What I Loved and Hated About Jazz Fest

Okay, Festival Productions people: don’t go nuts on me here. I’m not dissing the Jazz Fest this year. It was one of the better ones in memory: the lineup was innovative, and the weather was totally cooperative.

Another one bites the dust.

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is one of the most well-run and  -promoted events in the country, and of course, the attendance records show this. Despite the bitching and moaning of old-time festers about the change in the music at the Jazz Fest, it’s still a fantastic experience.

People complained about the ticket prices. Well,  they go up almost every two years or so. It’s been happening for a long, long time. You can’t buy a cheap house in New Orleans any more either.  Costs go up; it costs more to pay staff; the bands that are booked that bring in the most ticket buyers  cost more and more money. I mean, how cheap do you think Springsteen and Aguilera are, anyway?

Drop acts like these, and you’re sure not going to get the massive crowds that show up at the Jazz Fest.

Not gonna happen. Jazz Fest needs crowds; big-name acts bring big crowds; big-name acts cost a lot of money. If you want to be at a Festival with only local musicians, then you’d be better off attending the French Quarter Festival a couple of weeks earlier. But even FQF has gotten so huge it’s almost ready to explode outside the Quarter and Woldenberg Park (hopefully to Armstrong Park). And of course, that festival is free. Big difference.

We haven’t received the attendance numbers for the 2014 Jazz Fest yet, but I was out there six of seven days and the second Saturday was really packed. So I’m assuming they’re going to break 500,000 this year—last year was estimated at 425,000. French Quarter Fest claimed 733,000 fest-goers in 2014, up from 560,000 in 2013.

Me, I don’t mind the crowds that much, as long as I can get my scooter through the masses, which was doable this year. As long as the weather is pleasant—whatever. It’s an outdoor festival; you’re going to get hot and sweaty and sunburned. There are always going to be people who are inconsiderate of others

However, I do get annoyed by people who stop on the pathways across the track to the infield, or within the infield itself. Can’t tell you how many times I almost ran someone down accidentally because they stopped suddenly for no apparent reason. Jeez, it’s like stopping short on a freeway or something! Keep moving, people!

The music this year was incredible. Since I don’t typically write about what I hear at the Fest in the issue, here were my high points: Lyle Lovett (because I am a long-time avid fan); Rene Marie (whose voice and stule blew me away); Henry Butler and Steve Bernstein (unbelievable musicianship and band arrangements); Jon Batiste and Stay Human (wow! WOW! Trombone Shorty, look out); Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires (James Brown reincarnated supported by a killer band of hipsters); Shamarr Allen with surprise guest John Popper; Bobby Womack (with Jon Cleary in the audience, clearly being swept away by Womack—now I know where Jon got his vocal groove); Brittany Howard and the Alabama Shakes (an older guy standing next to me was simply agog at her performance: “It’s amazing how much you don’t know about some musicians until you see them live…this girl’s a reincarnation of Etta James and Tina Turner,” he raved. I would’ve added some Janis Joplin thrown in too.). Oh yes, and Chick Corea and his band were transcendent.

Of course, I heard Wolfman, and Tab and Vox and the Hound, and the Wailers, and so many others: I typically last for about three songs or so and move on so I can catch someone else, because there’s so much music I want to experience.

My major problem with Jazz Fest isn’t about the music, not by any means. Or the food (except for the Crawfish Bread, which is now unfortunately mostly bread and maybe two crawfish–sighing for the days when it was oozing with cheese and mudbugs), or the crafts (superb, wish there were more local, though) or culture (did you happen to see the photos of Jules Kahn and his movies of the early festival in the Grandstand? Incredible and incredibly moving).

I get annoyed by dumb-ass women in heels, or the bodacious exhibitionistas who show up nine-tenths naked, or in Coachella-type costumes (dilettantes!). Or the people who think it’s cool to “surreptitiously” smoke cigarettes in the tents (can’t you wait just a few minutes, dude, and not blow your smoke into my face?). Or the people who come to Jazz Fest more for the social aspects than for the music.  I had to bite my tongue to keep from snapping at the two stupid women behind me who (loudly) yapped the entire time the band played. Or the frat boys guzzling beer who only lack a beer bong to turn their Jazz Fest into another Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street. In general, I can’t stand the people who aren’t there for the music first and foremost; I don’t have any use for them, and I turn more curmudgeonly than I already am. But as my significant other continues to remind me: most people don’t care about music like we do, and he says that a lot of people just look at Jazz Fest like a football game: it’s more about the social experience, the “tailgate,” than the music. Too bad.

