Postcards from the New Orleans JazzFest

Today’s post is 1925 words, 30 photos, an 9 minute read. Enjoy!

Hi everyone,

Today, April 30, is National Jazz Day, a day to highlight and honor the music genre originated in the African-American communities in New Orleans that has united people around the world. It’s fitting that my Traveling Partner and I will be in New Orleans next weekend.

We’ll be there to attend a couple days of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, more commonly known as JazzFest. This will be my 20th time. The last time I was at JazzFest was in 2019. In early 2020, I made travel arrangements but those were soon cancelled because of you know what happened – the damned panic! JazzFest didn’t happen for two years, last year they were back at it but at the time I didn’t feel comfortable due the continuing high rate of infections. Being an older guy, I need to be cautious. This year, I’m going, likely for the last time.

So this week, I bring you some photos and stories from JazzFest’s past. In a couple of weeks, I’ll post new material from this year’s adventures. Stay tuned.

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

First a brief history of JazzFest. The seed of what would become the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival began in 1970 at Congo Square. Mahalia Jackson, considered one of the greatest gospel singers, and Duke Ellington appeared at the Louisiana Heritage Festival produced by George Wein (he started the Newport Folk and Jazz Festivals). Along came a second-line band with revelers trailing behind. With microphone in hand, Ms. Jackson and Mr. Ellington joined the crowd and the idea for JazzFest was born.

In 1972, JazzFest moved to the Fair Grounds Race Course where it continues. JazzFest grew every year and eventually expanded into a two-weekend festival. The 1980s saw tremendous growth with over 300,000 people attending every year. Early in the new century, the 2001 total attendance topped 650,000 and recorded the all-time single day attendance of 160,000. That was the first year I attended. Fortunately, the fairgrounds is a big place. There’s enough room for 12 performance stages with all kinds of music; rock, blues, gospel, jazz (of course!), zydeco, folk, rap, R&B, funk, second line parades, and many more.

The 50th anniversary was held during the 2019 JazzFest. Nearly 500,000 attended the festival that year. We were there, it was a grand time. We saw Jimmy Buffett, Irma Thomas, Los Lobos, and many other groups. Can’t wait until Thursday when we’ll be back on the fairgrounds.

What our JazzFest day looks like

Upon entering the Fairgrounds when it opens at 11 AM, we find a place to “make camp” for the day, usually at one of the one of the big stages where the national acts perform. With our chairs set up, we can wander the grounds. By the way, the daily entry ticket provides access to all stages.

My first venture is to buy a few beers for the day and then stop at the food booth where they sell Crawfish Monica. This dish is made of rotini pasta, crawfish tails, creole seasoning, and a cream sauce. I savor every bite and wash it down with a sip of beer. That’s when I feel that I’ve arrived and can settle down and enjoy the day. It’s the moment I wait for every year that I’ve attended. By the way, the food at JazzFest is excellent, not a hamburger, hot dog, or brat to be found. I like those too but the local foods are worth standing in line for.

The big flagpole in the center of the fairgrounds orientates those lost or a little tipsy. If you are meeting someone at the Fest, meet at the flagpole.

The crowds at the big stages can be nearly overwhelming. Most folks are pleasant, just wanting to get along and have a good time. There are a few jerks, I’ve run into a couple of those over the years. Note the variety of flags that individuals or groups bring so people can find them in the crowd. People are creative and use all kinds of flags to stand out from the crowd. Reminds me of Sheldon’s “Fun with Flags.”

There are always a few characters that stand out in the crowd. The gal dressed in the pink featured in the photo below was dancing up a storm in the Blues Tent. I don’t think she stopped moving the whole day. She made me look like a slacker!

These gals were doing a second line parade, a club of some kind. They were there for the reaction and attention, they got it!

This woman was fund-raising for a youth group. For a donation, she posed for a photo. It was worth it.

This fella was playing the tuba in a second line parade that was making its way around the fairgrounds. Whenever a second-line band was playing, a crowd of folks followed them dancing to the beat.

One year, I witnessed a wedding in the Gospel tent. It was uproariously funny, the couple thousand people in attendance clapped, hooted and hollered when the officiant proclaimed them husband and wife. By the way, the Gospel tent is a great place for a respite from the heat and hot sun as well as good music.

For many years, Mr. Okra was a staple at JazzFest. He sold fruit and produce with a smile and a sign that said “Be Nice or Leave.” Since he was a teenager, Mr. Okra drove the streets of New Orleans selling fruit and vegetables from the back of his truck. He’s sing out: “I have the mango, I have spinach, I have corn on the cob, I have okra.” He was the subject of a documentary and a children’s book – Mr. Okra Sells Fresh Fruit and Vegetables. He died in February 2018 at age 74. His daughter now runs the business.

Our days at JazzFest end at 7 PM. We trudge back to the Red Rover, tried and happy. Ready for a good sleep.

