"Jazz Fest? Oh no, not for me. It's too crowded, too hot. And too damn expensive."
Well! All I can say is that's not the Jazz Fest I go to. We must have been at two different festivals. Actually, there's some truth to that; there are many approaches to this annual event, and it's up to you to take the time to figure out what it is you want from this world-class festival.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival can be all things to all people. Want a sit-down, shaded, and somewhat serious approach to your jazz? They have it. Want a come-to-Jesus gospel experience? They've got it. Feel the need to travel in a pack with fifty of your closest friends and party hearty? Go for it.
If you favor the intensity of a high-volume (both in size and sound) venue with an audience geared to dancing, drinking, and soaking up a summer's worth of socialized sun and sweat, then you will find the Acura and Gentilly stages geared perfectly to outdoor audiences, and always presenting top big-name performers.
The crowds are well-mannered, but a crowd is a crowd and maybe you wish to take it down a notch. If so, visit Congo Square, the Jazz & Heritage Stage, or the Fais Do-Do Stage, and still enjoy sitting outside, catching a few rays and wiggling your toes in the grass. But if you desire a respite from the sun and still want to dance and cut loose, there are always top-shelf performances at the Economy Hall tent.
Let's say you have no interest in getting your feet sandy or muddy (there's generally one day's worth of rain) and perhaps you are a wee bit claustrophobic; no problem. Just stay on the Grandstand side of the Fair Grounds and you will have just about every form of music required to give you a well-rounded experience.
At the Grandstand's Lagniappe Stage, you can enjoy partial shade and a slightly more relaxed venue for great local talent. Between sets, stretch your legs and take in some culture next door inside the Grandstand, where you can view the photography exhibit and the Mardi Gras Indian display. While still soaking up some A/C, take advantage of the spacious restrooms. When exiting the building, note the beer booth outside to your left, no long lines there. And your next music stop is a short stroll away.
Want to surrender yourself to a greater power?
The Gospel Tent will stir even the most committed secularist. I am an unrepentant heathen who swears by the transformation of the human spirit when the music and voices soar from that tent. If that's heaven, then I might tap at its door.
Now that you've got some glide in your slide, go to the Blues Tent to pep up your step. This forum will roll you over with rhythm, blues, an audience of loose hips, and exploding applause. When I visit this Blues Tent, I am transported to the Mississippi Delta; I travel back to the smoky blues joints of my Alabama days, and time warp to the R&B clubs of Bourbon Street long since replaced by those cursed daiquiri shops. And note: no blaring sun, plenty of shade, water misters to cool, and places to sit in these tents (no need to lug folding chairs).
If I had to choose just one site for my entire Jazz Fest experience, it would be the WWOZ Jazz Tent. And frankly, for nearly 20 years, that was my tent, my special place from which I rarely wandered.
When was the last time you went to a concert? Eight hours of non-stop entertainment for $65 at the gate is less than $8 an hour.
Every tent, every stage, attracts its own loyal audience. Year after year, friendships are formed and rekindled between sets. Twenty-plus years of people-watching becomes personal. I have watched these Jazz Festers, some nameless to me, some friends, through courtships and pregnancies; seen their children grow up, us grow older. Will that telltale bandana, loosely covering the baldness of the woman from aisle two, be gone this year, and her thick unruly red curls back in their rightful place? I wait and hope.
See a person once and they may remain a stranger; but shared moments and years will reveal enough to place them in your heart and concerns. It's the same with some performers. You follow your favorites. Count yourself lucky to witness the men and women that have shaped this music: preserved its integrity and worth so that it endures to this day. And to see the young ones literally grow up on that stage and become the new forces and standard bearers of jazz is a privilege. And the really amazing thing is that all of this the diversity of people, artists, music, is happening simultaneously in conjunction with booths filled with arts and crafts and tents and venues dedicated to our culture, books, and food.
Come on, lighten up and treat yourself to camaraderie, talent and taste, and pass a good time.