Oh well.  As long as there are some music lovers out there, I guess I’ll take that good with the people who don’t really give a shit. Takes all kinds to make a festival!

 

  • SWAMPTECH

    behind me who (loudly) yapped the entire time the band played

    I encounter this more and more at EVERY music gig

  • OLD Time Fester

    Really, mentioning Augilera in the same sentence as Bruce? Are you kidding me, a manufactured talent like her should pay Fest to perform. The fact she got a space in the fest over all the great local talent that exists, is a real slap in the face to them . Everyone knows that it isn’t the NOLA Jazz and Heritage Fest anymore

  • Delta Queen

    Right on, Jan.

  • Delta Queen

    Right on, Jan.

  • Dago T

    Glad I made it to JazzFest twice, 1988 and 1990. Would never go back.

  • Jay

    This may take the cake- At John Fogerty, there’s a really strange family right up front with two young girls, maybe seven, maybe twins, that get up on the men’s shoulders while the men pogo and do weird dances. They have a double stroller and all kinds of other paraphernalia even though they kids are clearly too old for a stroller. They pull out all manner of percussion instruments, maracas and shaker eggs and other crap including silly string to “do our thing.” It’s so distracting but most of the crowd doesn’t seem to mind. We are right up front and they keep trying to get us to participate. They ignore the music the whole time except to sing along. One guy had his back to the band the whole set. Meanwhile the Mom was taking hundreds of photos of her kids. This was clearly within eye shot of the band and the cameras were probably on them. Both men were shirtless and drunk.

  • Meredith Ramsey

    Joseph is right…most people don’t love music like we do. Too bad people don’t have to pass a musical knowledge test before they can purchase a ticket….now wouldn’t that be interesting?
    Oh wait, it IS the Jazz and HERITAGE Festival!

  • TraveLAr

    Hey, I stopped in the midst of moving foot-traffic once this year … to talk to Jan Ramsey! Mea culpa.

  • GumbeauxNorth

    Tell me more about the Jules Kahn exhibit. Couldn’t make it down this year but I called Jules my uncle; we were close. Anyway of seeing his recording elsewhere?

  • Reauxland

    Ticket prices doubled when Jazz Fest paired up with AEG, who’s directly responsible for the big rock acts. The same thing happened to Bumbershoot in Seattle when they hooked up with AEG; a festival originally conceived to promote LOCAL talent (of which there’s plenty in both New Orleans and Seattle) became an expensive, superstar-infused clusterfuck for the benefit of the Red Bull Generation. In the process, Bumbershoot dropped its Blues Stage and never looked back at the blues fans it disenfranchised.

    When Bill Graham quipped, “The name of the game is draw,” he meant it as a comment. He wasn’t intending to codify it as a lifestyle for festival promoters.

  • Wayne

    All valid points, Jan. I’ve been coming down from either Michigan or Chicago to more than 30 Jazz Fests, missing only one since the early 1980s (and no, it wasn’t the ’06 post-storm one. That was the MOST important one to attend), . To those who pine for the “old Jazz Fest” — pre-Phish/Bon Jovi/whomever — and have quit going, all I can say is this: The “old” Jazz Fest is still there, you just have to carve it out of the bigger scene yourself. I never go to the big national closing acts at the two main stages. Why would I take on those crowds for a (usually) abbreviated set by an act that will eventually be in Chicago anyway? My Jazz Fest takes place mainly at the Fais Do Do stage, the Jazz & Heritage Stage, Congo Square, Economy Hall, Gospel Tent, Blues Tent — where I can enjoy mostly local and regional artists in relative comfort, and with relatively easy access to the food areas, beer, crafts, Grandstand, etc. If I go to one of the main stages, it’s earlier in the day for, say, Irma Thomas.That’s how I keep the tradition going. Works for me.
    (Disclaimer: I do admit I would have loved to have caught Springsteen’s Seeger Sessions set in ’06, given the social context, but wrong weekend for us.) .

