Welcome back to Part 2 of my story of attending the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for nineteen straight years and hoping for twenty. The story continues:
Everything changed on August 29, 2005 when Hurricane Katrina and its storm surge inundated most of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It took until February 2006 for the management company to decide if Jazz Fest was or wasn’t going happen that year. After Katrina, the Fair Grounds was under several feet of water for weeks, many of the hotels and restaurant were either just reopening after suffering damage or didn’t have staff, and a lot of the local musicians had skedaddled for Atlanta or Houston and hadn’t returned. Then Jimmy Buffett said he would perform if it was on, and it was! However, this time our Jazz Fest group had doubts about the availability of rooms, questioning if the restaurants we liked were going to be open, and if we could get a decent fare into Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Everyone bailed, but me. I did some on line research and talked with a friend who lives on the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain then decided the trip was doable. Sure I had to fly into the Gulfport, Mississippi airport and rent a car for the 80-mile ride over to New Orleans, but it was worth the effort. The hotel we usually stayed at was open and had rooms available with the warning that the first floor was still being repaired.
As I drove west from Gulfport along I-10 towards New Orleans, the damage was visible with lots of downed trees, buildings ruined by wind and water, businesses closed, and a look of desolation even 8 months after the hurricane. It reinforced in me the power of Mother Nature to cause such widespread damage yet over time repair itself with little intervention by humans. As I approached the outskirts of East New Orleans, the wreckage I saw made me even sadder. This is an area where a lot of economically challenged people lived, the houses were mostly empty, and many apartment buildings had curtains blowing through broken windows. When I arrived at the hotel, I learned that the first floor had flooded during the storm. While it was usable and under repair, it smelled musty, a smell that would be all too prominent as I made my way around the city over the next few days. After checking in, I walked around the neighborhood and saw a lot of those infamous white FEMA trailers parked outside homes being refurbished. I walked past what was once a large car dealership now shuttered and empty with its sign hanging catawampus, swaying in the wind. Near the hotel, one of my favorite restaurants remarkably was open but with limited hours and limited menu, only 10 items, no substitutions.
The previous years, our group took the same route from the hotel to the Fair Grounds; down Veterans Boulevard, over the levee into Lakeview, left on West End Boulevard, right on Harrison, through City Park, right on St. Bernard, under I-610, and finally to Gentilly Boulevard close to the Fair Grounds where we needed to find a place to park. This year, I drove it alone, stopping to take photos of what I saw. During the near continuous media coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, the video clip of the levee breach at Lakeview with the massive amounts of Lake water pouring in was so disturbing to me because it was such a beautiful, pleasant community. I was not prepared for what I saw as I drove slowly through the nearly empty streets. All the nice, middle class homes were empty shells, I only saw two that were rebuilt and occupied. Most of the front doors were wide open, the furniture gone, and a big X spray painted on the front of the house placed there by search teams. Each quadrant of the X contained a code; the top was the date search; the left the search team ID number; the right any special information such as gas off, etc.; and the bottom was how many people were in the house, if any. A was number alive and D was number of dead. Almost all of the homes in Lakeview had a 0 painted in the bottom quadrant, as nearly all the former residents were someplace else. The damage to the very large City Park was immense; trees were down, the golf course beyond repair, and stagnant water still standing these many months later. It had a brownish, dead look. As I turned onto St. Bernard Avenue, I noticed that the notorious St. Bernard Project once home to over 6000 of the most economically disadvantaged families in New Orleans was completely abandoned. At the junction of St. Bernard and I-610, hundreds of water-damaged cars were waiting to be hauled away and crushed.
After finding some parking near the Fair Grounds, I walked around the neighborhood and saw a thin black line on most of the houses, approximately 6 feet off the ground. This was the high point of the floodwaters; the line came from a mixture of dirt, debris and the floating slick of oil. And there were a few X’s on houses that indicated people were found deceased in the home. There were houses that were partially collapsed and some were even still occupied, the residents likely not having any other place to go. I wondered what happened to all the people, would they come back, would their lives ever return to normal? It was a sad start to the Fest.
Once I entered the grounds and felt the vibe and intensity, I left those thoughts behind for the next eight hours. Since I was solo, I set up my chair next to what looked be a nice, friendly group of people. They were New Orleans natives out to have a good time after all they’d been through the past several months. They told me that they appreciated that people made the effort to come back to New Orleans and Jazz Fest because that will help reestablish the city as a place to experience and have a good time. The one thing I like about the natives is that they live for today, the past is past, the future is unknown, but today we can have fun and enjoy life. It’s a refreshing break from the go-go culture that is so prevalent in many parts of American society. I did see Jimmy Buffett that year, he and the Coral Reefer Band put on a rocking good show. I wasn’t a real big fan prior to seeing him live but now Channel 24 Margaritaville is the number one preset on my Sirius XM radio. While I missed the camaraderie of Phil, Jerry, Donna, Theo and Willie, I enjoyed Jazz Fest just as much.
