduling Jazz Fest-cations around the two-weekend-long festival, that has locals calling out sick with Jazz Fest-itis, and has everyone forking out a minimum of 65 bucks just to get in the gates for a single day, and easily twice that much on fest food, booze, and merchandise once on the festival grounds? Whether it’s the desire to see your favorite band; a craving for festival favorites like Pecan Catfish Meuniere, Poulet Fricasee, and soft-shell crab po-boys; or the camaraderie of 424,999 fellow fest-goers, everyone has something about Jazz Fest that they just can’t get enough of. Our Where Y’at writers share their favorite Jazz Fest memories—the sort of thing that feeds their festin’ addiction.
My most memorable Jazz Fest experience is actually a collage of fond (and not-so) memories: Waiting out the rain under the Gospel Tent. Waiting out the rain under the Blues Tent. Biking two miles home in the pouring rain after that infamous rained-out Jazz Fest Saturday in 2016, cloaked in a garbage bag. Wearing rain boots that were meant to ward off the wetness, but that filled up with enough water to bathe a Labrador. Drinking frozen daiquiris in front of the Fais Do-Do Stage. In the rain. Frozen daiquiri headaches the next day. Second lines and second rounds. Children playing in mud puddles. That lingering wet-horse smell of a rainy race track. Shopping for a crawfish-print dress. Shopping for anything with a crawfish on it. Visiting an accordion salesman and discovering that accordions cost $3,000, and some have crawfish on them. Crawfish enchiladas and boudin balls, fry bread and white chocolate bread pudding. Bruce Springsteen, Better Than Ezra, Elvis Costello. Eating the crawfish trifecta (bread, beignets, and bisque). Wearing my favorite bright pink straw hat. Sunscreen. Misting tents and Mango Freezes. Tasting the renowned Crawfish Monica for the first time, and then naming my pet crawfish after the dish. Overall, just being a part of the coolest darn festival in New Orleans.
My first (and only) time at Jazz Fest was back when I was still in college. One of my friends at the time begged me to go with him to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (he was so obsessed with Clarence Clemons, I’d be shocked if he didn’t have a personal shrine to him). He was such a fan-boy that he brought his saxophone with him and carried it the entire day, just so he could play along with the band during the performance.
After a whole day of fighting through crowds, brushing my teeth every time I ate something ('cause I had Invisaligns back then), sweating to death, and constantly moving around (he never wanted to stay put and watch any of the other performers), we finally settled in at the Acura Stage to see Springsteen, two hours before the show because he wanted a good spot. While we waited, a drunken woman actually came up to him and asked him to play something (he kept squeaking and going high-pitched until she just wandered off). The Springsteen performance itself was fine, though my friend seemed like he was in high heaven (especially during a tribute to Clemons). I’m glad he had fun. Myself, unless it’s for the Rolling Stones or Judas Priest (or, by some miracle, Babymetal), I’ll probably never go back to Jazz Fest again.
Astral Project is one of those all-star jazz quartets who create music that truly shakes something loose at the very core of your being. Each song transports you to a place many musicians aim to pull their listeners into, but many never quite get there. In this case, that place is another plane of existence entirely—an astral one at that—where time and space and sound seem to stand still yet commingle as notes and beats bounce off the Jazz Tent rafters above. Individually, any one of these four musicians is a true master of his instrument. But bring the foursome together, and the riffs that unfold blast listeners into orbit, leaving them breathless and refreshed in their wake. Since first hearing them at Jazz Fest nearly a decade ago, my heart still skips a downbeat every time I see their name on a lineup.
Tied for favorite Jazz Fest memory would 100 percent be getting super funky during Stevie Wonder's set last year. Besides the objectively incredible quality of the performance itself, there's nothing like dancing and belting out the lyrics to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" with my beloved younger brother, who gifted me the ticket as an early—and unforgettable—birthday present.
Every seasoned Jazz Fester has their rituals, routines, and routes. One of my happy moments embraces all three R’s, plus another fundamental R: restrooms. First stop on my ritualistic route to my favorite music venue, WWOZ’s Jazz Tent, is to greet (and pre-tip generously) Mo at the best restroom in the world. Mo is the super greeter, cleaner, and attendant of the air-conditioned port-o-let trailer between the Blues and Jazz Tents. She owns this job, proving that any kind of work can be elevated when you take pride in it. She keeps her domain cleaner than an operating table. She remembers her “guests” and even has an autograph board set up for folks to sign. She plans on writing a book (not a photo essay) about her Jazz Fest experiences as hostess of this ladies’ restroom respite from the harsh stand-up stalls—sometimes ladies just want to sit with abandon.
I’ve never had a bad experience at Jazz Fest—seriously. And even those squat stalls, that under any other circumstances would be an adventure in agility and sensory overload, are fine, because where else can ya pee while being serenaded by some of the best live music, bar none? However, now, when nature calls, I enjoy AC, exemplary cleanliness, and the hospitably of Mo, the Queen of Flush.
It’s a warm, sunny Saturday during the first weekend of Jazz Fest. Initially, the plan was to stay clear of the Fair Grounds and actually get some work done. Today was not that day, though. My mother, seeing that my head wasn’t in the game of work, nudged me with all the right words: “I really wouldn’t mind seeing Pearl Jam, but I really don’t wanna go alone.” Well goddamn, I guess we’re going to see Pearl Jam.
Upon entering the fest, my mom, two close friends, and I embarked on a glorious day on the race track. Band after band played, and while we consumed cochon de lait po-boys, crawfish etouffée, and lemonade with the delicious mixers snuck through the gate, the time had come to see one of the best living rock bands on earth.
