The Changing Face of Jazz Fest

Going to Jazz Fest this weekend? I am. I missed two of the three days last weekend, alas, because I worked on Friday, and Saturday there was a monsoon. I travel to Jazz Fest on a scooter, and the old jalopy can’t take rain and floods, so like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz who couldn’t be touched by water, yours truly, the Wicked Witch of The Fest, scurried back to the office to work on the May issue (post-Jazz Fest). Have to tell you, not being rained on and stuck in a flood of mud was okay by me. And I got a lot of work done.


Mud galore and the Hot 8 Brass Band at Jazz Fest Weekend One. Photo by Willow Haley.

I did spend the day at the Fairgrounds on Sunday, thank goodness, and it was still a muddy, stinky mess, preventing me from getting to a lot of the stages, so I had to settle for hearing some music from afar. I wish the Fairgrounds staff could do something about the mud, which isn’t like “regular” dirt—remember, it’s a horse track and it smells to high heaven. One of the vendors told me he brought in wood chips to put into the floor of his booth; it smells a lot better than hay and absorbs a lot more water. Perhaps the festival could import some wood chip discards from local furniture makers next time it floods out there.

My Jazz Festing doesn’t necessarily include the big names. In fact, I tend to stay further away from the big stages because I can’t get close enough to enjoy the music and performances. We handicapped peeps are now only able to go sit in the grandstands with the Big Chiefers, which to me, is like being banished to Siberia. When I go to a Jazz Fest stage, I’m going for the music. I’m not there to gossip with my friends, show how privileged I am by purchasing a high-end ticket, or lay back and enjoy a cocktail while I survey the crowds from the grandstand bleachers. It’s about listening to the music, preferably by people I’m not all that familiar with. I want to soak in the music, as much as I can, but I prefer to experience the new and untried. I caught Carolyn Wonderland in the Blues Tent on Sunday afternoon and was glad I did. This was her first appearance at Jazz Fest and she was wunderbar: good guitar and slide player, and a really emotive power blues singer and songwriter. Nice. Good catch. Recommended next time she rolls through town (she’s played at the Leaf a few times).

I would have liked to have caught a couple of songs from The Who—who I’ve heard were great—in fact, friend Eric Paulsen of WWL told me it was the best rock show he’s ever seen. This is music I grew up with and that influenced me. But that was on monsoon day.

I heard Tony and Gaga from afar, and wished I could have been there. But they were not a main attraction for me. Which brings me to the changing face of Jazz Fest: some friends from Europe—a party of about 20—bought tickets to Sunday’s Fest. But they didn’t spend the day there. They only went to hear one of the headliners at the end of the day. I supposed a $70 ticket to hear an Elton John et al, with the added attraction of the food and art at the Fest is a bargain. But in a way, that sort of attitude destroys the whole spirit of what Jazz Fest is: for over 40 years, it started and stayed for many years a community of like-minded, “Church of New Orleans” people who are rabid about the city, this region, its music, food and culture. We were there all day, soaking it all in, and getting our fix of it all until the following year.


Jazz Festers (?) outside the Mystery Street gates. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Now a different element has been added: people who are there not for our indigenous culture, but those who just want to go to an arena show without the arena, and that includes the VIPs who pay to have special privileges and a “box seat” for whatever reason. Or people who think Jazz Fest is Mardi Gras costume party-hearty for tourists with some added music and food. Our photographer Kim Welsh took this photo of some (I guess) Jazz Festers outside the Fairgrounds on Mystery Street. No comment (is this supposed to be a satire of…?).

Of course I understand the reasons for the changes. It’s about keeping the festival alive and thriving. It’s necessary to sell tickets and get heads through the gates. I get it. I do. It has to be more about money now. The stakes are higher.

