The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is made up of millions of individual elements that all come together to form what Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis has called “the greatest cultural party in the world.”
For a pair of anthropologists who have been documenting Jazz Fest for the past three years, the people in the crowd are the main attraction. Nicholls State University Assistant Professor of English Dr. Shana Walton and Louisiana State University Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology Helen A. Regis have heard thousands of stories.
Their work takes them up close and personal with what they have defined as the rituals, customs and traditions of devoted Jazz Fest fans of all ages, across all cultural demographics. They have documented weddings, memorial services, birth announcements, college reunions, family reunions and people coming together on the festival grounds for just about any imaginable reason.
While illegal and done as quietly as possible, Walton said she has heard of people discreetly spreading the ashes of deceased loved ones at Jazz Fest. A watermelon is ceremoniously “sacrificed” every year, although Walton said that particular tradition is also shrouded in secrecy.
And all of this is done not on the big stages where headliners from around the world come to strut and fret before retreating to air-conditioned green rooms, it’s happening out in the grass and sometimes in the mud.
“What we’re looking at is the idea of how people create culture,” Walton said. “One way people are creating meaning in their lives is by doing things like ritually attending festivals. For whatever reason, people have this deep devotion to Jazz Fest.”
It’s not uncommon to hear stories about people reuniting with friends and family members who they have not seen in years, Walton said. But it also extends to what people wear, what they eat, how much they drink, how they dance and who they dance with.
“It is fascinating to me that people in some ways have become the festival,” Walton said. “They are performing Jazz Fest. We perform it every year by performing these rituals.”
The deeper Walton and Regis have dug into the habits of Jazz Fest attendants of every stripe and level of devotion, the more intricate the expressions of love for the festival have become.
Walton and her team interviewed a 12-year-old girl who has been to Jazz Fest every year since before she was born. Her mother didn’t let her pregnancy get in the way of going to Jazz Fest, and she toted along a months old infant the next year.
The family has even created its own tradition within the tradition of attendance. Each year, they make custom pins that the 12-year-old collects. She has one for every year of her life. Walton said that is not unique to that group, or crew, as she refers to units of festival goers.
The attendees that Walton and Regis’ team interviews are asked to trace their common routes on a map of the festival grounds, marking which stages and which food booths they go to.
“The funny thing is that the maps are all very different,” Walton said. “I would have thought it would have been more like going to a shopping mall, where everybody goes to the food court, everybody goes to Dillards, and so on. In some ways, Jazz Fest is an enclosed space. There’s only so much you can do. It turns out that the maps don’t really overlap that much.”
Walton and Regis both claim to be “walkers,” moving from one area of the festival to the next to create a continuous loop around the grounds. But that isn’t always the case.
“Someone drew a map that only had the Acura stage on it,” Regis said. “This one woman I talked to is getting older, and she has some mobility issues. She still wants to experience the festival, so for her, having a base that feels like a safe space where she can hang out and make trips from is really, really important.”
Walton said she has identified dozens of groups of “campers” who follow that same model. Some groups even establish roles within the group, so someone will be designated to go get drinks for everyone, and someone else will always be there to guard the chairs.
“We have documented crews at Jazz Fest that are over 20 years old,” Walton said. “One has been going more than 25 years. The crews can range from three or four people to 35 people. There is some economics involved in this as well because if you have more than a certain number of people, you can buy group tickets, so that is why some of these crews get together.”
In a city steeped in culture and ritual, Walton said it should come as no surprise that Jazz Fest has been swept up in those deeply held ideals. Humans have always sought moments of transcendence, she said, and Jazz Fest is certainly known for those.
“The thing that has impressed me the most is how much people say that it’s a spiritual experience,” she said. “It helps them reconnect with themselves and with what they love about this city. It helps them seriously reconnect to music. One thing that Jazz Fest offers is a place where it’s possible to experience moments of transcendence, and all humans seek moments of being outside of yourself and feeling like you’re part of something larger. That ‘Jazz Fest moment,’ which for a lot of people is a spiritual experience.”