As Pearl Jam opened with “State of Love and Trust” and rocketed from there with hits and rarities alike, the crowd was very much on the side of Vedder, Ament, Cameron, Goddard, and various other guests. People may have been bummed that many of their hits weren’t presented, but this Seattle rock band has long abandoned doing exactly what others want or expect of them. After the band closed with the Neil Young classic “Rockin’ in the Free World,” the crowd applauded and left with massive smiles smeared across their sun-drenched faces. What a day it was.
From crawfish bread runs to strawberry lemonade hangovers, Jazz Fest has created so many amazing memories, allowing me to see legendary performers while indulging in the city’s best cuisine. With all of the memories, the one that stands out the most comes from an unexpected childhood gig that I will never forget. When I was about 10 years old, my mom finagled a way for me to perform with the fifth graders under the Kids Tent. I was a fourth grader at the time. Being that my mom was a teacher at the school, I got the gig. I went on to perform with the upperclassmen. But there was a big problem: not only had I not rehearsed with them, I also had no idea what I was expected to sing or do. Upon arrival at the tent, I got word that the song was a very popular song of that year. So there I was, sitting at the front of the stage with my legs hanging off, singing Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” in front of a crowd of parents, patrons, and tourists. There’s no big moral to this story, and I have no memory of why we were singing that song. What I do know is that that one moment in the spotlight under the Jazz Fest Kids Tent was one of my most memorable moments at the fest. Awkwardness included!
My most memorable Jazz Fest experiences were in 2016.
My bosses had scheduling conflicts and abandoned The Roosevelt Hotel early, so they changed the names on the reservations and gifted the prepaid suites to a friend and me. It was a cloudy Saturday.
We wandered the festival and ate our requisite Jazz Fest food: Cope ni Cone (grilled chicken) and Jama-Jama (sautéed spinach) from Bennachin.
Prince had just died several days earlier, so Big Freedia dedicated her setlist to him. It started raining, and Freedia dubbed it “Purple Rain.” She and her Shakers hit her crowd-pleasing staples like “Azz Everywhere.” Her DJ worked in some of Bill Haley’s “Rock around da Clock” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.”
The Queen Diva covered “I Would Die 4 U” and, of course, “Purple Rain,” ending the set with a release of purple balloons. I didn’t cry because I was too drunk. No one would’ve noticed anyway, since the rain had turned into a full-on, festival-cancelling thunderstorm. Mud everywhere. Mud, mud everywhere. Everyone hauling azz to get out of the fest. A friend had a green room, so my companion and I took shelter in it—she pounded coffee; I pounded whiskey.
Stevie Wonder and others got rained out that day, but I did stream his entire Talking Book album during and after my shower when I got back to the hotel.
Jazz Fest, circa 1978. My most memorable Jazz Fest.
My father Roberto loved music. He would have me in baby diapers, with a baby bottle and big-ass speakers in my baby crib.
Fast forward, and I'm an elementary school student now. One weekend, my father says to me, "Hey, boy!”
I reply, “I am not a boy! You keep saying that, and I asked my mom if I was a boy and she said, ‘No! You are not a boy.’ I’m a girl!”
He continued, "Okay, okay ... How about Jazz Fest? Tomorrow, Saturday?”
Jazz Fest 1978: Adults, tall adults, here, there, and everywhere. I hear a delicious funk! Mind you, I'm a music connoisseur. Remember? Diapers, bottle, speakers in my crib? I felt music. It was “Joyride” with George Porter, Jr.
Roberto says, "That’s George, boy!”
Then, some nasty grown man, adjacent to me, burns me with his cigarette, left forearm, not knowing there was a girl next to him. And he says, "Hey KID, you shouldn't be that close. Can't you see, KID, you can get burned?" The fresh burn hurts and stings! Roberto blows on my arm, and then brings me closer to the stage and closer to my now multi-decade friend, Sir George Porter, Jr.
To his beloved late wife, Mrs. Ara Hawkins-Porter, Jr., I send out infinite thanks for accepting me into her life. Happy anniversary; amor Ara!
My gang and I have been going to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for so long that we just refer to it as “The Fest.” Sure, there are other festivals in the area and abroad, BUT there is only one Fest to our way of thinking. We go back further than most participants have been alive; yep, we the old folks. It’s our religion.
Go walk into a mist tent, one of the biggies, and loosen up your mind. The spray wafts around you, cooling off your sun-mugged body; it’s cool and you feel cool. Other shapes move with you ever-so-slowly toward the light at the end of the tunnel; your vision is not more than a few feet in front of you. About six feet in, and the sounds muffle and all but disappear. By this time, you are virtually moving in almost total darkness (this is where some couples pause to canoodle, and who can blame them?). The heat of the day has become a memory, and you are cocooned by the mist. You make your way slowly out and into light, sounds, smells, music, and laughter, as if it all just began at that instant; Fest reborn, you believe that this is heaven. And you’re correct.
I remember going to Jazz Fest in 2001 with my friend Jason to see the Dave Matthews Band. As I recall, it was one of the first years that the festival welcomed national headliners, and I was concerned we wouldn’t get a close spot. Jason put my nerves in check: “My Dad saves a spot at the main stage every year,” he told me. That is when I discovered Jazz Fest flags.
For decades, Dave (his dad) has marked the same spot the first morning of the festival with his signature “Yo Mama” flag. Resembling a WWII-era sailor’s tattoo—and symbolic of nothing—the insignia proudly asserts his family’s meeting place like a conquered territory. Dave’s flag is joined by hundreds of other family crests, many also making recurring appearances—it’s like a U.N. summit for festies. Years have passed, friends have come and gone, but every year I look forward to reuniting with everyone at the “Yo Mama” flag.
This year, I am proud to announce that my wife and I will be unveiling our own flag, a new family tradition and allied nation of the still strong Yo Mama clan. May the memories continue.