By Tom Speed
Spring is my favorite time of year. It's time for renewal and rebirth, a time for sloughing off the dead of winter and putting the past year — and whatever ugliness might have attended it — behind you. It's when life becomes a little more leisurely. It's time for hope.
New Orleans 2006 by Zack Smith
There's an "official" first day of spring but I don't know when it is. The arrival of spring is, after all, more of an organic event, one that can't be confined by such stuffy notions as calendars. It's spring when you know it's spring. But you can feel it coming. Soon after that calendar day (whenever it is), the advent of daylight savings time (also proclaimed rather un-organically by someone, somewhere) makes it seem more so. But for me and many others, spring never really starts until stepping foot on the Fairgrounds Racetrack in New Orleans, Louisiana for the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. That's when I know. Stepping across the dusty infield is like crossing a precipice (or sometimes, like entering a vortex) that transmits you to another world. Crossing that threshold carries with it a simultaneous and overwhelming sense of calm and excitement.
Immediately, you are pulled by your senses in a thousand different directions. Depending on which entrance you choose, you may hear the siren call of the Jazz Tent, or be drawn in by irresistible aromas to find yourself standing in the line for crawfish beignets. You may be entranced by the sounds of the Fais Do-Do stage and find yourself dancing, if not running, to that stage. You may wander around blissfully, immune to schedules or other restraints, just waiting to land where you need to be, allowing yourself to give in to the senses, to go where your ears and nose insist. Jazz Fest casts such a spell over me, I even find myself willingly drinking Miller Lite, if only for these two weekends of the year. (Miller is the official beer sponsor of Jazz Fest.)
Lower Ninth Ward :: New Orleans 2006 by Zack Smith
And it has always been so. Growing up a couple of hundred miles north of New Orleans, Jazz Fest was, and is, my musical Mecca. It's an annual pilgrimage, as reliable as the changing of the seasons. Indeed, it marks the change of season. It's not spring until Jazz Fest. For 36 years now, it has been the premiere music festival in the United States, if not the world. It's worth noting that, while it's commonly referred to by its shorthand name of "Jazz Fest," the full name is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. And that's why there will never be another like it. The rich cultural heritage of New Orleans and Louisiana shaped American music in innumerable ways, and each year we are all invited to not only revel in it, but to celebrate it and revere it. You can't get this anywhere else. It's cause for celebration. Especially this year. Never in our lifetime has New Orleans been in more need of renewal and rebirth. The city has never needed celebration so much. Like a down-in-the-dumps friend, New Orleans needs to know it's loved.
New Orleans 2006 by Zack Smith
Jazz Fest commences nearly eight months to the day that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. In large swaths of the city, it still looks like it happened yesterday. Houses (what's left of them) still sit in the middle of streets. Power lines are still down. The burned remains of houses are still untouched. Debris and destruction is everywhere it seems. But the spirit is alive.
It's hard for the folks that do live there — for there are parts of town that are functioning almost normally — to keep at it day in and day out. The outlook is often bleak. They need encouragement. They need a shot in the arm. They need Jazz Fest. They need to know that we know it's important to preserve New Orleans and its heritage and legacy. Perhaps no other event, not even Mardi Gras, will help the city to reinvest its spirit in its rebirth more than Jazz Fest. Music is born of heartache and hope and both will be on display in abundance at the Fairgrounds this year.
New Orleans 2006 by Zack Smith
But don't mistake the various shows that go on in the clubs at night for Jazz Fest. That's a great byproduct. But it's not Jazz Fest. Too often I hear of friends who travel to the Crescent City and recount their tale of a great "Jazz Fest" that consisted of going from one venue to the next, club to club hearing a great sampling of jam bands. That's great. But it's not Jazz Fest. So now we come to Tom's Jazz Fest Commandment #1: Get Thee To the Fairgrounds. Correlate #1: Thou Must Not Forsake The Fairgrounds for Other Shows. Seriously, for all the jam bands you can handle, there are other festivals. The biggest, Bonnaroo, is the younger cousin of Jazz Fest, in many ways modeled after the success of Jazz Fest, and it's a great festival. There's also Wakarusa and High Sierra and 10,000 Lakes and All Good and Smile Fest and many more. But this week, if you are in New Orleans, get thee to the fairgrounds and hear some New Orleans and Louisiana music, eat some of the only festival food that can rightfully be considered cuisine, and soak up the soul of this great city. If you can do it all, go for it. If not, start at the Fairgrounds.
New Orleans by Zack Smith
This year I'm particularly looking forward to a few specific acts, though it's always the ones you stumble upon and hear for the first time that make the most lasting impressions. Some use the planning method, strictly studying the "cubes" that tell you who is playing where and when. Some use the follow-my-ears method. Whatever works for you works for you. I do like to make my own personal schedule. Of course, I don't keep it. What's the fun in that? But I've learned that I cannot have an optimal Fest by using the "Jazz Fest By Committee" approach. Which leads me to Tom's Jazz Fest Commandment #2: Never Tell Anybody You Will Meet Them Anywhere At Anytime. If you're really pressed, you can say "See you at the Radiators set!" And funny enough, even with 70,000 people there milling about, you will. Indeed, the Radiators closing out the festival on the last Sunday is the final indicator that spring has sprung (#3: Don't Miss The Rads!). This year, their set moves to the second Saturday. Spring's early! Despite all of this schedule avoidance, there are can't-miss performers each year, and they will be more relished this year. Perhaps we've taken legends like Fats Domino and Dr. John for granted in the past. Not anymore.
Jazz Fest by Zack Smith
Then you've got the regulars, the folks who give New Orleans it's unique character: Snooks Eaglin, Eddie Bo, the subdudes, Sonny Landreth, the Meters, (THE METERS!) Kermit Ruffins, Mem Shannon, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Deacon John, Rebirth Brass Band, Donald Harrison in the Jazz Tent, Bonerama, Irma Thoma, Nicholas Payton, everybody at the Fais Do-Do, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, Eric Lindell, Allen Toussaint, Galactic, Tab Benoit and so many more. Okay, okay, maybe I do have a bit of a schedule. The thing is, there is no place like Jazz Fest. There is no place like Jazz Fest. There is no place like Jazz Fest.
Yep. It's almost spring. I can feel it coming.
See ya at the Radiators.
JamBase | New Orleans
Go Thee to Jazz Fest!
Tom Speed is Publisher and Editor of Honest Tune Magazine.
All photo by the talented Zack Smith. Zack was born and raised in Lafayette, Louisiana and has been focusing his concentration on documenting the unique culture of New Orleans for the past six years.