Every year you look forward to JazzFest, but have you ever considered what makes the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival so unique and special? This two-week event occurs every year as spring begins to turn the corner to summer (late April to early May). People travel from all over the world to experience New Orleans as the city plays host to some of the finest music humans have to offer. From the official Fairgrounds site to the evening concert series and the myriad of all-night performances, there is no lack of music to be heard during JazzFest. But this festival is not just about the music: New Orleans and Louisiana culture plays a vital role in making JazzFest the marquee event it has become. During these two weeks you learn that New Orleans is the only such place an event like this could happen. While music is what jumps to mind when we think of JazzFest (appropriately enough), let us not forget to give due credit to the food and craft side of the festival and to look deeper than simply the bands on stage. Everywhere around you music thrives, and what is presented is a direct expression of what has become New Orleans and Louisiana culture.

Irma Thomas
This year we have more reason to celebrate JazzFest: 2003 marks the 200th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, when the United States acquired the colony from France (for a mere $15 million), hence allowing us to enjoy these two weeks of fun every year. But it was even before this colony became a state that New Orleans and Louisiana began to shape its culture.

New Orleans is a melting pot of culture; a gumbo, as it were. Being a port city, New Orleans attracted immigrants from all over Europe and the Caribbean, who settled amidst the city and bayou areas. People from Cuba, Spain, France, the Caribbean and beyond moved into the area and the varied traditions mixed. All of these new arrivals were exposed to the Native American cultures already inhabiting the area, and the combination of different ways of life helped build what we now know as the city of New Orleans. Three of the most visible results from this inter-mixing of food, culture and music help make JazzFest what it is today.

April 22, 1970 marked the first day of the first JazzFest. At that time the festival was called the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage festival. If you look at the schedule of events, the format (while much smaller) varies little from what we are presented with today: food, crafts, and music. You will even find on that first program a few names that appear on this year’s festival as well, 33 years later! One thing that was different back then was the locale of the festival. It was held in Beauregard Square, which later became Armstrong Park, as we know it today. But that site was even more special because of what it used to be. Many years ago, Congo Square was where slaves went to trade their wares and was a center for the slave community. And it has forever been incorporated into the festival as an area where amazing world music plays and crafts are exhibited. Even the original Congo Square is not left out; JazzFest has been returning to its roots for years by staging evening concert series at Municipal Auditorium, adjacent to Armstrong Park. It is here that you can see the likes of Bob Dylan, CSN, and Widespread Panic this year. So this old tradition in New Orleans has become an essential part of the festival. Everywhere you look, JazzFest gleams with tradition and culture. Let’s look at the one we all know and love: music.

Wynton Marsalis
JazzFest originated as an event that showcased primarily New Orleans and Louisiana music. While today you will find many a band that is not from the Crescent City, the majority of the artists are, and they are the ones who form the backbone of music presented at the festival. Ernie K-Doe said it best: “I’m not sure, but I’m almost positive, that all music came from New Orleans.” Maybe not, but a lot of good music sure has. Jazz is certainly one style that has blossomed in New Orleans. Formerly called “jass” music, many people believed jazz to have been born out of the Storyville District, the area of New Orleans where brothels were located. Owners hired musicians to provide the entertainment to loosen up the crowds to get them to drink more and therefore spend money in their establishments. This forum provided musicians with freedom to experiment with their music in less demanding conditions. While it was certainly an important step in the development of the music, it was not the birthing ground. Jazz originated with the brass bands.

Photo by Dino Perucci
Brass bands, in many ways, define New Orleans music. They are incorporated into much of the society and are a huge part of the JazzFest tradition, from the stage to roaming parades. In fact, most of the brass bands appearing at the festival are in the parades. Have you ever seen one of these pass you by as you walk around the Fairgrounds? They happen every day at festival, starting at Heritage Square and parading through the entire festival. On Saturday and Sunday, Mardi Gras Indians add some additional excitement to these New Orleans traditions. Second Lines are also a staple in New Orleans. Almost every Sunday you can see one somewhere in the city, and this is something you will not find anywhere else. For more than a century there have been organizations called Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. They were a core part of African-American life in New Orleans and gave us the Second Line. Second Lining was born out of funeral marches. Traditionally, a funeral march is a slow, somber dirge. The people walk behind the dead and behind the brass bands, which are playing peaceful, soulful music. Once the casket is in the ground, the party starts, the music kicks in, and everyone dances. It is a celebration of the person’s life. The Second Line is the mass of people dancing in the parade, following the brass bands as they march their way through. The Second Line is you and I. It is the Social Aid and Pleasure Groups, the Mardi Gras Indians, the people dancing behind the brass bands. And it is a New Orleans tradition that you won't see anywhere else. It is yet another reason that JazzFest is so unique. You can see a lot of good music at whatever festival you attend, but you will not see classic Second Line parading like you will here. So look for these brass bands and the masses of people dancing and following behind, and join in for a round and be a part of a true local tradition.