Other things to do in New Orleans

For those who haven’t been to New Orleans, the following photos are a small sampling of the things to do during free time. Lots of folks head to the French Quarter. Unfortunately, it’s their only exposure to the city. Sure, there is a lot of fun, booze, and food can be had in the Quarter but there is so much more. But if you go, start out at Jackson Square, it’s one of the Great Public Spaces in the U.S. The statue of Andrew Jackson, a hero of the Battle of New Orleans and the seventh president of the United States, stands in the center of the plaza.

In the photo below is the Cathedral-Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, aka St. Louis Cathedral. It’s the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the U.S. 

Walking around Jackson Square, there is an assortment of pop-up entertainers busking for tips. This fella was wowing the crowd with sleight-of-hand deception.

There are tarot card readers, musicians, artists, mimes, jugglers, and other. All of them trying to make a living, it’s essential to have a supply of $1 bills to throw in the tip buckets.

Bourbon Street is one of the most famous places in the whole of the U.S., maybe the world. It’s been years since I’ve been on Bourbon Street at night, it can be quite wild with booze flowing freely. Even in the day time, Bourbon Street is busy with revelers on the second floor balconies throwing beads to the crowd, mostly at women. 

This photo was taken in the mid-afternoon of a guy needing a nap after a long night of partying. 

Across from Jackson Square is the iconic French Market Cafe du Monde. The long lines are continuous from the time they open in the morning until they close late in the evening. They are waiting for the chicory coffee, café au lait, and beignets, the square French-style doughnuts covered in powdered sugar. Tip: don’t wear a black shirt or pants when enjoying beignets! The beignets are fresh and warm and the coffee hot as we look around for a place to sit.

We found a great seat and were noshing down our beignets when I spotted this woman taking a photo of her companion. With my hands sprinkled with powdered sugar, I grabbed my camera to for this photo. After I took the photo, she moved, the light on her face and the pose were gone. One of my favorites from New Orleans.

Down the street from the Cafe du Mond, a band was playing in an open-air bar. This fella was hamming it up for the crowd. Another photo of being in the right place at the right time. 

One year while in New Orleans, we went to a cooking demonstration at the New Orleans School of Cooking. Pat walked us through making gumbo, jambalaya, and pralines. When the cooking was complete, we sampled the dishes washed down with a local brew, Abita. Pat was a lot of fun and answered my questions about northern substitutes. We use her recipes for gumbo and jambalaya.

When we are in the French Quarter, we’ll make a stop by the French Market. Visitors can buy about kind of t-shirt, key chain, frig magnet, and other  souvenirs known to mankind. There are also food and drink stands scattered throughout the two long buildings. There’s chicory coffee, cajun spices, and hot sauce galore to take back home and spice up your life.

We always patronize the vendor that sells Killer Seasoning. Originally, developed for the Creole Tomato Festival, this blend of herbs and spices goes perfect with fresh sliced tomatoes from the garden. Since we’ve been bringing this back to Wisconsin, we get orders to bring some back the next time we go. We are almost out ourselves so it’s time to stock up.

We also stop by Oscar of New Orleans booth to pick out a piece or two of his whimsical and colorful jewelry creations. My JazzFest hat is covered with pins made by Oscar. He’s an interesting guy too, always has a smile and a bit of a chat.

Nearby is Central Grocery, the home of the original muffuletta and the best in my opinion. The sliced meat, the cheese, the bread, and the made-in-house Italian olive salad. Mmmm! Have your Rolaids handy.

In the swamp

For the past several years, we’ve camped in Fontainebleu State Park on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. Even though we have to traverse the 25 mile Causeway to New Orleans, we enjoy the quiet and cost effectiveness of staying far away from the fray of the city. Many of the old trees in the park are covered with Spanish moss, not something we see in the northern climes.

A couple of my favorite photos from Fontainebleau.

Once we took one of the many swamp tours offered in the area. They are popular with tourists hoping to see alligators, exotic birds, and other wildlife. In the photo below, we were told someone lived in this shack. I guess they don’t have a basement!

The swamp has its own beauty, the marshes and the abundance of trees.

And of course, the alligators, the reptile of the swamp.

Well, folks that’s all the postcards for this week. Join me next week for one last postcard, at least for awhile.

I almost forgot, thanks for all the views of last weeks Postcards from North Dakota. It’s fun to hear from the folks checking in to my posts. Hope you enjoy them.

Happy Jazz Day.

Until next week, happy travels!




4 thoughts on “Postcards from the New Orleans JazzFest

  1. Just got back from a week in NOLA. By mere coincidence our visit coincided with the French Quarter Jazz Fest. Your photos certainly captured the ‘vibe’ Tom. Also can’t recommend a bayou tour highly enough. ‘Laissez le bon temps roller!!’

    1. Thanks for checking in Tim. I saw that you were in NO. French Quarter Fest is one of the best festivals, all in the Quarter and music is free! Did you spend any time at the Fest? Those folks know how to have a good time. They live for today not the future!

  2. I’ve had a couple of visits to New Orleans recently, one for Mardi Gras. It was fun to compare my notes with your experiences and pictures.
    It’s truly a place like none other!

    1. Thanks for checking in. NO is one of my favorite places. We’ll be there Wednesday! Can’t wait.

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