In the Before Times, also known as BC (Before Covid), this week we would be at what has become an annual trip to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Last year before the virus shut down much of the country, I wrote an essay for a non-credit writing class about my nineteen years of attending JazzFest. At the time, I planned to attend one more year, my twentieth, then move on to other endeavors. I thought twenty years was a good round number milestone to reach, that is besides staying alive and marriage! This year JazzFest was postponed until mid-October but only time will tell if the show will go on. If not, I’ll look forward to spring 2022 to accomplish my goal.
This week I bring you Part 1 of the edited and updated version of this story. Next week, you’ll enjoy Part 2. I’m including only a few photos as I’ve written several posts on JazzFest over the years that contained lots of photos. If you’d like to read those posts, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, or here.
Enjoy the first part of the essay.
Nineteen Going On Twenty
For the past nineteen years in late April or early May, I’ve made the eleven hundred mile journey from Madison to New Orleans. 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, 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 when 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 at the Fest 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 diverse crowd too, 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. Then I spotted Phil. I weaved my way through the throbbing crowd to 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 adult life. He likes to have a good time and is someone I liked being around. Phil introduced me to his younger brother Jerry from Maryland, Jerry’s friend Donna, and her 12-year-old son, Theo. Jerry worked construction for years and also likes to have a good time. Donna had a business that made and shipped puzzles and games for less abled kids. Theo was a typical middle school kid; 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. He 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 (see the second photo below). 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; 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.
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. 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 the end of Part 1. Join me next week for the second half of the story.
Until then, happy virtual travels!