Welcome back and thanks for the feedback on last week’s post about our neighbors Carl and Myrtle. They were special people and I enjoyed writing about them. Stay tuned for more spotlights on friends and family that have made a significant impact on our lives, a departure from my usual travel posts during these unusual times.
Earlier this year, I enrolled in an eight session memoir writing workshop offer by UW Continuing Education. My personal goal was to learn more about writing and make improvements by receiving feedback from my peers and the instructor in the class. I learned a lot during those weeks of writing my own stories and reading and critiquing the interesting and compelling stories written by my classmates. One of the stories I wrote for the class was about my nineteen years of attending the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. While I’m sheltering at home and saddened that JazzFest is postponed from it’s usual spring schedule until fall, I’ll share segments of that story with you over the next few weeks. I’ll also include photos that I’ve taken over those years to provide a visual to go along with the words. I’d appreciate your feedback either at the end of the posts or privately by email or phone or text. Here we go!
For the past nineteen years in late April or early May, I’ve made the eleven hundred mile journey from Madison to New Orleans, some years by air, more recently by car. The purpose of this trek is to attend the world famous New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an annual celebration of the music and culture of New Orleans. To locals and regular attendees it’s known simply as Jazz Fest or The Fest, the second biggest draw to the city rivaled only by Mardi Gras.
My love affair with the New Orleans and Jazz Fest started in 2001 when I attended a work related meeting during one of the weekends Jazz Fest was in session. My brother-in-law Phil heard I was going to be in New Orleans and convinced me to join him and his friends at the Fest. It sounded like fun so I added a day to my reservation at the Sheraton Hotel located next to the Superdome. Nearby was one of the stops for the Jazz Fest Express shuttle. My plan was to take the earliest bus to the Fair Grounds Race Track, find Phil, and leave about 3:30 PM on the shuttle so I could catch my evening flight back to Madison. It happened according to plan much to my chagrin, because after a couple of hours I was hooked!
It was a beautiful, sunny day albeit on the warm and humid side when I boarded the shuttle. Upon entering the Fair Grounds after buying my admission ticket, $25 if I recall correctly, the vibe began immediately.
There were melodious sounds coming from all over the grounds; amplified guitars, drums banging, accordions, and horns of all types. There was a din of people talking and having a good time, the beer man shouting, vendors calling out, and announcers introducing the next act. Then the smells began to hit my olfactory receptors: the cooking food, the sweet smell of sweaty bodies, and then the disgusting odor of the blue porta potties. My eyes saw people walking every which direction, some stumbling and staggering even though it was well before noon. There were people dressed prim and proper in polo shirts, designer slacks or shorts or skirts and nicely polished shoes, just like they came from casual Friday. Most, however, wore tees, comfortable shorts, hats and caps of all colors and styles, sandals or old sneakers, dressed like they were heading to the beach to soak up the sun. It was a mosaic of people, all there to enjoy the unique three hundred year old culture of New Orleans.
Phil told me they would be at the Acura Stage where the biggest name, national acts perform. He said: “Find the Maryland flag with a yellow Jazz Fest flag below.” As I looked over the sea of people and the hundreds of white plastic flagpoles, it took me a bit to find the flag with the black and yellow checkerboard. There it was, right near the front of the stage, a great spot to hear and enjoy the music. (Note: I don’t have a photo of those flags but here’s a representation).
Then I spotted Phil. I weaved my way through the throbbing crowd join the group. Phil is married to my sister Janet and has worked in the oil business in a variety of capacities most of his working life. Phil introduced me to his younger brother Jerry from Maryland, Jerry’s friend Donna, and her 12-year-old son, Theo. Jerry, a wiry, fit guy has worked construction for years. Donna wore faded jeans, an oversized t-shirt, smoked like a steam engine, swore like a sailor, had a healthy sense of humor, all packaged with a heart of gold. She had a home based business. Theo was a typical middle school kid bordering on being a tween; he’d rather be somewhere else with his friends but was a nice, well-mannered young man. Then there was Willie, Phil’s friend and co-worker from Midland, Texas. He was a character, looked like a hippy but is way on the conservative side of the political continuum. He had a way of goading me into intense political discussions knowing full well that he wasn’t changing my mind nor me his. This would be our Jazz Fest posse for the next four years, that is until Hurricane Katrina.
