It's springtime, and with that comes one of the year's best events--the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Each year, for two weeks at the end of April/beginning of May, people swarm to the Crescent City to envelop themselves in the music, food, and culture of this great town. I've made the trip the last five years, and always look forward to learning new things, hearing new music, and becoming more familiar with New Orleans culture and history. Yet this year, I told myself I wasn't going to go. Yes, it's an amazing experience, but I've done it. After all, how different is it from year to year? Brass bands, Mardi Gras Indians, crawfish, po-boys, beignets, Second Line parades, etc. But then I came to realize something: those are exactly the things that make Jazzfest so special and what keeps myself and countless others coming back year after year.
New Orleans is like an under-developed nation, with its traditions and cultural heritage, and it retains these like no other place in this country. While things change and life evolves down here, a constant has remained for hundreds of years. Jazzfest is the same way; not much has changed since the festival began--multiple stages, food and crafts, parades, and evening concerts were all part of the first event and every one since. 35 years ago, it was a lot smaller and in a different part of the city, but the overall feeling is the same, and that's why people mark New Orleans Jazzfest on their calendars every year. It's really like anything in life--people find comfort in what's familiar. They know what to expect, they can see the same bands, eat the same food, visit the same nooks and crannies of the Fair Grounds Race Course, and experience New Orleans like they have for the last however many years.
Much like the festival has remained the same, many of the popular songs are woven into the history of New Orleans. New Orleans songs have become part of the history of many an artist, from New Orleans funk to jazz to rock to pop. You can still hear songs today that were heard at the first Jazzfest (and the second, third, and fourth...). A tune like "Iko Iko" may have been performed by the Meters 35 years ago, but you can now hear it done by Dr. John, the Wild Magnolias, the Dixie Cups, or Buckwheat Zydeco. Beyond that, artists as diverse as Ringo Starr, the Grateful Dead, Bernard Purdie, and even Cyndi Lauper have made this song part of their repertoire. "Junko Partner" is another New Orleans staple, played at the festival by R&B artists, blues artists, zydeco bands, and so on. Back when George Wein was first putting this festival on the map, Professor Longhair may have been the man to play this tune, but now you will probably hear it numerous times during your visit, by the likes of Dr. John, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, or Anders Osborne.
New Orleans music has had a great influence throughout musical history. Louis Armstrong remains one of jazz's most storied performers. Allen Toussaint has produced records for artists from Robert Palmer to The Band to Paul Simon and everyone from Devo to the Judds has covered his music. And look at the list of people that have played on the Fair Grounds Race Course--pretty much every popular artist has graced these stages. Along with all of the current stars, you can still hear a lot of the same artists at the Fair Grounds you always have, such as Allen Toussaint, The Neville Brothers, and Kermit Ruffins. Seeing the Nevilles close the festival on the main stage is one of the most popular spots to be all weekend.
By Bradly Bifulco
The presence of the Mardi Gras Indians has remained constant. 35 years ago, earlier generations of the same tribes were wearing the same costumes they wear today. Some tribe members are still the same, and they're carrying on the same traditions. Make sure to check out one of the many colorful second line parades that wind its way through the festival. They happen every day on the Fair Grounds and virtually every Sunday throughout the year on the streets of New Orleans.
And then there's the food. As much as anything else, New Orleans cuisine is a major reason for coming to Jazzfest. You can still eat gumbo and etoufee. You can eat crawfish in 24 different ways. Granted, they probably weren't serving up Crawfish Monica back in 1970, and the quantity of dishes has surely grown, but the reason these dishes remain is because the people of Louisiana have been making them forever. At the first festival, you could enjoy an original red beans and rice recipe and you can still enjoy that today. However, there's only one food vendor you can visit today just as you could in 1970. Vaucresson's Sausage has been there from the beginning, so do yourself a favor and pay homage to these originals. And remember, all of these dishes are not some tourist invention; this is what people traditionally prepare.
Sounds pretty much the same as you remember it, eh? Naysayers call this repetitive. I call it tradition.
Now don't be mistaken, it's not all the same; that's the other beauty. Each year you can discover a new band, a new stage, or a new culinary delicacy (here's a hint that I just learned – check out this diagram before you go and map out all of the places you're going to eat before you get there). In fact, I try to find these new discoveries every year. It's a big part of the fun, and every year, I discover a slew of things that get me that much more excited to return. While sticking with tradition is wonderful, don't forget to try new things along the way and make them part of your own traditions.
This year, Jazzfest celebrates the tenth anniversary of South African freedom and democracy. There will be more than 80 South African artists gracing all the major stages, and a pavilion dedicated to South African art and culture. Make sure to stop by and check it out and help celebrate this momentous time in our world's history. The pavilion is bound to be a colorful exhibit of the culture of South Africa, and the music you can hear ranges from Hugh Masekela and his All-Star Band to gospel queen Rebecca Malope. For a complete list of featured South African artists, please see www.nojazzfest.com/southafrica. For a look at who will in the pavilion, take a look at www.nojazzfest.com/southafrica/pavilion.
What I'm getting at is that Jazzfest can be whatever you want it to be, and that's what makes it unlike any other event in this country. Everyone creates his or her own experience, so it's a different festival for each visitor. Whether you like to do the same thing every year (I do have one tradition of getting Crawfish Monica for my first course of the weekend) or you choose to make each visit a new adventure, Jazzfest is a keeper. The more you go, the more you'll learn that the culture and tradition of New Orleans and Jazzfest has a lot to teach.
Some helpful hints to help you plan your weekend(s):
New Orleans Jazzfest website: www.nojazzfest.com
History of the festival: www.nojazzfest.com/history
Music schedules: www.nojazzfest.com/schedule
Food info: www.nojazzfest.com/food
Crafts at Jazzfest: www.nojazzfest.com/crafts
And for one last great read, check out Myself Among Other: A Life in Music by George Wein. Mr. Wein is the creator of the New Orleans Jazzfest, along with the Newport Jazz Festival and many, many other events. He is a jazz legend and this is his story. You can learn some wonderful history about this event and the history of jazz. George Wein was there for a lot of it and helped set the standard for the festivals we all love to attend.
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