Jazz Fest For The Gimped and Otherwise Infirm

I am handicapped, and I have limited use of my legs due to an automobile accident some 30 years ago. The older I get, the worse the pain. About 16 years ago, I started walking with a cane because of the injuries, and about 14 years ago, after trying to enjoy Jazz Fest in the way I used to when I was younger (i.e., hightailing it from stage to stage to catch a few minutes of sets from multiple bands at different stages), I found I just couldn’t do it anymore.

It used to literally take me two to three weeks to recover from Jazz Fest before I could walk normally again. At one point, we used one of the free wheelchairs that are provided by the Festival at their front gate. It helped a little, but put a huge burden on my partner who had to try to push me around to hear music. We also (at least at that time), didn’t get much help from Jazz Fest personnel.

After a while, I thought I’d probably not be able to go to Jazz Fest anymore without changing how I approached it, and I started renting a mobility scooter only for the Fest. It made a world of difference; I could enjoy the music again, and so could Joseph without having to worry about me (although I did once get harassed by a stage security person telling me I couldn’t bring my “golf cart” by the stage).

I must say that the Jazz Fest, over time, has gotten extremely good in providing facilities for the handicapped in terms of access to bathrooms and food, and it used to be good at the big stages. They hired a consultant, Laura Grunfeld, whose company, Everyone’s Invited, designed an outstanding (and award-winning) program to accommodate handicapped people.

Over the years, we disabled folk (and I certainly am not the most-damaged of the lot) got to know each other as we would see each other on the Fair Grounds and in the handicapped areas that the Jazz Fest finally put close to the stage. The location for handicapped attendees wasn’t ideal—it was on the side of the stage, smack-dab in front of massive speakers, and the view wasn’t very good—but at least you felt like you had the opportunity to connect with the performance because you were closer to the stage. Believe me, sitting in a wheelchair (or a scooter) in the middle of a Jazz Fest crowd isn’t enjoyable, or in most cases, even feasible. Moreover, in past years, the entrances to the handicapped stage areas were clearly marked and easily accessible for patrons in wheelchairs, on scooters or who were blind.

Not anymore.

Last year, handicapped access to the Acura and Gentilly Stages was totally revamped. Handicapped viewing areas for these two stages are now located at the Big Chief viewing stands

Big Chiefs enjoy the Fest from the tent on the left side of the Acura Stage (the newer configuration angles the stage somewhat).

roughly 1000 fee away from the stage. To refresh your memory, the “Big Chief” VIP Pass is touted as the most luxurious way to attend Jazz Fest, with covered viewing and padded seats. These are for people who want to park themselves near one of the big stages (usually to view the “prestige” acts) and not move. Personally, I feel that you totally lose the appeal of Jazz Fest by sitting in front of one stage all day long. Cost for “Big Chiefs” are $2400 for both weekends. Luxury indeed!

"Grand Marshals" in front of the Acura Stage.

The other VIP Pass is the “Grand Marshal” VIP pass which costs $1600 for both weekends, and allows you to get right in front of the stage (but not seated). These are for the people who want to be up close to the stage but who want to move around from stage to stage so that they can catch more music.

Both passes are obviously geared to sponsors or folks who have so much disposable green that they don’t mind spending to get special treatment.

Most handicapped people don’t have much extra money to spend (it costs to be disabled to enjoy what normal people do), so they are out of luck when it comes to enjoying Jazz Fest, as now they are seated in a small area in the Big Chief grandstand area. I know from personal experience that it’s mighty hard to fight your way through the crowd (even if you’re able-bodied) to get to the new handicap access areas at Acura and Gentilly, and that they get filled up quickly.

Frankly, I don’t understand why the Jazz Fest changed the location of handicapped access. I suppose they can claim that disabled patrons now can hang with the elite Big Chiefs, but I’ve spoken to a number of the people who used the old access, and they were as upset and bummed as me about having to schlep through a massive crowd to maybe get into the handicapped area. Last year, post-Fest, I did write about this issue, and I’ve received quite a few emails agreeing with my assessment. Lo and behold, this morning  the Times-Pic published a letter from someone complaining about the same thing. Sitting with the Big Chief crowd might sound deluxe, but for people who are really Jazz Fest lovers, you’re relegated to sitting w-a-a-y back away from the stage. Not an ideal situation for a disabled person who’s made the effort to get to the Fest, get through the crowds and go to the stages—despite being handicapped. It takes a lot of moxie and determination to get to Jazz Fest when you’re disabled.

If money from the Grand Marshal elite contingent is the issue, why doesn’t the Jazz Fest get a sponsor—let’s say a company like Peoples Health—to reserve a space nearer the front of the stage for us gimps? Peoples Health would reach a potential market of customers, the handicapped would be forever grateful, the Jazz Fest wouldn’t lose money. Win-win-win.

This seems like an easy fix to me. Come on Fest people—get creative and work to accommodate your aging and most loyal fans.


  • Tim Forward

    Jazz Fest isn’t losing money, regardless of where it puts handicapped fans. The creeping elitism that accompanies pricey access for the privileged few is obnoxious and offensive. This is Jazz Fest, not the luxury suite at Trump Tower. The people in charge seem to keep forgetting that.

    As the Festing population inevitably ages, mobility for those with age-related physical challenges will rise accordingly. It’s time to put in place a workable policy that isn’t subject to the annual whims of producers, and doesn’t relegate the handicapped to second class status under the guise of being “VIPs.”

  • Disappointed Fester

    What horrible news! I was just planning to return to Jazz Fest next year after several years absence, since I can’t afford to rent a scooter every year for the event. I cannot do the fairgrounds with my cane alone and have always been very pleased with the treatment Jazz Fest afforded mobility-challenged people. I had no idea that had changed. Guess if I’m able to come to NOLA for fest next year I’ll just skip the fairgrounds entirely and just do the night shows in the clubs. Most of them do allow me to bring a small, collapsible chair to rest on if handicapped seating is not available, with the exception of Tipitinas that is, that doesn’t give a hoot about crippled people, ADA or Not!