Phil provided a brief orientation to where the food and beverage vendors were located as well as how to make my way through the crowd to the very critical and important porta potties.
Phil told me that the food at Jazz Fest is incredible; you can’t buy a corn dog or hamburger on the grounds. It’s all New Orleans style foods such as everything crawfish; bread, pie, sacks, and even boiled crawfish by the dozen. There are shrimp dishes, jambalaya, red beans and rice, gumbo, shrimp and crab po-boys, Asian spring rolls, African jama jama, and so many tasty dishes too numerous to mention.
My all time favorite though is Crawfish Monica; a hot, creamy, rotini pasta dish loaded with crawfish tails. Over the nineteen years, my routine after entering the grounds and setting up camp is to get in line for Crawfish Monica, add a little hot sauce, dig in, and wash it down with an ice-cold beer. It’s hard to describe how I feel at that moment, like life can’t get better than this, all with some good music playing in the background.
After meeting everyone, getting situated, cracking open a cold beer, and chatting with our Fest neighbors it was time to enjoy the music. There are a lot of choices among the 12 stages, it’s not just jazz but blues, jazz, zydeco, rock and roll, folk, gospel, Congo, rap, country, bluegrass, second lines, and Native American. If it’s played in New Orleans it’s at Jazz Fest. Since it was my first time and I only had a few hours, I stuck with the Acura Stage. It wasn’t long before Paul Simon appeared and sang many of his hits; Graceland, Me and Julio, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, Homeward Bound, Mrs. Robinson, and Bridge Over Troubled Water. I sang along with my flat, off key voice when I knew the words but it didn’t matter, everyone else was belting out the songs too. We were up close, maybe 30 feet back from the stage so no watching the jumbotron for us, we grooved and danced to the sound, fueled by good food and plentiful beer. It was an outstanding performance and the crowd was huge and appreciative. (Note: the photo of Paul Simon is more recent, I didn’t take my camera to JazzFest until 2005).
Way too soon it was time for me to leave to make my flight home. It was a stimulating few hours with the energetic vibe, friends, the music, the crowds, the diversity, the food, the crafts, the cultural exhibits, the vendors, all made it so complete and appealing. As I made my way to the airport and on my flight home, I keep thinking about my experience. I saw Paul Simon live for a $25 bill and knew there was so much more to see and do. By the time I arrived back in Madison, I had my mind made up; I was going back next year. And I did!
As soon as the music lineup was announced in January, phone calls and emails flew through the atmosphere to decide which of the two weekends to attend. With that decided, hotel, flight and rental car reservations were made and advanced tickets were ordered. Everyone would come in early so we could stop at Deanie’s Seafood Market in Bucktown to buy a few pounds of fresh shrimp, 10 pounds of crawfish, some crabs, and couple of six packs of beer. Then we headed to a nearby park overlooking Lake Pontchartrain to enjoy the bounty of the sea and watch the sun set. We usually attended Jazz Fest two days with a day off in between. On our off days, we’d find something fun to do like wander around Jackson Square, walk down Bourbon Street, visit the excellent World War II museum, or tour one of the old New Orleans cemeteries. We always finished our days with a fine meal of what Louisiana has to offer!
One year, we took an airboat ride on Bayou Gauche located south of New Orleans towards the Gulf. Our driver and guide made the trip so interesting, telling us about the characters that lived near the swamp and how they made their living. We saw lots of birds and alligators, it was a fun few hours. Unfortunately, the tour operator was out of business after Katrina.
That’s enough for this week, next up, The Katrina Years.
Until then, happy travels while sheltering in place!