For the drive back to Gulfport, I skipped I-10 and took the highway right on the Gulf through the coastal towns of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and Pass Christian. Anderson Cooper reported live from this area for a few weeks in the aftermath of the storm and I wanted to see it for myself. In some places, the severe damage extended a mile or more back from the beach, with most everything gone. There were cement slabs where houses, churches, and businesses once stood, washed out to sea or demolished. What did remain was beyond repair. Even the waterfront casinos in Biloxi were closed waiting for customers to return. What I did see was hope and resilience, it was going to take awhile but things would come back even stronger than before.
For next three years, I went to Jazz Fest on my own until 2009 when I convinced my Traveling Partner (my spouse) to attend with me at least once. She agreed if I would go with her sometime to one day of the International Quilt Show she attends in Houston every October. It was a deal! And she’s been going with me ever since then. When she was working full time, Jazz Fest was a fun way to relax, get some sun, and listen to some good music. She’s not the typical Jazz Fester, raising Cain, dancing up a storm. She’s content to sit in her chair and read a book listening to the music. Every once in a while, she’ll get up to stretch, watch the performer, or go check out the food, crafts, and cultural exhibits. One thing she doesn’t like about Jazz Fest is using the porta potties, especially later in the day. Early the first year she attended, she discovered a place on the Fair Grounds where women had access to regular toilets for the price of $1.00 donation. She was overjoyed at the prospect of never having to use those germy, stinky porta potties at Jazz Fest again.
Over the years we’ve seen some of the popular national acts like; Jimmy Buffet, Bruce Springsteen, Santana, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Lenny Kravitz, Dave Matthews, Van Morrison, Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, James Taylor, Tom Petty, Bonnie Raitt, Irma Thomas and others. Some of the local favorites we’ve seen are; Tab Benoit, Marcia Ball, Roy Rogers and the Delta Rhythm Kings, Neville Brothers, Trombone Shorty, Amanda Shaw and Cute Guys, C. J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band, Buckwheat Zydeco, Dr. John, and more. Not a bad sound anywhere on the Jazz Fest grounds. Our routine stays much the same as before, set up our chairs, slather on some sun screen, make a beeline to the Crawfish Monica booth, drinks a few beers, groove to the music, check out the cultural exhibits, buy a t-shirt, head for the exit at the end of the day, and repeat.
In 2014 after my Traveling Partner retired, our travel routine changed. Instead of flying to New Orleans or Gulfport, we trailed our travel trailer south of Madison until we reached the North Shore of Lake Pontchartrain where we camp in Fontainebleau State Park. This change of our lodging location requires us to make the 25-mile trip across the Causeway into New Orleans. It does take us directly to Veterans Boulevard and back on our regular route to Jazz Fest. We still do two days of Fest with a day off in between, this is especially important as our age advances. One year, we stayed for both weekends and enjoyed exploring the area beyond our regular favorites. In addition, we’ve taken in many of the sites in between Madison and New Orleans such as the Vicksburg National Military Park, Memphis, Paducah, and Springfield, Illinois.
In a couple of months, we’ll hitch the Minnie (our trailer) to the Red Rover (our tow vehicle) and make our way down the Mississippi to New Orleans for the twentieth time. Last year, at the end of the 50th anniversary of Jazz Fest, I declared this year, 2020, would be our last soiree to the event. No, it’s not getting old. But I am and so are the musicians from my youth. Sure there are many great performers filling in behind those that made their mark in the 50’s and 60’s but to me it’s not the same. It’s been a good ride; a lot of fun and many good memories were made over the years. And I have a collection of t-shirts, caps, and thousands of photos to remember all the good times. We’ll make our way back to New Orleans from time to time to take in a club act and enjoy some authentic Cajun food, tasty crawfish, and a shrimp boil. Or maybe I’ll change my mind come next January!
As you well know the 2020 version of JazzFest was cancelled. This year, the plan is to have the Fest over two weekends, October 8-17. I’m closely watching the news to determine if it will be COVID safe to attend even though I’m vaccinated.
Today is the last day of Jazz Festing in Place 2021. Check out WWOZ.org for the line-up and listen to your favorites online.
Hope you enjoyed this reminiscence, I can’t wait to attend my 20th JazzFest.
Until next week, happy virtual travels!