Coming to Jazz Fest for the first time, I felt a part of something rare yet comfortingly commonplace. It was as if a county fair had swollen to include a range of famous headliners, from the earthy Van Morrison to the otherworldly Janelle Monae. No matter where I found myself—braving the crowds of the Acura Stage, having a catharsis in the Blues Tent or sprawling in the shade of one of the three trees that grow on the grounds—it felt like the place to be.
There’s a lot to take in, but never any rush. The circular racetrack encourages a slow amble–Wherever you’re going, you’ll get there in time. Why hurry in this heat? In addition to music, art sprawls the space. I especially enjoyed Kreg Yingst’s block prints of local and national musicians—the emotive line work suggested the spirit of blues, jazz, country or whatever genre his subject was about.
The smell—deep fried and sugary–assures that food is never far. The range of culinary options is astounding. If you’re vegetarian, you won’t be stuck picking potatoes from a friend’s plate (I got the fried green tomatoes). The drinks—sweet, cold, colorful—always seem like a good idea. Once, I saw a 13-year old with an obviously fake ID trying to buy a daiquiri—“for my girlfriend,” he told the vendor. He wasn’t served, but the staff seemed to admire his spirit.
When I needed a break from the sun, I flipped through Dr. John’s autobiography in the Book’s Tent or listened in shade to what was playing in the grandstand. I never felt lost or out of place, which can happen at expensive, fashion-oriented festivals like Coachella. Most jazz festers are dressed for comfort. Khakis. Button-downs. Visors. I didn’t know that koozie necklaces existed, but I’m getting one next year.
In the Jazz Tent, I saw a barefoot man fit two crushed Coors cans into the arches of his feet, creating impromptu tap shoes. Despite the heat, he was squeezing as much joy out of his experience as possible. What I appreciated most about my fellow festers was the impression that they came to see, not be seen. I saw many people “doing it right”, old hands with foldout chairs and blankets lounging in the shade of their umbrellas.
Thematically, it was the latter part of the festival’s title–“Heritage”–that seemed important to performers this year. Janelle Monae dedicated her entire set to the late Prince.
“Because he was, I am,” she told the crowd.
At Jazz Fest, the past mingles with the present; not nostalgically, but with the acknowledgment that a lot is owed to those who came before. I kept this in mind every time I heard a classic blues or Cajun tune re-imagined for an occasion, as when the Deslondes covered the swamp-pop favorite “Alligator Man.” In addition to the 2016 Jazz Fest poster, which features the Marsalis family, the festival showcases vintage posters dating back to the 70s, a visual reminder of its history.
Some festivals have an airy quality, like they could take place in any anonymous field. It’s impossible to imagine Jazz Fest happening anywhere except New Orleans. Inside the grandstand, the New Orleans Photo Alliance exhibited photography curated by Sacha Lecca, the deputy photo editor at Rolling Stone. Collected from the American Music Triangle–the area of the South of which New Orleans is the cultural crux–the portraits of musicians, jukeboxes and parades illuminated the history and scene of a deeply storied area.
This place strongly affects the visions of those who make art or music here. That’s why people travel from all over to experience or perform at Jazz Fest. Reading the roaster, I had raised an eyebrow at the idea of seeing The Red Hot Chili Peppers of L.A. in LA—but upon hearing their funk-influenced performance with George Porter Jr., Ivan Neville and Ziggy Modeliste, the choice made sense.
Like most big festivals, Jazz Fest offers a range of VIP tickets, each offering various degrees of stage proximity and bathroom cleanliness. If you buy one, you will enjoy yourself. If you don’t, you will enjoy yourself. Wiggling to the front of the crowd at the Fais Do Do Stage to catch The Black Lillies, I arrived in time (at Jazz Fest, you always arrive in time) to hear the guitarist address the audience.
“There’s so much to look at here.” He motioned to various art pieces. “You don’t see that every day.”
Unless, of course, you’re at Jazz Fest.