Music fans around the globe will make an annual pilgrimage to the first day of the yearly New Orleans' sacrament known as the Jazz & Heritage Festival. Like all local festivals, regulars come to indulge themselves in the food, the music, the art and the culture. But for many, it is more than just what you can see, hear, and touch more than what the coverage this very issue has you counting down the days for. For many, Jazz Fest, like any religious observance, is about community and family, and the memories that are made when they come together.
If you had a bird's eye view of the Acura Stage, you'd glimpse more than just a turbulent sea of hysterical fans crushed together like packing peanuts tightly guarding a fragile object. Rising above the midst of the festive chaos you would also see a forest of homemade flags. Each year, festival goers arrive when the gates open, carrying these decorative check points with them to mark their territory early - usually by the Acura Stage. These are not just reserved seating; they are also meeting points for all of their friends as they slowly percolate into the Fair Grounds throughout the day. Think of them as family crests, proudly identifying their clan. To the unfamiliar, this musical band of brothers probably resembles a tribe of nomads, or soldiers from a small town proudly carrying their hometown crest with them as they unite with their nation for battle.
Chances are, most newcomers will find this phenomenon unfamiliar, if not downright puzzling. What others marvel at during Fest - second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, our diverse gumbo of indigenous music - we simply consider, well... life! We may not raise an eyebrow over raising a personal flag at Jazz Fest, but try thinking of any other music fest where you've seen anything like it.
"I've been going to Jazz Fest my entire life," says Greg Preston. A native New Orleanian, Preston's parents used to take him to Jazz Fest when he was a child, and he has been going ever since. "I remember going to Bonnaroo back in 2001 or so. It was so huge, more massive than Jazz Fest. The whole time I kept thinking, 'Where are all the flags? How does anyone find each other?'"
As long as he can remember, Preston and his friends always agreed to meet at the huge flag in the center of the Acura crowd - a flag raised by the festival, not fans - as their meeting point.
"Think back 10 or 15 years ago before everyone had cell phones.... how else was everyone supposed to find each other?" says Preston. "Even now, reception is spotty at festivals, and your battery is going to burn out fast between all the texting and Facebook and photos."
This year Preston is putting the next foot forward and bringing his own flag for the first time. After many years of debate, he finally went online and purchased a vintage WWOZ flag and an Appalachian State University flag(where he attended college), and to display these a collapsible fishing pole. Preston doesn't intend to stay in any one spot, migrating to where his musical interests gravitate him, but plans to post a Facebook message letting friends how to find him. He also shares some advice about paying attention to other people's flags:
"Year after year you see the same flags," Preston remarks. "Look out for the Professor Longhair-head flag, the pig flag, and another that isn't technically a flag, but a pole with a cardboard square taped to the top with the word 'Here' on it. Wherever those guys are, there is a band you are going to want to see. I love discovering new music at Jazz Fest, and those guys know where it's at."
Another seasoned Jazz Fest veteran with more than a few stories to tell is Dave Feder. Talking with him, you get the impression his calendar year revolves around Jazz Fest: it ends after the last act the second Sunday, and begins the next day when the count down commences for the coming year. Feder proudly proclaims that he attended the first ever Jazz Fest; even more impressive, he has only missed three fests in all, due to Marine Corps service in the '70s. Jazz Fest isn't so much a music fest to him as it is a yearly vacation he takes with all his friends - and his flag is their condo.
"I can't imagine anything better than getting together with my friends, hearing great music, and eating fantastic food all day for seven days; I don't know anywhere else you can go to do that," says Feder. "There are some friends I only see at Jazz Fest, sometimes, we'll have as many as 50 people get together at our spot."
Like any home-away-from-home, Feder has established a ritualized routine each year. He sets up his flag at the same spot every year: to the right of the left speaker in the crowd at the Acura Stage. He eats at the same place nearly every day: Gambian Foods, a vegetarian booth near the Congo Square stage; he's become such a regular over the years that he's even grown to be close friends with the owner. And his flag? It's remained a constant as well.
"Yo' Mama," inscribed across a heart like an old sailor tattoo, is the family crest of the Feder clan. Feder came up with the name because he wanted a saying that resonated with the city. "That's how we speak here," he says. "'Ya mom-and-dem,' 'yo mama,' even 'where y'at?' Some call it yat, some may say we just don't speak right, but it's how we talk."
Feder guarantees he has seen just about everything there is to see under the cover of the Yo' Mama flag - some of it too risque to print. But none of it tops the wedding held there just a few years ago.
"It must have been about five years ago," Feder recalls, "I had some friends who wanted to get married at the Yo Mama flag. I didn't know what to expect, but that morning they came in with a wedding cake, champagne, glass flutes - everything. I don't know how they did it to this day. The looks from out-of-towners were priceless."
For Feder, this is what Jazz Fest is about bringing people together.
"Most times I go out there, I don't event check to see who's playing that day," he says. "It's all about getting together with the people you care about and having a great time."
Not everyone's flag is a well thought out plan, however, and that's ok. In fact, it can be downright funny. Joe Kanter, a local emergency medicine resident, receives showers of joy and good fortune every Jazz Fest all from his flag.
"I'm not originally from New Orleans,' begins Kanter. 'Years back, some friends and I were driving in for Jazz Fest from college and pulled in to a truck stop for gas. We were going back and forth about bringing a flag, when we found one at the stop that read 'It's a girl' with a picture of a stork on it. We've flown it ever since."
In addition to misleading fellow festival-goers into thinking he is a new father, Kanter says the flag has been indispensable for allowing friends and family to locate each other among the crowds - especially after many have been drinking all day. Though he is too young to have as many near-legendary stories as Feder, he too had an interesting coupling tale unfold under his flag.
"Some friends from New York were with us, and were third- cousins with Kenny G, who played that year," he says. "Kenny invited them to his trailer after his show, and my friend proposed to his girl in the trailer. When they rejoined us later at the flag, they told us the story, and showed us a photo with Kenny G commemorating the moment."
Bringing your own flag to Jazz Fest can be the start of many things: you can initiate your own tradition, carry on a legacy handed down to you by someone else, or, like Kanter, buy one for a good laugh. More practically, its a handy anchor for all your friends to feebly stumble towards when they are drunk and their phones are dead. Just know it is a memory that can only be had at Jazz Fest.