Things change; it’s inevitable and just the way things are. I think, though, that it’s up to us—the members of the Church of New Orleans—to make sure that the true spirit of the Jazz Fest continues to manifest itself on the Fairgrounds, and indeed, in our attitudes about the city’s music, culture and cuisine. This is not New York or San Francisco, and we don’t want it to be. We have to champion the “real” New Orleans, and keep it alive, no matter what.

Not only that, we have the obligation to make sure that newbies, the next generations, in New Orleans understand why we’re so crazy about Jazz Fest, and the city in general.

New Orleans: love it, live it, protect it, endow it, preserve it for the future.


Just in case you feel like you really want to see this Jazz Fest second weekend’s headliners, who would be your top pick?


  • Dom Versaggi

    I believe that the Fest has lost its way. I know the reasoning behind bringing in these so called arena acts, for the $$$, but its just not the same anymore. I love to go to the smaller stages, Fais Do Do is my favorite, to see music that I cant here at home. If I want to see Elton John, etc., I’ll go to an arena in my area. Its much to crowded, and if it rains,as it often does, its a muddy mess. I’ve been going to the Fest for 28 years now, and I miss the old days!

  • Dago T

    Been twice. 1988 and 1990. Glad I went then. Would probably never go back. I prefer NOLA in the quiet times. But it’s an expensive proposition to fly, hotel-up and eat just to hang out in the Quarter. and on Frenchmen Nonetheless, I’m saving my money for my next visit!

  • doug

    Went 2000,2001 and came back 2013,2014…i think they need to go back to showcasing all the NOLA bands and get rid of the too big national your fest money and spend it on tickets to all the best music clubs in the world that NOLA has to offer.

  • Joe fox

    Jazzfest, now run by corporate behemoth AEG is all about the bottom line, I understand that it acts as a tent pole for much of the music related activity in the city but that’s just a side line to growing ever larger and more commercial.
    I was looking at my Jazzfest history book for the year 1975, all roots and all New Orleans, and mostly weird, today roots don’t sell to the masses, New Orleans is in economy hall, and corporations like AEG don’t know how to do weird. That and the fact that most of the local talent that the fest thrived on for years is long gone and not replaceable.
    The fest is like most great ideas that start out relatively small, become more popular, people realize there’s tons of money to be made, especially if the concept is broadened to fit in more ticket buyers, and the original idea,or place, loses what made it special, it’s soul.

  • Bob

    I totally agree with Jan. My first Jazz Fest was 1977. Went to 24 of them after that. In the beginning it was such a wonderful experience of New Orleans music and culture. It did stay that way for some time. The early 90s I wrote a letter to Quint D. expressing my feelings about the Fest getting to large. The amount of people let in the Fairgrounds was awful. The awesome local acts were being squweezed out . Anyway, health reasons stopped me from going, but not sure I would go anyway. The magnificent Jazz and Heritage Festivale was the greatest music and cultural event I ever attended. I did not miss one day at the Fairgrounds for the first 21 years. I do thank Quint Davis for bringing us the Fest in the first place. WOW, so many completely wonderful memories of the Fairgrounds.

  • Marie

    We went to Jazz Fest about 5 years ago and the suffocating crowd around the Acura Stage for the Dave Matthews appearance made me not want to attend another JF. One thing that his festival tremendously lacks is crowd control. And it CAN be done, although “they” would have to pay for the staff.
    Our Portland Waterfront Blues Festival began to develop this problem until they got into trouble with the fire marshalls. A top-notch local events coordinator took reigns and implemented walk-ways through the grounds for WALKING ONLY, and if you stop to say hi to someone or to snap a photo of someone, a staffer while be on you like flies on cow-patties. It gets obnoxious but it has to be done. And with the capacity requirements, it doesn’t get so stinkin’ crowded like it used to. It has thus become manageable, and I’d like to see this coordinator get hired to do the same for JF.
    I agree with Jan about the mud. The committee should budget for enough wood chips to cover the grounds. It wouldn’t help miraculously but would be better than nothing.