Jazz Fest is that magical moment in time when fairy dust is scattered over the city and enchantment rules. It is also a two-week period when, as my friend Gallivan so keenly stated, “The collective IQ of the city is raised.” Why this festival? Is it because it’s grounded in the rich soil of New Orleans talent and creativity—thus a magnet for additional outside musical geniuses and creative souls to gravitate to? Is it the festival or the city? And, more importantly, will the magic endure?!
My first Jazz Fest was in 1989, and with each year that followed, I became more and more captivated by this escape from the mundane. As a person who rarely hits the late-night (or early-night) live music scene (shame on me), I am thrilled to fill my ears and eyes with so much local and international talent. I delight in discovering new musicians each year and am humbled and grateful to have been in the presence of such legendary luminaries as Dave Brubeck. Or to have witnessed the debut of young talents who, as the years have passed, have grown into musical forces poised to carry the torch of jazz well into the future.
Of course, I speak of jazz, which is my favorite genre of music, yet every Jazz Fest, I listen, learn, and develop love affairs with blues, zydeco, gospel, and more, much more. Also, live music tends to train my ear, by way of watching, to identify the instrumentations and techniques that create the musical magic. Now, that sound is a clarinet, that riff a saxophone, the flurry of notes a glissando, the rush of goose bumps up and down my spine is instigated by the slides and sweeps of a guitar, and the tears that fill my eyes are the result of bow to strings. My musical skills are limited to tuning the radio and spinning some vinyl; my ears are basically illiterate to the “whats and hows” of crafting music. For me, witnessing this art form in action imparts some knowledge that enhances the nuances that only certain instruments, musicians, and even vocalists can render. Yet, to my delight, being a bit of a musical neophyte prevents me from becoming too analytical, and it therefore remains a magical sound that defies description and logic.
Now, enough about the music. “What? It’s Jazz Fest, what do ya mean?” Hold on, I am not making light of the central theme of this festival—but there is so much more … and for me, this is where lurks the quirks, the enchantments. Every year, the spell of Jazz Fest envelops me with the very first scaffold that is placed within the Fair Grounds. I am one of those lucky folks who live within sight and sound of Jazz Fest and can witness it unfolding during the weeks leading up. Without fail, every year when I spot that first tent being raised, I am filled with euphoria like a kid waiting for Christmas. And my Santa wears sunglasses and plays sax.
I live in a neighborhood that is ground zero for Jazz Fest, and I am proud to report that most residing here feel lucky, even privileged (I know I do), to be able to partake, party, and play within the perimeters of this event. The neighborhood gussies up with fresh mowed lawns, flower pots spilling forth added color, string lights glowing from porches, and our freak flags flying. In addition, the trash cans are adorned with yellow “caution” tape and double as guards protecting our driveways and parking spots. Parking takes on the feel of a sporting event. The world descends upon this otherwise laid-back hamlet, and while there is some needed territorialism to secure parking after a day at work, I must say I find an overall spirit of courtesy among neighbors and visitors.
Living on the sidelines of the Fair Grounds allows the fest to continue even after you exit the gates. And, Gawd forbid, if you had to work and miss a day of Jazz Fest, you still have the stroll option for the “post-game” fest. As always, there are pop-up bands performing their own magic for the price of a tip. Add to this, various vendors selling cold beverages (some adult brews too), crafts, and food. And Liuzza’s by the Track is a must! Some of their signature culinary creations are available for carry-out, and the bar and libations are flowing with glee. Prices are good, and please tip generously. Heck, tip like a Rockefeller all during this extravaganza—from restroom attendants, food vendors, and bartenders, to street musicians. Hey, while we’re at it, make sure you take care of that taxi driver and even your Uber guy (Uber works with a credit card billing thingy … but the drivers still need and appreciate tips. The Uber corporation might be raking in the bucks, but the drivers are like the rest of us—workin’ to make ends meet).
Magical realism is definitely woven into Jazz Fest. Perhaps it’s a frame of mind, and if that’s the case, then you can bet I am defiantly forgoing the mundane and choosing to see every serendipitous moment: chance meetings with old friends (hoping to see ya, Cathy, in your usual spot at the Jazz Tent), rainy days when not a drop of water hits me, and the magic of an air-conditioned port-a-potty. For me, it has always been a matter of being at the right place at the right time. This year, I will secure new memories, witness fresh talent, explore the food, and savor the unexpected. Yet all the while, I will be hoping to find that certain things remain the same—the courtesies, enthusiasm, and of course, the magic.