Every year I look out into the crowd and think, “Who are these people?” Despite their large numbers, Jazz Fest’s quirky group of flag- and pole-carrying fest goers remain a somewhat mysterious bunch to the flagless masses.
The wind-blown banners add color to the festival, featuring everything from state, country, and college pride to more peculiar tributes to mustaches, pigs, or martini-drinking fish. Others prefer topping their poles with notable objects, such as busts of people, a blender, or an oversized hanging pork chop.
According to Joe Senior, leader of the well-known Fess Head Krewe, the first “head” to appear at the fairgrounds was a bust of Elvis made of duct tape and a mannequin mask.
“Back in 1990, I was sitting at the Fair Grounds—this was before cellphones or pagers or anything—and I couldn’t find my ride home. And I was like, ‘I need a head like that Elvis head to find my people,’” says Senior, who then settled a debt with artist and friend Marc Steinberg via a bust of Professor Longhair that he could affix to a pole and carry to the fest.
The gold, glittery Fess Head with a purple hat weighs somewhere between five and 10 pounds, dangling a couple large rings just beneath it.
“Every couple of years, I make new rings and people come and hang stuff on them. Strangers will put ashes of departed people and other crazy stuff on there,” Senior says. “I have boxes of trinkets from them.”
After just a year of carrying the Fess Head, Senior’s “Krewe” attracted about 150 people from all over the country, who would follow the head and bond over a love of New Orleans music. The tradition, now in it’s 23rd year, took on a life of its own and when asked if he knows everyone in the krewe, Senior responds with a sheepish, “Not really.”
Four years after the Fess Head made its debut, a group of music lovers from Baltimore began their own Jazz Fest tradition by bearing the Maryland state flag and wearing the state’s colors. The “Mother’s Krewe” is named for the Baltimore restaurant owned by Mother Dave, one of the krewe’s founding members. The group has grown to over 100 people who have travelled down for the festival.
“The flag is unique and gorgeous,” says Danny D, the so-called “flag boy” for many years. Separated into quadrants, the black, gold, red, and white flag originated from the shield in the coat of arms of George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore.
“It started out as something where we could all find one another, but there’s a bit of pride that comes with being from Maryland, and there’s never any question that the state flag is going to be the flag we fly every year,” says Danny D. At times the Mother’s Krewe will include a second flag as they did last year to celebrate the Raven’s Super Bowl championship.
According to Danny D, keeping the flag mobile takes creativity as well as string, duct tape, and the occasional trashcan for affixing. “The first couple of years, we tried to have a particular spot and, as we learned about the variety of music, we chose to make it mobile,” says Danny.
Other flag bearers prefer the base-camp approach, as in the Sir Saint Krewe who’ve been organizing under the classic, big-chinned Saints logo since 2006. They fly the Louisiana state flag just beneath it.
“Some buddies and I made shirts the year before that said, ‘The Chin Is In,’ and then we decided to get a flag. No one would print it because it was trademarked, so my wife hand-painted it onto the flag,” says Danilo Rouquette, flag bearer for the group. “It probably needs a touch up now,” he says.
What started as a core group of friends from the Northshore, the Saints fans have grown to include a hodgepodge of local folks. They purchase Brass Passes every year and don’t miss a day.
“I haven’t missed a day since 2000, and my wife has only missed one weekend because our daughter was born on April 29th. We’ve brought her to the fest since she was one.”
While some groups are more close-knit and family-oriented, others enjoy making friends while making their presence known. In 2014, the Krewe de Blender celebrates 10 years of carrying an appliance on a stick. The mirror-balled, music-blasting old kitchen gadget was given new life by Erik Keller of Oakland, California.
“This krewe is just a bunch of people who like to have fun,” says Keller, who has taken the celebrity-status blender to Bonnaroo and Jam Cruise in addition to Jazz Fest. Krewe de Blender invites New Orleans to help celebrate the blender’s 10th birthday with a party at Chickie Wah Wah on May 1, featuring Zigaboo Modeliste, Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Papa Mali, and others.
A party for a blender is just further proof that Jazz Fest fans will do anything to keep the music going. And why not? It’s New Orleans. Let your fest flag fly.