  • MikeyB59

    I had a fantastic fest first weekend. I agree with the comment that you can carve a piece of the old fest out of the new fest. (though we now have only memories of Snooks, Eddie Bo and so many others now gone) I would’ve liked to hear Phish, but they were the same time as Branford and Jon Cleary, so no Phish and no huge crowd. I occasionally go to a big stage, but mostly we thank them for “running cover” for us and keeping the numbers down at the other stages. People apparently didn’t get the memo on that at Fais Do Do which was more crowded than I’d ever seen it 1st Sunday and pretty darn crowded Saturday. The Jazz Tent was amazingly uncrowded for the shows I attended which is too bad because they were generally fantastic. Branford’s band was amazing and we got a visit from Ellis and Jason, too. Branford’s drummer, Jason Faulkner, is one of the most amazing drummers I’ve ever heard in a life of listening to great drummers. OTOH, how many great drummers did I hear in a week in NO? Almost as many as the number of bands I heard which is one of the things that keeps me coming back. My body feels better grooved in NO than anywhere I know. Thanks Jellybean, Raymond, Johnny V, Herlin, Doug B, Kenneth B, Eric B, Stanton, Willie and so many others for keeping my pocket fat and happy. It’s not the same Jazzfest, but it continues to evolve in a way that keeps me coming back year after year. Loved some of the Brazilian music (Forroteria in particular) and the gospel tent continues to grab me as strongly as anything from time to time.

  • bydabayou

    Once I was at a wonderful show by Jimmie Robinson, Brian stoltz and Michael skinkus. A woman behind me obliterated the beautiful and subtle rythms with a shaker egg or whtever you call those things. I gave her dirty looks to no avail. I was so pissed and complained to a friend who told me, “Oh no! I won’t put up with that. I tell them I didn’t pay to listen to them.”

    I remembered this after a woman from Bend Oregon (I learned lots I didn’t want to know) at the HOB subdudes show captured some other woman behind me and they yacked and yacked and yacked. Finally I turned and said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but we didn’t pay $100. to listen to y’all”. It worked! they shut the fork up and then it was heaven! so clear, so good!

    Perhaps it was this experience that made me notice how so many people out at the fest talked and talked instead of listening. Lots of cell phone attention, too. Mostly I move away, but I’m not going to forget that magic phrase either.

  • PO’d

    The thing that gets me the most is how they constantly turn down the volume on the main stages at the end of the day. It’s like Quinton does not want the neighborhood to get a free show and screw those that pay good money to hear the music. If that’s his fear then buy the surrounding homes and setup a green belt..

  • sraw

    Good review, and I share your frustrations with the idiots. I would only add that, though this year saw the improvement of acts starting on time (there are many choices, and as far as I’m concerned, if somebody snoozes, they lose, I’m outta there), the sound is much too often subpar to awful. You’ll have to take my word for it that I know how this stuff works, and the crews very often seem like they must be deaf or not paying any attention. When some of the best musicians in the world are clearly soloing right in front of your eyes and their mikes are not working, it’s just stupid, that’s all.

  • Marcello Amari

    Right on, Jan. Unfortunately, it’s the big out-of-town acts that attract the chatting f**kwits, narcissistic nostalgic baby boomers (look at me!! I’m at JazzFest for Neil Diamond!), and Spring Break drunken morons. The local and international acts who are booked at Acura, Gentilly (oh, ‘scuse me, Samsung Galaxy) and Congo Square aren’t aware of the complete lack of attention and manners exhibited by those who are just there to see (or be seen seeing) their American Idol. I would have liked to have heard Dumpstaphunk with Poppa Funk, but no way was I going near the Daytona Beach, uh, Acura stage.

    Those of who are there to hear music are paying twice as much for half the music. I wish the programmers would just take all the headliners and put them at Acura each day, instead of hanging on to this epic fail of an idea that they are “expanding the musical horizons” of the Jerry Springer audience that the huge pop acts attract.

    Oh, and the whole Boss thing. For every Springsteen fan who is a genuine music appreciator with “big ears”, there are 10 slobs who just worship the Boss and ignore and/or yap loudly over all other acts until their hero arrives, even if those acts have been repeatedly cited by Springsteen as his major influences, to whom he owes everything. Ridiculous.

    Finally, nice list of favorites. I would add Lillian Boutte and Gumbozaire, who rocked the Economy Hall Tent while Springsteen was on at Acura, and Midnight Disturbers, who were even better at Fiya Fest, but nevertheless, are a must-see every year.

