[Gustavo Escanalle / Where Y'at staff photo]

Tales from the Quarter: Rituals of Respect

October 20, 2021
By: Debbie Lindsey

August 8th, The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival had to make the difficult decision to cancel the October Jazz Fest. I believe this was a wise move but painful for so many. Jazz Fest generates approximately $400 million dollars for our economy in New Orleans. And there is no price tag to place upon the magic this festival conjures up.

Jazz Fest is my everything happy. It takes all that is New Orleanian and dear to me—her music, funk, food, culture, cuisine, literature, photography, and her people—then spreads it all out like a picnic for me to enjoy as I pay tribute to it. This festival invites and indulges the talents of our guest stars, performers, and artists along with the thousands of Jazz Festers from around the world. And somehow this amalgamation of elements ignites magic. Enchantment, pure and simple. To say there is something for everybody at this festival is an understatement. For me, it is the Holy Land, where funk is divine.

October 2021 was to be my 32nd Jazz Fest, with not a year missed. But a monster named Delta has decided that my attendance this month will not be inside my favorite tents within the Fair Grounds aka Holy Land. I have celebrated Jazz Fest during the pandemic thus far, as did many others who know that it is a state of mind first and foremost—and we will "Fest" this October. Just as we celebrated in absentia the Jazz Fest for the past two springs of 2020 and 2021, via archived performances broadcasted by WWOZ, we New Orleanians', with our defiance of anything that comes between us and a celebration, will keep the magic alive.

This October would have given me two in-person/boots-on-the-ground Jazz and Heritage events within six months of each other. Husband and I prepaid October's JF and made clear to understanding employers that we would be Festing (not working). Ditto for spring. Personally, I am fine with waiting until April 2022 to be there in that number, as it just felt a little odd to have it in October. Think of Christmas in July—might be tons of fun but just not ringing true. Heck, just call me a traditionalist when it comes to JF.

And traditions abound for me when partaking of Jazz Fest. I have rituals, routines, and rhythms for my participation in this glorious escapism. For two weekends, and even the days surrounding them, I escape the hard side of New Orleans and focus only on what this town is capable of creating. An environment of camaraderie and creativity is gifted to me even before I enter the gates at the Sauvage entrance (my go-to-every-year entrance).

Routines for Festing are as sacred as a Saints fan's adherence to donning his lucky jersey. Early morning porch stooping (similar to pre-game tailgating) to greet everyone who walks past is required if you are blessed to live within shouting distance of Jazz Fest. Then the walk around the corner to Canseco's for liters of water to take into the Fair Grounds, aka Holy Land; back to let the little dog Scout outside to pee (Scout has permission to pee to her heart's content on yesterday's NYT paper until we return). Then it is on your mark, get set, and walk out the door towards sheer joy. But not so fast—handshakes and hugs at our corner with the policeman who directs foot traffic towards the Fest. This gregarious man is the embodiment of community policing with his greetings to every single person who intersects at Maurepas and N. Lopez. Then we wait patiently in line on Fortin Street until the gates open! Once inside, I stop to pay my respects to the Gospel Tent; then cruise quickly alongside the glorious arts and crafts venues (peruse more later); short cut through the Blues Tent; stroll past various food and drink vendors to plot my refreshments for later; wave at Mo the bathroom attendant outside the air-conditioned trailer/toilets; and then enter my "home away from home," my WWOZ/Zatarain's sponsored Jazz Tent.

Once inside this tent, I stroll to my seat. Yes, my seat. The one I have sat in for some years now (you can easily and politely get the seat of your choice if you get there for the first performance of the day). And I will save the seat next to me for my Jazz Fest friend Cathy, who will sit there in spirit only. The year she was not waiting there for our annual reunion, gracing her favorite chair, was explained as her best friend walked up with tears in her eyes.

Friendships are formed with out-of-town festers. You might see them only at Jazz Fest, yet a bond is made over a love and respect for music. Through the past decades, I have followed the lives of the many regulars in "my tent." Every stage, tent, venue throughout the Fair Grounds has its loyal regulars that you count on seeing. Acura is peppered with personalized flags distinguishing favored spots, just as The Economy Hall's dancing loyalists spin and twirl the same turf yearly. I have watched Festers grow, change, and age over the years, witnessed their stages of life from young single to married, pregnant, menopausal, sometimes cancer baldness, and the return of a curly crown of optimism the following year. And I've seen too many empty seats, like Cathy's—yet the torch will be passed to new guardians of the magic, and this is how Jazz Fest traditions remain honored. And I will honor all the missing-in-action festers when I return this spring with a sprinkle of powdered sugar on the sacred floor of my Jazz Tent and a toast with my café au lait. Cheers, Cathy.

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