Anders Osborne
Brass bands are not the only quintessential New Orleans music you’ll find at JazzFest. Cajun and Zydeco are also staples of this society, and no trip to JazzFest is complete without a listen to some. Remember that for most people, this is the one opportunity every year to experience this type of music. While the bigger stages host the larger bands (many of whom are classic New Orleans artists), it is at some of the smaller stages that much of the JazzFest history and tradition still lives on. These are the bands that provide the soul to JazzFest. Do yourself a favor and spend a few moments at the Fais Do-Do Stage, the Lagniappe Stage, and the Economy Hall Tent. This is where you find the heart of JazzFest music. Many people miss out on this music as they go from big stage to big stage to see their favorite artist; don’t let that be you. Stop in and see Rosie Ledet, Walter Payton and the Snapbeans, or Lil’ Brian & The Zydecho Travelers,, to name just a few. Don’t leave JazzFest without experiencing what helped make it what it is today. Likewise, when you roam out at night, do yourself a favor and stray off the beaten track and get a hold of some real New Orleans flavor. Check out Snooks Eaglin at the Rock 'n' Bowl Cafe' or Anders Osborne at Carrollton Station. You’ll be glad you did. A lot of bands you can see anywhere. Artists like these don’t stray as far from home, so this is your time to hear what they have to say. And it sounds good.

You know what’s also good? Food. While music is the main draw for JazzFest, let's not overlook life’s next best pleasure. New Orleans and Louisiana food, like music, is a culmination of years of cultures mixing, and is a huge part of JazzFest. This food comes from an art of living off the land. You aren’t being given cuisine that was developed to sell to visitors; these dishes are traditional fare that has been eaten by locals for years and years. The term "gumbo" (a traditional dish) essentially means (I believe) "what’s within arm’s reach." Everything goes into gumbo, from alligator to rice to sausage. People ate what they had around them, and much of the cuisine has been born out of necessity. For example, Monday is red beans and rice day in New Orleans. Almost anywhere you go on a Monday in New Orleans, you will find a red beans and rice special. Traditionally, people cooked all day on Sunday as they did their laundry, and had red beans and rice for Monday’s meal. And so the tradition continues. You see a lot of fish in New Orleans food and that is due to its location on the gulf; much fish comes through the port.

Personally, the food is one of the things I get most excited about when I plan for JazzFest. First thing I do is head for the Crawfish Monica stand and get my yearly dose. And from there, it’s a field day. Over the years, I have branched out and tried more and more of the local fare. Aside from the classics (gumbo, jambalaya, po-boys, crawfish, etc.) there are SO many good things to try.

Early Days at the Fairgrounds
A couple of things not to miss: last year’s award goes to the cochon de lait. For any meat-eaters, this is a must. It is essentially a pork sandwich, but so much better than that. You gotta try it at least once (and then you’re going back for more). The BBQ oyster spinach salad is another great option, for some lighter fare. (If you can call it that. Not a lot of “healthy” eating to be had, but it tastes good!) Crawfish pie was another new one for me last year, and worth a trip back. The list goes on and on and on. So make sure to make your rounds and try as much as you can. It's like the music: don’t just stick to what you know, try something new. And if you want to learn a thing or two about traditional New Orleans cooking, check out some of the workshops and presentations in the grandstands. There you can watch people explain some classic dishes that you can take home and make yourself!

Crafts make up the last major part of JazzFest. Like the food, traditional New Orleans crafts are tied closely to the culture from whence they came and are exhibited at the Fairgrounds. Most of the folks will be demonstrating their art, showing observers how they have been doing this very same craft for generations. You can watch someone make crawfish nets, Mardi Gras Indian suits, canoes, accordions, and much more. And these are not people hired to entertain the festival-goers; these are real people exhibiting what they do for a living. This is not fashion, it is life. And JazzFest brings these arts to light for people to experience. Without this festival, most people would never see or hear about these crafts, or this food, or this music.

There is one strong consistency that runs throughout all of these facets that make up JazzFest: they are all tradition. While other festivals might put together some contrived setting, what you see at JazzFest is real life, New Orleans-style. None of this has been developed for tourism: these are the foods the locals eat, these are crafts that locals make, and this is the music you hear on the streets and in clubs all year round in New Orleans. They are what make this festival the amazing event it is and why this festival is far different than any other. This festival is New Orleans culture. Make sure you don’t miss out when you’re there.

Sam Elkin
JamBase | Mill Valley, CA
Go See Live Music!


[Published on: 4/21/03]

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