  • DefeatConservativeWackosAgain

    As a Fester who goes back to 1974, Jazz Fest in its orignal incarnation as being a celebration of New Orleans and South Louisiana music is long gone. The last ten years of big name acts have brought folks who could be gong to see Bon Jovi n the Meadowlands for all they know. The crowds are stupider because long ago good manners and lasisez les bon temps roulez left town on a bus. In many ways it saddens me but I’m enough of a realst to understand that no one at Fest Productions gives a rats patootie about old time festers. Its about balancing the books and paying Clapton a million bucks or whatever to show up and raising money for the non profits ventures.
    So most of us who go back to when you could set up your umbrellas in front of the Fess Stage,,,,,,,,,,and and hang out and meet your friends there know that JAZZ FEST and handmade cubes are done. Every year I say thats it……and every year I go back. But maybe I’ve finally had it. Too many folks in mobility scooters (I knowwww), dumb sorority girls in high heels and Metaire Young Republicans in golf shirts.
    Going there is like tickling whats left of a ganglia and feelin warm all over……likes its 1975 all over again. But it’s not. And thats sad.

  • Gardenator

    Enjoyed myself at Jazz Fest – aka Frat Fest – for my 38 th year. In a way, ‘those people ‘ make it easier on others by congregating at certain shows for ‘big’ acts, and leaving the rest of the stages to eclectic listeners.  There was fabulous music at Economy Hall, the Jazz Tent, and the Gospel Tent, as well as wherever your ear 
    passed by. The silliest Fest Goers were the ones in a group dressed like they were in The Great Gatsby, and actually asking people at the Fais Do Do stage to move so they could see. 

    To my mind, the most distressing downward trend is that of musicians arriving late or leaving early, which is disrespectful of fans and other artists. With multiple venues and a big musical agenda, listeners should be able to rely on performance times. To not meet your basic obligation to perform at the designated time slot is totally unprofessional. Be There when you are supposed to be there: This was the rule in the good old days. Musicians are told to arrive 45 minutes early so there will not be time glitches.

    Not acceptable, you with the Big Heads! Not surprising, I suppose, from attention diva disorder sufferer Christina Aguilera. You too, The Boss. Love you, but no excuses.  Robin Thicke, are you such a tired old man that you cannot put in a full one hour set? There were musicians in their nineties at the festival who gave their all the entire time. What about the musicians who did not get a gig, and who would have loved a chance to play for that half hour? Even local heroes who ought to know better did this, including favorite son Aaron Neville, as well as the Radiators. 

    Still, there was great music, and the soft shelled crab poboy and mango freeze were as good as ever. So we will just have to ignore the big stage act bean counters who run the festival and the prima donnas who don’t get it, and pass a good time anyhow.

  • Gardenator

    Enjoyed myself at Jazz Fest – aka Frat Fest – for my 38 th year. In a way, ‘those people ‘ make it easier on others by congregating at certain shows for ‘big’ acts, and leaving the rest of the stages to eclectic listeners.  There was fabulous music at Economy Hall, the Jazz Tent, and the Gospel Tent, as well as wherever your ear 
    passed by. The silliest Fest Goers were the ones in a group dressed like they were in The Great Gatsby, and actually asking people at the Fais Do Do stage to move so they could see. 

    To my mind, the most distressing downward trend is that of musicians arriving late or leaving early, which is disrespectful of fans and other artists. With multiple venues and a big musical agenda, listeners should be able to rely on performance times. To not meet your basic obligation to perform at the designated time slot is totally unprofessional. Be There when you are supposed to be there: This was the rule in the good old days. Musicians are told to arrive 45 minutes early so there will not be time glitches.

    Not acceptable, you with the Big Heads! Not surprising, I suppose, from attention diva disorder sufferer Christina Aguilera. You too, The Boss. Love you, but no excuses.  Robin Thicke, are you such a tired old man that you cannot put in a full one hour set? There were musicians in their nineties at the festival who gave their all the entire time. What about the musicians who did not get a gig, and who would have loved a chance to play for that half hour? Even local heroes who ought to know better did this, including favorite son Aaron Neville, as well as the Radiators. 

    Still, there was great music, and the soft shelled crab poboy and mango freeze were as good as ever. So we will just have to ignore the big stage act bean counters who run the festival and the prima donnas who don’t get it, and pass a good time anyhow.